In college, I hung around some kids from Ely. The social and political storm that was the 1970s Boundary Waters controversy had recently passed, but there was still turbulence in its wake. We didn’t talk about it much, but the 1978 wilderness legislation brought a lot of unwelcome change to folks, including my family in Duluth, who for decades had went fishing and camping with motorboats on lakes that were suddenly paddle-only. For many people living in Ely, the legislation brought an abrupt halt to an outdoor way of life.
Once, I remarked to a couple of Ely friends that getting snowmobiles out of the Boundary Waters was probably a good thing, because the prohibition would eliminate winter fishing pressure on remote lakes. An always-mellow Ely girl looked at me from across the table with fire in her eyes.
“I’ll have you know my mother marched on the streets of Ely wearing a snowmobile suit in July,” she said. “The snowmobiles weren’t hurting anything.”
I thought about my college friend’s passionate response while driving into Ely last week. More than 30 years have passed since then, but within Ely the turbulence of the wilderness controversy has never subsided. Ely is a community that can’t find peace. I’ve subscribed to Ely newspapers for years. The battle continues to be fought in the Letters to the Editor week after week by opponents so entrenched in their views it seems impossible for them to find any common ground.
For more than a century, Ely has been at the end of the road, a symbolic jumping off point to great, northern frontier. For nearly as long it has been ground zero for environmental debate, beginning with a successful fight to prevent dams from being built on the border lakes to endless legal and political battles over float planes, logging, wolves, motorboats, sailboats, snowmobiles and bicycles. A local woman we met recited a litany of environmental lawsuits that to her are proof positive that environmentalists won’t be satisfied until they’ve forced locals like her out of town. The Superior National Forest, which contains the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, has been involved with continuous environmental litigation for decades.
Driving up from the North Shore along State Highway 1, we passed yard signs saying We Support Mining. This isn’t surprising, because Ely has strong iron mining heritage. In the vicinity of Ely are vast copper-nickel deposits. New proposals to mine those deposits have divided people along familiar lines. With mining comes the risk of water pollution in a place rightfully called the headwaters of the continent. But modern mining also brings the promise of good jobs in a place where jobs are hard to come by. And thus the battle lines are drawn–jobs vs. the environment.
The new mining endeavors deserve close public scrutiny and the issues they present are worthy of vigorous debate. The problem is in Ely, something entirely new–copper mining–quickly becomes the same old thing as familiar opponents, squared off against one another since the 1970s, once again go to battle. And the war they wage is fought not so much in Ely as it is in the Twin Cities, home to the majority of people who visit Ely and paddle the Boundary Waters.
But the people of Ely are not unscathed. The Twin Cities propaganda machines employed by both sides churn out media materials intended to vilify and dehumanize their opponents. The result is a legitimate dispute over issues escalates into a holy war, where each side claims to be more righteous than the other.
Aside from the We Support Mining road signs along the highway, evidence of the copper mining controversy was largely absent along the main drag through town. Mining didn’t seem to be first and foremost on the minds of tourists strolling through the shops. It took some searching to find the main street office of Sustainable Ely, an environmental group opposed to mining. Located in an old home, the office contains displays supporting their point of view. The staff was friendly and very low key.
Later in the day, we dropped by the open house held by the mining company Twin Metals for its new core library—a giant warehouse where it will store core samples from exploratory drilling operations. The open house was surprisingly well attended by local folks ranging from seniors to families with kids. While there, I spoke with a fellow from an outfit called Jobs for Minnesotans, who’d come up from the Twin Cities for the event. His organization was formed by Minnesota Construction and Building Trades Council and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce as a counterbalance to anti-mining groups. He was friendly, but I walked away thinking he was just someone else from the Twin Cities telling northern Minnesotans how to live.
The copper mining debate won’t end anytime soon, which means Ely will remain a house divided. This probably won’t mean much for people who visit Ely and paddle in the Boundary Waters. But for Ely residents, it must get tiresome to live in a community that is perpetually tugged this way and that by a never-ending war over the environment. Until it does, folks on either side of this divide can’t put aside their differences, focus on what they have in common and, as a community, begin to heal.
Experience suggests there is better way to address the mining conflict. During the 1990s, when an expanding timber industry sparked controversy over logging, the State legislature formed the Minnesota Forest Resources Council (of which I am a member) as a way to bring all sides to the table and work through thorny issues. A similar forum is needed for mining, which is undergoing a similar period of expansion in not only copper extraction, but also taconite and frac sand.
Driving back to the North Shore, we talked about how Grand Marais was able to make a social and economic transition following the Boundary Waters battles of the 70s. Somehow, the folks on this end of the canoe country found a way to let bygones be bygones and move forward. Perhaps this won’t or can’t happen in Ely until a generational change occurs. Maybe when the old warhorses of the 70s are finally put out to pasture, a younger generation can find a way to bridge Ely’s divide.