After a year of intense and passionate debate, top state leaders on Thursday moved unanimously to allow companies to drill underground for copper, nickel and other precious minerals on the 22,000 acres of public-private woodland stretching from Ely to Lake Superior.
Protesters at the hearing wept and hissed. One even slammed a baseball down in front of Gov. Mark Dayton, declaring, "This is not a fair game."
Many of the landowners never knew about or understood the fine print when they bought their property in the Arrowhead region, some decades ago. What they have learned is they own the land, but the state owns the mineral rights underneath and can lease those rights at will.
On the Iron Range, residents have long known that one day they could have to move. In the early 1900s, a mining company started moving the entire city of Hibbing a few miles away -- about 200 buildings -- to get at vast reserves of iron ore.
Minnesotans have a lot at stake in the success of mining: A cut of the proceeds from the leases and mining operations goes to pay for public schools, nearly $1 billion over the years.
In a last-ditch effort, residents in the Ely-Lake Superior stretch tried to persuade state officials not to issue leases for land under private property, which makes up roughly 25 percent of the acreage.
"It would be absolutely devastating to some folks," said Steve Brodigan, a Chanhassen resident who built a cabin on 40 acres he bought from his father, who still lives in the area.
Striking a balance
The issue has put Dayton's administration in a bind as it tries to strike a balance between environmental stewardship and the state's long-stated position encouraging mining activities and helping northern Minnesota's fragile economy.
Tensions rose to a bursting point in October, when landowners swamped a meeting of the little-known Minnesota Executive Council to beg top state officials to reject companies bidding on 50-year leases for the mineral rights beneath their land.
In what should have been a controversy-free approval of leases in October, Dayton and other state leaders opted to delay the decision, giving landowners and environmentalists time to get the Legislature to pass a bill that would change the law. But the proposed legislation never got a committee hearing, leaving little choice for Dayton and other top state officials.
"I don't have the legal authority to say, 'Now we should try something different,'" Dayton said before the vote. "The law doesn't give us any leeway in that regard."
The state has granted similar leases before with no hint of drama, but soaring demand for cellphones and laptop computers have mining companies giving the area a harder look -- and local residents fighting back in unprecedented ways.
"How much is enough? It is a small percent of land," said Melissa Schoech, who owns a cabin south of Ely near Sand Lake. "How many highways need to be moved? How many old-growth cedars need to be destroyed?"
Mining firms, backers answer
But state officials expressed no enthusiasm for the idea of rejecting the lease bids.
State Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, attended the meeting to express his support for the leases, saying the permits could help bring more jobs to the area.
"I understand this is a pretty emotional issue," he said before urging state leaders to "follow the law."
Tomassoni said Minnesotans in his area have always known one thing: They might own their home, "but they don't own the mineral rights." Minnesota owns the lease rights on 13.5 million acres, nearly a quarter of the state.
Mining backers and experts attended the meeting in force to quell concerns.
They insist that even if digging companies did find enough copper or nickel to pursue a larger mining operation, it would not come before an exhaustive, years-long process of permitting and environmental review.
Companies vying for the leases said they dig on property only after reaching an agreement with the landowner, which can include money and usually cleanup work.
Ernest Lehmann, manager of Vermillion Gold, which has been searching for gold in the region, dismissed critics who characterized the leases as a baby step toward full-scale mining.
Generally, companies have to dig about 4,000 holes before they find one that could be lucrative, Lehmann said. "It's a needle in a haystack," he said.
After selecting sites by air and computer imaging, digging companies need a few weeks to cut a path to the right spot, drill into the soil and leave again, Lehmann said. Most drilling operations need a site about the size of a large garage to conduct the work, and they can't be closer than 500 feet to a home.
Lehmann and other mining officials said owners of land needed for future mining operations are likely to get a windfall. Usually, mining companies pay double what the land is worth to make peace with property owners.
Dating back 100 years, Department of Natural Resource officials said the state never has had to forcibly take a property owner's land to make way for a new mining operation.
Local residents said people sold only because mining companies and local officials exerted so much pressure it felt like they had a proverbial gun to their head.
Now, Brodigan said, "the gun is cocked and loaded."
Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044