The Iron Range has long been the exception that proves many rules in Minnesota. Its exceptionalism is producing an odd economic policy debate these days — hardly the first time.
We’re regularly reminded that our state economy is lately outpacing the American economy, which in turn puts most of the rich world to shame. It seems Minnesota’s biggest problem is finding workers to fill jobs.
“Firms are working overtime for hires,” announced a front-page Star Tribune headline late last year. “Minnesota companies find themselves short on workers.” What’s more, “the pinch of a tighter labor force … could last for several years.”
And yet, what did we find Minnesota’s economic wizards, our politicians, debating in recent weeks? Whether to call a special legislative session, a few weeks before the start of a regularly scheduled session, to enact an emergency extension of unemployment benefits — for, you guessed it, the Iron Range.
Up north, the mining industry is suffering the latest in seven or eight decades’ worth of irregularly scheduled economic crises, producing a local glut of workers in the midst of a statewide shortage.
Meanwhile, big, moneyed, out-of-state mining corporations are eager to create new jobs on the Range — a smallish reprise of the process that created the Range in the first place, well over a century ago. But as with more than one idea for self-supporting economic growth in the north country, influential forces, especially environmentalists, oppose the advent of copper-nickel mining.
It may seem only humane for Minnesota taxpayers to provide extra, extended support to out-of-work people who long to remain in a particular region of the state they love, even though jobs are going begging elsewhere. But does this still make sense if Minnesotans and their leaders have serious doubts about welcoming a new generation of mining — the kind of heavy industry that is only the reason a major population ever settled in that remote landscape to begin with?
Many Minnesotans cherish the north country primarily for its wilderness and recreational value and are not wholly sympathetic to those who seek to make a living extracting its economic resources. That cultural conflict has long played a role in Iron Range controversies.
Meanwhile, even if nonferrous mining proves environmentally workable, the best we may be able to hope for is more of what we’ve been doing now for decades — slowing the gradual depopulation of the Range, which is in some ways less a part of Minnesota than a satellite exurb of Pittsburgh — the western extremity of the Great Lakes Rust Belt, seemingly sharing its destiny of long-term decline.
The job-market signals that have been telling Iron Rangers for decades to move to lands of greater opportunity may persist whatever we do. And if, for whatever reason, we don’t want more mining, the argument for artificially interfering with those natural economic forces grows rather weak.
As I write these words, I look forward to blustery rebuttals from Rangers, who will set me straight that today’s hard times in mining country shall pass and that the Range will come back, just as it has always come back from hard times before, despite gloomy predictions from citified cynics like me.
I’m confident of inspiring such replies because, I was recently reminded, I’ve been a citified cynic for a long time, writing about this same story, and eliciting the same pushback, since the typewriter era. (When, by the by, neither I nor anyone else foresaw the long-term trauma that technological change would bring to the news business.)
“Taconite Dreams: The Struggle to Sustain Mining on Minnesota’s Iron Range” is a new book by Jeffrey T. Manuel, an historian at Southern Illinois University. In several places, Manuel quotes a long-winded series of articles I wrote for a local business magazine in 1982. The subject of “The Thing on the Hill” was, you guessed it, a crisis gripping the Iron Range.
And the key question back then was whether the severe downturn in the Range’s fortunes, the swift shuttering of taconite plants across the Mesabi, could be taken in stride as merely a temporary recession-driven setback (times were tough all over in 1982) or at worst a sign of the boom-and-bust volatility that had long characterized the heavy industrial economy. Or was this something else — a tipping point marking the beginning of an ultimately irresistible decline as global competition and technological change altered America’s industrial role for good?
I leaned toward the “something else” theory, and all these years later, here’s a trend line to consider: Direct mining jobs on the Iron Range had hit a modern peak of roughly 15,000 in 1979. After ups and downs, they’re at around 4,000 today.
Manuel places the Iron Range’s troubles squarely within the larger story of America’s “deindustrialization.” But he focuses on the area’s unique “struggle” to defy economic gravity and preserve its distinctive communities and way of life in the face of “the inherently unsustainable nature of a resource extraction industry.”
They’ve certainly tried anything and everything — “every tool and technique available,” Manuel says — and the “struggle” has produced everything from inspiring innovation (in the development of the taconite process) to bold public policy (in special tax provisions to facilitate a hybrid mining/manufacturing industry) to almost comical economic development pratfalls (a legendary North Woods chopsticks factory). Along the way has come an array of successes and failures, frequently funded with mining-generated tax dollars, in museums and theme parks and ski resorts and an airline bailout conditioned on creating Iron Range jobs, and much else.
Has it worked? Well, the Range has weathered deindustrialization as well as any part of the Rust Belt and better than many. But that means its decline mainly has been slowed and managed — rather as generations of farm policy and subsidies have merely slowed and managed the decline of family farming and the rural and small-town civilization it supported across vast swaths of Minnesota and America.
In that way, maybe the Range isn’t so exceptional after all. Economic sectors, regions and ways of life perish, often after painful lingering. Minnesota must decide whether it means to continue the struggle to resist deindustrialization on the Iron Range, and at what point it makes sense to let economic job-market signals be heard loud and clear.
The challenge is also, as Manuel says, to help sustain “dignity and respect” for people “making their lives … amid long-term economic decline.”
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.