There came a time when I first understood that the place where I'm from was called "The Iron Range," that the sprawling red hills on the horizon were made by people. Since that time, I've participated in a carousel of ongoing brainstorming synergetic idea sessions about the economic future of this rugged place in northeastern Minnesota, a place that diplomats casually exchanged across a table from Canada to the United States some 230 years ago because no one honestly believed it'd ever be worth settling. This place built America with its iron ore, before America figured out how to get ore cheaper with fewer workers.
This first of these "future" confabs started out as youth sessions. As a youth, my opinion mattered because no one understands the youth of today like the youth of today. That's what they would say at these sessions, and it was true. I knew the lyrics to "Ice, Ice, Baby" and for a short time owned a pair of Zubaz pants. The future was mine for the taking.
Growing up in the 1980s and '90s on the Iron Range meant being taught that all that mattered was getting out in one piece. Get that education (the schools were still good) and get yourself hired somewhere else. But the cultural effect of the profound contraction of the iron mining industry during this time has taken a generation to fully realize, and now the well-intentioned advice to send our young people elsewhere has become a stubborn chronic wasting disease.
My "youth sessions" became "young adult sessions," "young professional get-togethers," "future planning committees" and now they are just meetings. Bewildered baby boomers stare at their coffee and dream of their lake cabins while young parents check their phones for the text that tells them they have a sitter for the big show in Minneapolis next weekend.
Even though everyone seems to agree we need young people to stay on the Iron Range, and new people to come here, a much smaller group of local leaders or longtime residents want the cultural change and workload inherent in such an operation. Even though the iron mining industry is now healthier than ever, and efforts to start new kinds of mines are well documented, few want to admit that mining jobs are now fewer in number and require more education and training.
For much of the past decade the future of the Iron Range has been cast as a battle between high-paying extraction jobs and forces that seek to preserve the natural environment. This thinking isn't just short sighted, it's false. An enduring future in the extraction industry has eluded every mining town since humans first smelted crude metals. And putting the region in a Ziploc bag is not practical nor politically possible.
You want to know what really matters? A river that runs down the heart of America starts here. We are the sea route to the Orient. We hold Hill of Three Waters, long the spiritual and cultural center of the continent long before American settlement. Bridges and roads. Tracks. Mountains. Ax blades of granite deep beneath our feet. Our human accomplishments, in words or deed, are as important as they are permanent. How permanent are the things we do for the future of the Iron Range? Meeting aren't permanent, but land, water and energy are:
We have water. Not just to look at, but to drink when the world gets thirsty.
We have renewable resources. Last week, Segetis announced it would build a $105 million plant on the east Range using local wood products to make cleaner everyday household chemical products. This is the kind of development that is only possible in places like the Iron Range, and it's reasonable to assume there will be much more of this to come
We have the educational system. The same schools that lifted several decades of miner's sons and daughters from poverty to the middle class to the professional leadership of our nation are still here. We still have cutting edge technical and community colleges and improving integration between colleges and high schools. Truly, what we don't know, we can learn, teach and integrate into our local economy.
Finally, and though it has not fully happened yet, we can innovate. Our decaying Iron Range downtowns and aging institutions stand as fertile ground for artists, entrepreneurs, and creative people of all industries.
No, not midnight. The end is not near. It is 5 o'clock in the this land destined by its resources to dance with the humans upon its surface. Much daylight remains, and these are the hours used best by the men and women of tomorrow's fortunes.
PHOTOS: Roy Luck (above) and Scott Costello (below), both used with permission through Creative Commons license