Minnesota’s environmental community received an early Christmas gift regarding the copper mining controversy, when the Obama administration announced on December 15 that the Interior and Agriculture departments denied an application for renewal of two hard rock mineral leases from Twin Metals near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), as well as initiated steps to withdraw key portions of the wilderness watershed from new mineral permits and leases.
The renewal application was submitted by Twin Metals Minnesota in 2012. The two leases, initially issued in 1966 and most recently renewed in 2004, would have allowed for the mining of copper, nickel and associated minerals from the leased lands. However, no mineral production has occurred on either lease since the original date of issuance. Twin Metals was exploring the possibility of mining there.
The mining would have occurred within a portion of the BWCAW’s watershed and upstream of the wilderness area. Citing the risk of mine runoff polluting waters within the BWCAW, environmentalists opposed the Twin Metals proposal. The press release from the Department of Interior said the pollution would have a negative effect on the local, $45 million outdoor recreation economy. However, it must be noted that many people living in Ely, the town nearest to the proposed mine site, were looking forward to the mine giving a much-needed boost to what they perceive as a struggling local economy.
A reasonable person may conclude that those who saw a copper mine as Ely’s economic salvation may have pinned their hopes to the wrong star. From the outset of the Twin Metals proposal, it seemed highly unlikely that copper mining would be allowed immediately upstream from the nation’s most popular wilderness area. But due to the diminishment of iron mining and the forest products industry on the eastern end of the Iron Range over the past two decades, it is fair to say the area’s working class had little else on which to pin their hopes.
The controversy over copper mining in northeastern Minnesota has been as divisive and socially corrosive as our current national politics. While the environmental community has been fervent in its opposition to copper mining, it has largely been oblivious to the real concerns of area residents who remember better economic times and are worried for their future. It is easy for those residents to fear the copper mining controversy is the tip of the iceberg for an all-out environmentalist assault upon northeastern Minnesota’s natural-resource-dependent enterprises. The environmental community has done little to assuage those fears.
Perhaps this explains some outcomes from the November election. Northeastern Minnesota is among the bluest regions in the nation, although in recent years it has been apparent that growing numbers of voters do not feel they are being well-served by the Democratic Farmer-Labor party. It wasn’t surprising during the primary season that the region’s voters came out strongly for Bernie Sanders, whose message resonated with the working class. In the November election, the region’s voters came out strongly for Trump. Clearly his message resonated with voters, too. We can only speculate about the role the copper mining controversy played in the election.
This is especially true if we consider the victory of DFL congressman Rick Nolan, who squeaked out a win in one of the nation’s most expensive congressional races. Nolan supported Sanders in the primary and made no bones about his support for his district’s miners and loggers. All the same, he’s been called a “champion of conservation” by the League of Conservation Voters. Maybe he’s found a political middle ground.
Political players and the media often spin environmental controversies as clashes of “jobs vs. the environment.” Doing so creates a divisiveness useful to the protagonists on either side of an issue. But this all-or-nothing approach simply isn’t productive for the economy or the environment. Real progress occurs when issues are resolved upon the middle ground. This doesn’t mean there aren’t winners and losers. But when the smoke clears from the battlefield, all too often the warriors from the opposing camps ride off into the sunset and leave behind a socio-economic mess behind for the local communities to clean up.
Northeastern Minnesota’s wealth of natural resources is both a blessing and a curse. Since the fur trade era, it has formed the foundation of our economy. For just as long, people have fought over the use and exploitation of those resources. Despite disagreements, the people who live or vacation in northeastern Minnesota have one thing in common: they love the place.
The copper mining controversy has been a particularly bruising battle. Some wounds, especially within local communities, will be slow to heal. The denial of the mineral lease renewals may mark a milestone in efforts to protect the BWCAW. At any rate, now seems to be a good time for the protagonists to pause, take a deep breath and think about things.
Mining supporters ought to think about the BWCAW, especially about the passion it arouses in its defenders. BWCAW issues attract national attention, because of its renown. You may not care for the way the wilderness is managed, but it is a national landmark with unquestioned economic and cultural values. As such, both the BWCAW and its defenders deserve respect.
Mining opponents ought to think about people, specifically those who chose to live in northeastern Minnesota. And they need to stop thinking like this: “If those people up north can’t get by, they can move someplace where there is more economic opportunity.” Making a living is just one of many challenges to living in the north. The local folks who support mining believe it contributes to the overall prosperity of their communities. That doesn’t make them bad people. Disagree respectfully; don’t tell them how or where to live.
In the midst of controversy, it’s easy to lose sight of simple truths. The struggles over northeastern Minnesota’s natural resources will continue. And so, too, will everyday living. Both sides of the copper mining controversy should bear that in mind. Don’t let your passion for the issue overwhelm your ability to respect those with whom you disagree.
By Shawn Perich