Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


On the Iron Range, a good environment is good for the economy

Ever since the mid 1800s when gold prospectors saw their compasses spin as they stood atop broad ore bodies that would become Minnesota’s famous Iron Range, mining has been seen as the region’s economic backbone.

Ever since the mid 1800s when gold prospectors saw their compasses spin as they stood atop broad ore bodies that would become Minnesota’s famous Iron Range, mining has been seen as the region’s economic backbone.

To this day, mining for iron and perhaps soon for copper and nickel is described by many as the economic salvation of everyone north of Cotton, Minn. Environmental advocates are often viewed as a lurking Grinch, forever working to deny locals a place in the economic sunshine.

But a new study shows that northeast Minnesota’s economy is humming despite the loss of thousands of mining jobs since the 1980s. The Arrowhead is buoyed by the in-migration of retirees who like the beauty of the place and by year-around tourism of folks wanting to recreate in the forested lake country.

The new residents and visitors spend impressively on pursuits like canoeing, boating, fishing, golf, skiing, hiking and snowmobiling. In addition, they create jobs by outfitters, resorters, and even health services for the elderly.

Article continues after advertisement

In fact, the 20-year jobs decline in mining has been more than offset by jobs and overall economic growth in the service industry, says a report by Thomas Michael Power of the University of Montana.

“Natural environment — scenic beauty, wildlife, outdoor recreation, clean air and water — attract people and economic activity,” said Power in his report. “Such amenity-supported economic vitality is a powerful force in many areas of the nation including Minnesota’s St. Louis, Itasca, and Lake Counties.”

The Iron Range’s boom-bust cycle went dramatically bust in the 1980s; St. Louis County alone lost 9,000 jobs, a staggering 76 percent of the mining work force along with their wages of $503 million.

However, other sectors added 25,000 jobs and $940 million, said Power in a report for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and the Sierra Club.

“Both Lake and Itasca Counties showed the same pattern,” said the report. Lake County saw its economy quadruple throughout the period and Itasca County saw its double.

For years, a healthy economy and a quality environment have been regarded as mutually exclusive, and the cleavage has been especially pronounced on the Iron Range.

The early 1900s saw bitter fights between those wanting to protect what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) from an ambitious plan to use vast areas for hydropower to run paper and timbering operations. They also turned back a plan to carve roads into what is now remote wilderness for resorts and cabins that would pack the shorelines.

Past battles
In the 1970s there were three divisive fights:

When a surging metals market gave promise to copper-nickel mining across the north country’s greenstone formations, public meetings in Ely and elsewhere nearly came to body blows as environmental advocates pointed to the lunar landscapes of Sudbury, Ontario, caused by the caustic plumes of copper smelters.

Article continues after advertisement

Then came the politically charged controversy over Reserve Mining Company’s discharge of taconite tailings directly into Lake Superior. Anyone siding against Reserve in the company town of Silver Bay had a short half-life.

Later came bitter knock-downs over federal legislation to designate the BWCA as wilderness, and the deep wounds haven’t yet fully healed. One Minnesota politician, Don Fraser, was denied the governorship when Iron Range DFLers balked over his support for the BWCA and expanded gun control.

However, a fickle metals market kept copper-nickel mining from happening and eventually shut down Reserve, Congress approved the wilderness bill, and in the 1980s another market bust saw tens of thousands of taconite jobs lost.

But despite jobs losses in the extraction industry, Power’s report says northeast Minnesota’s diversified economy has enjoyed impressive growth, and between 1990 and 2005 the rate of jobs growth in Itasca and Lake counties outpaced the state as a whole.

“The reality of amenity-supported economic development underlines the economic importance of protecting quality of the social and natural environment,” Power’s report says. “Environmental quality is not just a matter of ‘prettiness’ or aesthetic preferences; it is a central part of any region’s economic base and its potential for economic vitality.”