Mining near the BWCA is about more than jobs

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2012 - 2:53 AM

A former legislator now living on the North Shore argues for the environment.

Frank Moe is among those leading the drive against mining near “Minnesotans’ crown jewels.”

At the Capitol on Thursday, while some legislators wrangled with the prospect of silver carp leaping into Minnesotans' boats and other legislators worried about who should be allowed to vote and who shouldn't, one of their former colleagues was on the mall not far away, petting a dog.

Compared to current crises over ways to battle aquatic invasive species and whether to place a voter ID constitutional amendment on the ballot, Frank Moe's issue gained little attention on this sunny March day. But it will.

Moe, 46, had arrived in the Twin Cities a day earlier by dog sled, having left Grand Marais on March 1 carrying petitions signed by northeast Minnesotans who oppose nonferrous mining adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

"The BWCA, Lake Superior, the lakes and rivers of the northeast, these are Minnesotans' crown jewels,'' Moe was saying. "The mining industry says this is about jobs. But about 30,000 of us in the northeast depend on clean water for our livings, and we have to protect it.''

Not easily overcome

Whether Moe's argument carries the day over precious-metals mining in the northeast is unknown. What is known is that big money is at stake. Also, lots of jobs. And living wages.

Typically, such a trifecta proves a juggernaut not easily overcome by environmentalists or by politicians. This is particularly true in times of economic downturns, with the middle class in Minnesota and elsewhere losing ground, financially, for some years.

Yet in Moe, the wilderness friendlies who worry that mining in the northeast inevitably will taint the Boundary Waters -- literally and figuratively -- have a formidable leader.

In just four years in the Legislature, he became assistant DFL House majority leader while gaining a reputation as a straight shooter. Bright and articulate, he's also warm to a camera. Had he stuck around St. Paul, he could have become a big wheel at the Capitol.

Instead, Moe bailed, moving, in time, from his rural Bemidji home to the North Shore, where he and his wife keep a sled dog kennel and where he races sled dogs while also guiding rock climbers, among other outdoors enthusiasts.

For its part, the mining industry says it can safely extract copper and other metals from rich veins lying deep underground not far from the Boundary Waters. New technology, the industry says, will ensure the minerals are taken without threat to the environment while providing as many as 5,000 jobs paying an average of more than $70,000 a year.

Correct -- or not?

"Maybe it can be done,'' Moe said. "But their track record worldwide is very clear. They haven't done it yet. So why would we risk it?''

While Moe spoke, he sat just outside Gov. Mark Dayton's office, where only minutes before he had met briefly with the state's chief executive. Call it professional courtesy or respect for Moe's past work in the Legislature, but the governor gave him a few minutes that his schedulers said he didn't have.

"He said he's worried about jobs,'' Moe said.

The most to lose

Which is the issue's conundrum, because no one living in the northeast wants their back yard wrecked -- not the greenest of greens or the reddest of rednecks.

In fact, those who live on the Iron Range, and in the country up through the Arrowhead, use its lakes, rivers and woods more than anyone and would have the most to lose, economically and recreationally, if the mining bigwigs blow it.

But it's also true that the state exacts a high price from those who elect to live outside the giant ATM that is the metropolitan area. Jobs don't pay as well as those in the Twin Cities. Schools sometimes aren't as good. And cultural amenities are fewer. It's understandable, then, that the prospect of a day's hard work for a day's good pay is alluring.

"Citizens can be assured that our project ... will face rigorous, thorough and lengthy environmental review by multiple state and federal agencies,'' said Bob McFarlin of Twin Metals Minnesota.

Frank Moe understands the part about government overseeing the mining industry. But for four years, he was the government. So he knows something about how it operates.

Which is why he drove a team of dogs 360 miles over the past week to protest what he sees as a looming threat to northeast Minnesota.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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