In the late 1800s, the U.S. government claimed the land of Minnesota, and pushed the indigenous people onto reservations. The huge pine forests of northern Minnesota were cut, red earth was discovered, and immigrants from a variety of struggling northern and southern European nations moved in to become workers for the mining companies.
While the Iron Range continues to be mined, following bands of taconite rock, the Arrowhead region of Minnesota escaped the mining process. Some of the northern counties were in large part wetlands, while others remained forestland. The Arrowhead region became known for its lakes and for the quality of outdoor recreational opportunities — the vacation land of the north, where campers “hear the lapping waters, hear the whispering of the pine trees.”
These northern wetlands escaped the destruction that occurred as the rest of the state turned urban or agricultural.
Scientists know that wetlands have evolved over the past 10,000 years, since the recession of the last glaciers. We also know now that wetlands sequester carbon — and that destroying wetlands releases carbon that has been stored over centuries. There is evidence that global climate change is literally being fueled by the burning of fossil fuels and the accompanying release of CO2 into the air.
A new threat in the Arrowhead
Minnesota’s wetlands may hold the key to moderating climate change on a local level, except for one thing: the threat of an entirely new mining industry poised to begin in the Arrowhead.
The industrialization of the burgeoning populations of China and India is driving demand and prices for copper, nickel, platinum, and gold — precious metals bonded within sulfide ores throughout the Duluth Complex, the underlying rock formation of the Arrowhead Region.
These precious metals are very low grade — 0.4 percent copper, 0.1 percent nickel and 0.01 ounces per ton of platinum, palladium, and gold. But the current price is enough to bring a half-dozen Canadian companies into the Arrowhead, exploring in an unregulated fashion and pulling every political string for funding and support.
The international balance of economic power is changing. Just three generations after the take-over of native lands by extractive industries, Canadian companies are seeking to turn the remaining Arrowhead Region into a colonial outpost for China and India. For basically a handful of jobs, we are turning over our land and our culture so that Canadian companies and their shareholders can earn fantastic sums on precious metals while our workers will receive $40,000-a-year nonunion wages (translate into no pension and no health care) based on the price of copper. And when the price of copper drops, or the precious-metals market collapses, or the price of diesel fuel makes mining uneconomical, the Canadian companies will pull up stakes and leave northern Minnesota with an acid-mine drainage problem requiring perpetual treatment — almost forever.
No way to replace lost wetlands
The Arrowhead region of northern Minnesota is our Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s our Brazilian rainforest. It is the equivalent of the remaining special places left on each continent, in each country. When we lose our wetlands, there is no way to replace them. There is no way to reconstruct a process that took thousands of years to form. There is no way to recapture the carbon released when wetlands are destroyed. There is no way to rebuild the wildlife habitat and plant communities that will be eliminated.
At the same time, this new mining industry would spew hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 into the air, further contributing to global warming.
Consider, too, that the Arrowhead is just the first piece of the metallic sulfide pie. While exploration is progressing in the Birch Lake area, along the Kawishiwi River, Partridge River, and the St. Louis River, companies are also exploring along the Rainy, Pigeon, Root, Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, the Mille Lacs area, in the Big Sandy Watershed (Aitkin County), and in Carlton County.
Bill would set a precedent
In the meantime, U.S. 8th District Rep. James Oberstar has introduced a bill in Congress (H.R. 4292, the Superior National Forest Land Adjustment Act of 2007) that would fast track a land sale between the U.S. Forest Service and Polymet, Inc., in anticipation of the permitting of Polymet’s proposed metallic sulfide mine near Hoyt Lakes. While this bill singles out Polymet for special treatment, it would also set a precedent for the selling of public lands to private mining companies nationwide, or wherever the Forest Service does not own the mineral rights. Much of the mineral estate in Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters is owned by mining interests, not the Forest Service. What implications might this have for the future?
What exactly are those of us living here thinking? Are we in denial regarding the ecological degradation that is taking place on a global scale and how this is going to affect our future? Are we naive enough to believe propaganda about clean mining technology that is being pushed upon us by mining-company spokesmen who are set to receive huge bonuses once the sulfide industry gets up and running?
Or are we going to believe in our own ability to create an alternative future that allows us to finally acknowledge the true heritage of the Arrowhead Region — that of living in harmony with the land?
Elanne Palcich, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in Chisholm, Minn.
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