My dentist recently mentioned that his daughter was accepted into dental school, but he was uncertain if there was a viable future for her on the Iron Range, even in his long-established business. “She wants to live up here,” he said, “but … you know.”
The thorny Range economy is again news, reporters citing the “boom-and-bust” nature of taconite as if fulfilling a stylistic mandate. But that rusty cliché masks a more pertinent truth: For more than 70 years, mining employment on the Range has been in decline. In his book “Taconite Dreams,” historian Jeffrey T. Manuel writes, “In 1944, more than eleven thousand workers labored at ninety-five iron-ore mines in Minnesota. By 2011, only seven mines were left in the state and they employed fewer than four thousand workers.” Despite occasional upticks, the long-haul trend is inexorably downslope.
There is no single cause. Automation, globalization, corporate greed and the inherently unsustainable nature of mineral extraction all contribute. I live 12 miles from the Hibbing Taconite mine and processing plant that’s been operational for more than four decades, and I know many who work there. I’ve asked what they’re hearing. How long before HibTac plays out? I’ve been told four years, six years, 10 years. Probably none of those is correct, but the ultimate answer is clear: It’s going to shut down — all mines do — and likely sooner rather than later.
And yet, just recently I drove along a stretch of St. Louis County Road 5 that I’ve traveled all my life. Within a year it will be devoured by the expansion of the HibTac mine. Across a narrow swath of scarified earth that was lately forest, I saw the boom of a shovel looming over the rim of the new pit. Students of history know that roads are sacred to civilization, but there’s a limit to that regard in mining country. Even towns have vanished, casualties of the “creative destruction” of capitalism.
As early as 1909, the exhaustion of iron mines seemed imminent to engineers, and before the passage of the Taconite Amendment in 1964 spawned a resurgence of production due to the capture of lower-grade ore, state government officials figured the solution to the Iron Range’s chronic economic problems was a massive out-migration of its citizens. How American is that? Our prosperity and pluralism have often been rescued by the relief valve of immense geography. Not enough jobs where you are? Head out, usually westward. Your beliefs are out of sync with your neighbors? Pull up stakes and leave, usually westward. Note that we’ve long since reached the Pacific.
I was born and raised on the Iron Range. My father was a driller/blaster for U.S. Steel, more specifically the Oliver Iron Mining Co., or “John Oliver” in local jargon. In Chisholm in the late 1950s, I went to bed lulled by a shift whistle in the Sherman Mine, a kind of industrial loon song. A kid I grew up with, playing together with our brothers in a sandbox next to my house, is now in the state Legislature. Last year, I wrote him a letter complaining that the U.S. Steel MinnTac plant has been in violation of its water discharge permit for more than two decades. I opined that we either needed to enforce the law or change it, and that if we’re unable to control the wastewater of relatively benign taconite, then how could we possibly trust that the proposed sulfide mining, with a worldwide record of spectacular water contamination, will not also be allowed to pollute regardless of regulations? In an acerbic, irritated way, I expressed skepticism that U.S. Steel would abandon northeastern Minnesota simply because it was forced to obey the law. The threat of such abandonment has been the political subtext of more than one Iron Range legislator’s criticism of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
My old playmate detonated. Matching my provoked tone, he opened his letter with: “We aren’t playing in the sandbox anymore.” I took that to mean he considered my comments naive, and it’s possible I am that. He complained that environmental regulations had become “extreme.” He chided me for using the term “sulfide mining,” as opposed to “copper/nickel mining,” even though the industry itself employs the former. He mentioned “questionable science” regarding the sulfate standard for wild rice, a bone of contention for taconite tailings pond discharges. He wrote: “If it were up to the environmental groups they would shut down mining and logging completely and then we would turn into nothing but a wasteland for the city slickers to enjoy on their days off. … I’m sick and tired of listening to people who don’t live where we live trying to tell us what we can and can’t do.”
That encapsulates the perceived conflict in any number of regions across the nation and the world. People whose main livelihood is resource extraction feel persecuted and misunderstood by citizens who lobby for the protection of water, air and soil quality. Although data show that antipollution measures created as many jobs as they eliminated in the 1970s and ’80s, the advantages and disadvantages were not evenly distributed. “Nationwide,” as Jeffrey Manuel writes, “enforcing pollution regulations often hardened a rural/urban divide over the environment.”
For example, The Week magazine reported last year that Wyoming made it a crime to collect evidence of illegal pollution. A state senator said the ban would “prevent environmentalists from interfering with important economic activity.” He was referring to water-quality violations by cattle raisers. Manuel reports that 40 years ago, when Reserve Mining was in court over the dumping of taconite tailings into Lake Superior at Silver Bay, “the president of the ironworkers’ union argued that the entire controversy was caused by sensational reporting by Twin Cities newspapers and environmentalists who lived outside the region.”
The Range is, of course, affected by the opinions and actions of outsiders. Recently, for a couple of months, Gov. Mark Dayton attempted to call a special session of the Legislature. A key agenda item was to extend the unemployment benefits of laid-off Range miners. Dayton’s proposal gained no discernible traction. Two decades ago it would have been a slam-dunk. From 1947 until 2011, only two men represented Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District in Washington: John Blatnik and his protégé Jim Oberstar, Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) stalwarts. But the political balance in the district slowly shifted south to the exurbs of the Twin Cities, and Rangers were shocked in 2010 when a confident Oberstar was upset by little-known Republican Chip Cravaack. The particular interests of the Iron Range were no longer front and center — not nationally, not statewide. This past week Dayton sent a letter to Twin Metals, essentially informing it that its proposed mine in the BWCA watershed was unacceptable.
The political clout of the Range has faded in tandem with the decrease in mining jobs, and thus potential voters. According to a recent report from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the number of jobs provided/supported by the timber industry in the state is 62,400; sport fishing, 35,462; hunting, 12,439, and mining, 11,000. The population of my hometown has shrunk 30 percent since 1960, the year presidential candidate John F. Kennedy visited neighboring Hibbing — a symbolic high-water mark.
Economic diversification for the Range has been in the works since at least the 1940s. Introducing a manufacturing base has been a goal, producing, among other goods, chopsticks, electronic components and solar panels. Results have been mixed, with nothing even close to the impact of iron. Those projects, as hopeful as they are, do not spring from the character of the region itself. There are only three natural businesses in northeastern Minnesota: mining, forest products and tourism/recreation. All else must to one degree or another be forced, and is therefore fragile. Thirty years ago, we were actually encouraged to become a regional repository for hazardous waste. Not even Rangers, inured to the sacrifice zone ethos of mineral extraction, could stomach that. Besides, there were few jobs in it.
One reason many (but not all) locals passionately support the establishment of copper/nickel mining is that timber and tourism don’t pay as well as heavy industry. However, given the fierce opposition to the PolyMet project and its flawed presentation so far, plus the recent collapse of metal markets, it seems unlikely a copper/nickel operation will open in less than a decade, and I’ve heard no credible prediction the new venture will rival the “iron age.”
It seems to me the long-forecast end game of the Iron Range is near. There is no joy in it. When a major industry declines, so does all it touches — witness Detroit and Flint. Is there a political solution? Is there a means, for example, to increase or augment the wages of tourism and timber? Certainly, if we were a nation that embraced the redistribution of wealth. Democratic socialism (à la Franklin Roosevelt, and to an extent Dwight Eisenhower) was something Rangers believed in. The unions and the DFL cherished the notion that people came before profits, and acted upon it. Witness for example, the school buildings of the Range. That lodestar was lost with the Taconite Amendment: The Iron Range would be saved by constitutional tax breaks for large corporations, shifting the burden onto individual taxpayers and eventually onto the environment. It appeared a sound idea at the time, riding a national wave of conservative backlash to the New Deal. Minnesota Republicans were big fans. It definitely delayed the inevitable, and many believe it was worth it.
The history of the Range prompts questions: What do we consider a good life? How much wealth is required for well-being? And what exactly is well-being? Multinational corporate capitalism, and the field of economics itself, don’t address such queries.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.