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How to both protect the BWCA and support a sustainable economy in northern Minnesota

photo of man standing by lake in boundary waters
For communities with outstanding natural amenities like the Boundary Waters, the current economic development pathway is a much sounder approach.

Earlier this fall I had the honor of joining former Vice President Walter Mondale, current and former Minnesota elected officials of both parties, and former U.S. Forest Service leaders to help hundreds celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. The act created essential protections for Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness (BWCA) — an icon of Minnesota’s identity and a vital part of this nation’s treasured system of public lands.    

photo of article author
Tom Vilsack
As agriculture secretary in the Obama administration I was responsible for one of the most important federal decisions affecting this special place since the signing of the 1978 Act. With my concurrence, the U.S. Forest Service denied renewal of two sulfide-ore copper mining leases on the doorstep of the BWCA and initiated an in-depth scientific study that could have resulted in 20 years of protection for federal lands in the Boundary Waters region from this destructive form of mining.  

Those decisions have been reversed by the Trump administration.    

Right decision for both BWCA and economic development

At the 40th Anniversary celebration I reflected on the decisions we made and why we made them. What stood out most was not only that the Boundary Waters is a priceless wilderness (although it certainly is that), but also that it was the right decision to make for the economic development of the region.    

The drumbeat from the mining industry is always the purported upside of “jobs.” A particular project would provide some hypothetical number of additional jobs and improve the economy. But history and solid research actually shows something quite different with respect to communities near places like the Boundary Waters that are powerful economic drivers on their own.    

These places not only create potent recreational economies but also attract new residents who raise families, start businesses, telecommute, or retire, all the while spending their time and money in building the community.   

Region ranks high in key categories

Minnesota’s Boundary Waters region ranks high in key categories that drive sustainable economic development. St. Louis, Lake, and Cook counties display characteristics identified in a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City that lead to economic success for rural areas: a high proportion of creative workers, a rich entrepreneurial context, clean air and water, and high-quality public lands for outdoor recreation.   

These three counties are at the 85th percentile in Minnesota with respect to workers in professional, creative-class occupations; at the 70th percentile in terms of people engaged in entrepreneurial activities; and at the 90th percentile in terms of investment income per capita. Overall, the three counties have a “human amenity index” that is higher than 90 percent of other Minnesota counties  

A project like the proposed Antofagasta Twin Metals mine, which threatens the fundamental character and integrity of the Boundary Waters, puts all that at risk.  

In some places it makes sense to engage in the mining of copper and other sulfide-bound metals. But when that activity presents a grave danger to lands and waters that are a national treasure, and further threatens to displace the growing, sustainable economy already in place, it makes no sense to permit it — especially considering not only the inevitable boom-and-bust of mining but also increasing automation and the dramatic decline in mining jobs.  

All of this is borne out by a recent independent economic study by a Harvard University professor that showed that over a 20-year period there would be more jobs AND more income created for the region by protecting the Boundary Waters and allowing the current economy to continue to grow.    

Old model is increasingly fragile

As America moves forward in this era of world markets and rapid technological growth, an old model of rural economic development dependent on resource extraction is increasingly fragile. Further, the cost of this model to taxpayers is considerable, as government often pays for clean-up and for the social costs when workers are laid off in price downturns and when the inevitable mine closing occurs.

For communities with outstanding natural amenities like the Boundary Waters, the current economic development pathway is a much sounder approach.  

If we nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of citizens and invest in key infrastructure like broadband, we can create the kind of sustainable rural economies that are buffered from the whims of global markets and CEOs halfway around the world, and provide a stable ground for generation after generation of Minnesota families.    

Tom Vilsack served as the secretary of agriculture in the Obama administration. Before that, Vilsack served two terms as the governor of Iowa, served in the Iowa state Senate and was the mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. He is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/06/2018 - 09:53 am.

    The extra estimated 10 billion dollars brought to St Louis County by the mine over the next 20 years far exceeds any potential growth of revenue from people visiting the BWCA. That’s assuming the mining would deter anyone from visiting in the first place.

    Tom ignores that St Louis County is one of the highest poverty counties in MN. If you only look at the rich people living there then his data looks legit.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 12/06/2018 - 10:34 am.

      No one spouting stats like 10 billion dollars being brought in by sulfide mining should go anywhere near a phrase like “data looks legit.”

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/06/2018 - 11:07 am.

        Estimated revenue generated in the county is 500 million a year. Even if it’s only 1/10 that much its still vastly more than the County will see without the mine. 300+ new jobs with another 600 possible ancillary jobs means a lot more people working than now as well.

    • Submitted by Tanner Hill on 12/06/2018 - 05:26 pm.

      Maybe after greedy humans ruin the Boundary Waters for monetary gain they will ruin the Grand canyon as well? Maybe Amazonia or Serengeti will be next? But who cares, right? Money over property- I can’t relate. A place that looked the same 10,000 years ago might not even be recognizable in 10 years. For shame. Other jobs in the community don’t pollute ecosystems, humans need to move away from a species that uses then disposes resources and instead evolve into a species that appreciates the resources we have left

    • Submitted by John Clark on 12/07/2018 - 12:48 pm.

      I think Tom’s arguments about economic alternatives to mining in NE Minnesota are valid ones. The economy of this large area in Minnesota isn’t going to grow substantially simply because of copper nickel mining. And even if you include the ripple effects of these proposed few hundred mining jobs, this industry isn’t going to make a huge dent in the unemployment rate of that area.

      Will alternatives to mining vastly improve the economy of this area? That is a good question. But one thing is for sure: Mining industries, in general, have always been boom or bust businesses. Mining operations come and go. And if one fully thrives much longer than 20 years, it’s going to be the exception. So the probability of other alternative businesses staying successful over the long term are inherently much greater.

      And another certainty, especially concerning copper-nickel sulfide mining, is that the environmental safety record of this type of operation over the years has been abysmal, regardless of claims that a new operation is somehow going to be less risky. Mining that creates toxic pollution in an area with thousands of clean lakes and rivers nearby makes absolutely no sense. Clean water is going to be an extremely sought after resource in the future. And obviously, alternative types of sustainable businesses don’t pose these types of risks, especially if they maintain the recreational attractiveness of the BWCA area. This is a huge plus, and the primary reason that alternatives to mining should be our first, and only choice!

  2. Submitted by R. Hanson on 12/06/2018 - 10:46 am.

    This has been a line of argument for 15-20 years now and unfortunately most of it seems to ring hollow based on what we now know. Employers have not embraced telecommuting. The area is not a great place to raise a family. It is not a great place to start a business. It is not a great place to retire. The main type of recreation available is extremely niche: people who like canoeing in remote wilderness. The climate and weather are miserable most of the year. It is a hard sell.

    This is not to say that the area should just be turned over to global mining concerns. Just that the ecological arguments are stronger than the alternate economy argument. Unfortunately, the ecological arguments do not seem to be persuasive. Ultimately, we will taint the wetlands and water supply in the area for the next 100 years, so that Chilean mining executives and their local enablers can make a quick buck.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 12/06/2018 - 12:52 pm.

      Totally agree, living in Ely or Grand Marais would totally suck, no one up there likes hunting or fishing or biking or boating or hiking or camping and who the heck wants to retire in a place where all you’re seeing is blue water, skies breathing fresh air and smelling pine trees. Yuck, give me pavement and car exhaust infused air in my beloved Minneapolis.

      • Submitted by R. Hanson on 12/06/2018 - 01:32 pm.

        My grandparents moved to St Paul from Grand Marais when they got older. It is nice up there for the reasons you mention when you’re in an “active” retirement phase around ages 55-65. When you’re older than that you’re just far away from your grand kids and medical care. It is 2 hours to Duluth with good conditions. Food and sundry items are expensive. The area is hilly and icy. Harder to deal with those conditions when your mobility starts to go. Grand Marais is only population 1300. Many Minnesotans like to say they like Grand Marais type activities and environment but very few actually move there.

        All that said, Grand Marais is over 100 miles from the mine site. I don’t think it is particularly relevant to this topic.

        • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 12/06/2018 - 02:13 pm.

          The topic is the Boundary waters and the economies in the area. My dad is 90 on Saturday, his “active” retirement phase realistically ended about four years ago. He lives south of Duluth and travels an hour each way for his medical care there, he’d never move to St. Paul.

          • Submitted by R. Hanson on 12/06/2018 - 02:24 pm.

            If your dad lives an hour south of Duluth he lives an hour north of the Twin Cities. Not equivalent to living in Ely or Grand Marais.

  3. Submitted by Mark Voorhees on 12/06/2018 - 06:06 pm.

    I take the beneficial dollars to counties with a grain of salt because dollars can be configured to the audience. But the potential harm to our environment cannot be put into dollars because any breech will destroy.
    But I like the point you made about automation. A determinate number of jobs will be used to get the mines up and running but once it’s in use, automation will be used as much as possible.
    Technology is improving all the time and in twenty years who knows what advances will be made? Both to employment numbers and possibly to improve their processes to lessen their environmental impact. But I expect the industry is gearing of their technology for production enhancement rather than regulation or environmental concerns. A company is in the business to make money and saving the environment is not part of their business plan.

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/06/2018 - 09:40 pm.

    Nicely written piece lays it all out. I fear the correct choice will not be made as the information provided will obfuscated by twisting the data or with outright lying. Mining has never been the right choice. Nor has it filled the coffers for most of the locals. Stories are told about how great it was and will be. In reality populations have dwindled. Some say it i# the jobs. People have left because mining is not dependable from year to year for anybody. Never was. That is the reason the numbers for other categories of people are great. Bring a billion dollars to NE MN. Not a chance. The money will go somewhere else. The people will be left with more overburden. And now destroyed aquifers and wetlands. This time the hope it to learn before the mistake is made.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 12/09/2018 - 11:00 am.

      Joe, totally disagree with you on mining never being right for the Iron Range. It allowed my grandparents an opportunity to get a job while not speaking english. They in turn raised a grand total of 14 children, who had 58 children of their own, 41 went to college. Was it a tough life, yes. Is it brutally cold up here 4-5 months a year, yes.
      My family story is the same as thousands of others. The Iron Range has poor land for farming, has tough travel potential for 4-5 months and is 3-5 hours away from Twin Cities, none of that screams job diversity. What N’East Minn has is timber, minerals and hard workers. That means the more jobs in logging and mining the better.

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/10/2018 - 08:47 am.

        Anyone drive into Virginia from the South on 53 in the last year? The highest bridge in the state spanning the Rochon pit. We spend 200 million with no fuss or muss on a bridge because accommodating mining on the range is important. We did not fight the lease that was up on the old right of way, we did not take a cheaper route through the Thunderbird mine site: we did was best to accommodate mining: the mining that has brought prosperity to the range for 150 years. Sulfide mining does not equate to what we have done so far. I don’t think there is any stopping the first project; but we should take a LONG wait and see before the next one.

  5. Submitted by Josh Belleville on 12/07/2018 - 08:20 am.

    If the old model is fragile, what is the new model?

    Using the oft cited, and technically incorrect, Harvard study only points to creating low paying, seasonal tourist jobs. People to serve ice cream and carry canoes and serve food. While “all the visitors” (less than 100K, probably much less) buy all the necessities in MSP and beyond.

    There have been numerous, failed attempts to create businesses in the area that pay wages similar to what a typical “save the BWCA” MSP resident makes, accounting for a slightly lower cost of living (housing cheaper, but everything else higher). None have succeeded. A couple of call centers have stuck, but without significant band width to rural areas, and a lack of consumer infrastructure north of Duluth, most people only visit.

    At what point do the people serving the tourists get the money to play tourists themselves?

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/07/2018 - 10:41 am.

      Perhaps when the come to the realization that not everyone is entitled to whatever wage they demand, regardless of their chosen location. Many folks grow up in poor, rural locales. Many, like myself, recognize that in order to have a higher income level than what is typical in those regions we need to leave. Never once have I ever thought to demand that the rest of the state should cater any desire I might have had to continue my small town existence, nor would I have demanded the right to destroy shared resources to do so. There is no inherent right for people on the Range to enjoy an economy on the level with those in the metro. They are free to enjoy it whenever they wish.

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