State Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk warned county commissioners in northeastern Minnesota that they would risk losing state money if they passed a resolution to ban copper mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).

The issue erupted earlier this week after a Cook County commissioner proposed a nonbinding resolution backing DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s opposition to copper mining in the sensitive wilderness area.

Commissioners quickly dropped the idea after local business leaders said they were told by Bakk and others that critical funds from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) could dry up if the board took an anti-mining stance.

The debate at the Cook County board meeting in Grand Marais, a region that relies on tourism and the wilderness area for much of its economy, laid bare the rough local politics of Minnesota’s Iron Range. It also underscored how businesses, citizens and local governments are being forced to choose sides in the increasingly bitter fight over mining and the future of the wildest and most scenic corner of the state.

“I don’t think we should run our government by extortion and coercion and bribery,” said Marco Good, who owns a small custom logging and timber business and supported debating the resolution.

Bakk, a powerful DFL legislator who represents the region and also serves on the board of the IRRRB, said he was merely being “helpful” in discouraging passage of a resolution that he thought would only antagonize area legislators.

Two companies have proposed copper mines — one near Hoyt Lakes by PolyMet Mining Corp. that would drain into the St. Louis River and Lake Superior, and the other by Twin Metals Minnesota for an underground mine and industrial site just outside of the BWCA that would drain north to the wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.

In March, Dayton said that he opposed mining near the BWCA and that he would not permit Twin Metals to have access to state lands to develop its project by the Kawishiwi River. The risks to the BWCA — a state treasure — were too great, he said.

His decision immediately drew heated reactions from Iron Range legislators and others who favor a new kind of mining for a region hit hard by thousands of layoffs in the taconite industry, but one that also carries great environmental risks to water.

Cook County Commissioner Frank Moe, long an outspoken critic of copper mining in the state, said he proposed the resolution in support of Dayton to show that many in the region agree with him.

“It’s the most popular wilderness in the United States,” Moe said of the BWCA. “It’s ludicrous to put those things at risk for 10 to 20 years of a few hundred jobs.”

His resolution stated support for the taconite industry but urged Dayton to expand his opposition to copper mining throughout the region. It also noted the value of the state’s tourism industry — 118,000 jobs.

But testimony by 10 citizens — half in favor, half against — immediately veered toward the complex politics of the proposal.

Some told the board that they feared the political repercussions that were spelled out for them by Iron Range legislators.

Dennis Rysdahl, general manager of the Bluefin Bay Resort in Tofte, which was built with some IRRRB funds, said he is personally opposed to copper mining. But board support for Moe’s resolution was not worth the price of a “symbolic gesture,” he said. It would risk Cook County’s relationship with legislators from the region who sit on the board of the IRRRB, a major source of economic development funds, as well as the county’s eligibility for special taconite tax revenue. He said that he’d had several conversations with Iron Range legislators and that he had received an e-mail from Bakk.

“[Bakk’s] very concerned,” Rysdahl said. “He’s already hearing again … that Cook County doesn’t really belong in the taconite relief district and if [the County Board] is going to take an action like this, they don’t deserve to continue to be involved.”

Rysdahl added that Cook County depends on Bakk “for many things that have happened in the county,” and he pointed out that the county is even now seeking IRRRB funding for low cost housing.

“This will damage our relationship with Senator Bakk in ways that really will matter,” he said.

Other residents said they supported the resolution because it would generate a healthy debate.

Bakk said he weighed in because Moe’s resolution would have “no upside” while “agitating” his fellow Iron Range legislators, who might be tempted to remove Cook County from the Taconite Relief Area.

And that could hurt the county. Bakk listed all of the benefits that Cook County gets, including $289 per household in annual property tax relief, $900,000 to refurbish a local golf course and money to rehab a runway.

In addition, the county, its cities, townships and schools received $1.3 million in various taconite-related funds last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Revenue.

“People can be as anti-mining as they want, but when local government officials make that statement, it sends a pretty strong message to others,” Bakk said Thursday.

The control of the IRRRB and how funds are managed are facing mounting scrutiny. In a highly critical report, the Office of the Legislative Auditor recently questioned whether the fact that its board is made up solely of Iron Range legislators is constitutional.

The report also criticized the board for inadequate oversight of up to $80 million in spending per year.

 

josephine.marcotty@startribune.com.

patrick.coolican@startribune.com