All fate is geology. The rocks tell us who we are and what we will become. Here in northern Minnesota we are the sons and daughters of iron mining. We came here for the rocks and when our hands clawed the rock we changed ourselves. Sure, today we might wait tables, sell smart phones or blog, but our people are here for the rocks. If we flee, we flee from the rocks. Geology knows how this turns out, even if we don’t.
That hasn’t prevented a bloated decade of political, economic and environmental debate over mining in this region, a bleating that will not end until the rocks render their opinion, perhaps centuries from now. The issue, of course, has expanded beyond iron mining into other minerals: copper, nickel, the kinds of minerals that most people forgot shortly after a high school science quiz but that appear in most everyday electronic devices.
And rightly centered in this debate is the question over whether environmentally-riskier methods to extract nonferrous minerals are worth the economic benefit actually received from mining. It’s a good debate. I have friends on both sides. Civilization demands minerals like this. We have the ability to acquire them. Pursuing them changes our landscape, our workforce and diminishes our desire and ability to pursue other worthy goals. Don’t ask me, ask the rocks. Look at history.
You can look at some of the challenges facing Iron Range communities and conclude that the booms and busts of our iron mining history have taken their toll. You could also argue that the “mineral curse” wouldn’t be a factor if there was no mining, because there would be no towns. Nevertheless, towns that are doing well don’t cut funding for children’s programs at the library or curriculum in the schools – and that’s an ever-loving fact.
Up in Ely, the school board recently passed a resolution supporting nonferrous mining in the area, 4-2. The board debate wasn’t over mining; it was over whether the school board had any place making such resolutions. Jobs save schools, came the call. The vote was done.
Look to Iron County, Wisconsin, for hazy memories of a time when fathers and grandfathers worked in the mines many decades ago. Now citizens write letters to the paper, both Republicans and Democrats, calling for support of mining. One hopes that a small new taconite plant on the Gogebic Range provides them the comfort they seek. Will it be their children who work there? What of their currently unemployed?
A CBS news report recently gained attention for its full-throated declaration that mining jobs were on the rise in the Midwest. And they are, at rates that fail to make up for the manufacturing jobs lost in the same period.
I do not mean to sound too bearish, perhaps it is the cold. On the bright side taconite production on the Mesabi is up again this year. Shipments out of Duluth are at their highest since 2000, according to the Duluth News Tribune. Industry experts are confident that the production levels will remain steady for several years on account of demand for steel.
This is good news, as our geological condition … excuse me – our cultural condition (they are so similar!) requires northern Minnesota mining to lead the economic way. We must endure this way until the very end, unless we diversify the economy.
On the horizon we see taconite demand has been steady, but taconite prices have fluctuated greatly, according to the Duluth story.
A simple online stroll will show you that steel industries around the world are not universally merry. Demand in China continues to pace world steel consumption, but in Australia the steel industry struggles today. Australia is much closer to China than the U.S. and features a workforce very much like ours. Why aren’t they prospering?
Indeed, some reports show that Australian steel woes might be attached to the strong Australian dollar, causing the trade imbalance to favor imports over exports. In the U.S. our dollar is at an historic weak point. What happens when our dollar recovers? After all, that’s what needs to happen for the rest of our economy to return to glory.
Perhaps the facade of Iron Range economic stability will go on as we all hope, led by iron mining and followed by nonferrous. I say these are great jobs, specialized jobs, important jobs that exist in small numbers relative to what we need for recovery. Efforts to support mining must include sincere financial and political exertion to diversify the economy and educate our future workforce for innovation.
Anything less is but a blink in geological time, a flash in the pan. The rocks know how this turns out. They have all the time in the world. We don’t.
Aaron J. Brown is a writer from the Iron Range and instructor of communication at Hibbing Community College. He is the author of the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on 91.7 KAXE.