It’s not often an Iron Range mayor makes it on national television. I’m not sure who wrote his speech, but I wish Eveleth mayor Bob Vlaisavljevich would have done a bit of historical fact-checking before speaking at this year’s Republican National Convention. I don’t doubt that Chinese steel dumping has hurt northern Minnesota’s iron mining industry. But in truth that industry was in trouble long before the Obama-Biden administration. Iron ore is a non-renewable resource. It won’t grow back once you take it out of the ground. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it for our benefit, but we need to remember that it won’t last forever. Yes, it was northern Minnesota iron ore that made the steel that built the ships, planes, and tanks that assured the Allied victory in World War II. Yet nearly all of the high-grade ore was depleted in the effort. If it weren’t for engineers and scientists from the University of Minnesota who discovered a way to extract low-grade ore from taconite, the Iron Range would have dissolved into a series of ghost towns long ago. Even then, we still didn’t learn our lesson, enjoying the middle-class lifestyle that mining afforded us, with no thought that it would ever end. However, by the time I graduated from Mountain Iron High School in 1980, the second wave of the mining boom had already started to bust. Many of my classmates realized they would have to leave the area to find good paying jobs. And with them went potential new homeowners, small business customers, and school-aged children who would have participated in the other sectors of the economy that struggle, and sometimes cease, to exist when the lone industrial foundation crumbles.
Attempts have been made to establish other types of industries such as tourism, but we tend to come back to the idea that mining will save us. One such plan is to develop a copper/nickel mine in northern Minnesota. I’m not against this plan, but again, copper and nickel are non-renewable resources. What happens to all those mining jobs when the copper and nickel are gone? There is opposition to this plan based on potential environmental harm, and those concerns should be addressed. But it doesn’t have to be a mining vs. environment issue. The way we create sustainable, living wage jobs is to diversify our industries and businesses to offer many different working opportunities to many different people. How ‘bout if the new copper/nickel mine is powered by solar and wind energy? Then we’ve not only employed several hundred people to mine the minerals, but we’ve also employed several hundred more people to maintain the power sources. And those renewable-energy workers could expand their services to homes and businesses across our area, offering them a consistent and stable employment, even if the copper/nickel mine suffers the boom-and-bust that our residents experience far too frequently.
We need to think beyond mining if we’re going to establish vibrant communities in northern Minnesota. I am a public school teacher in a small district on the Iron Range. The one consistent concern that all area schools had last spring during distance learning was a lack of reliable internet access across the Arrowhead Region. The problem remains as we begin school this fall, with many students opting for distance learning. There have been efforts to establish broadband access, but my understanding is we may not be fully connected for twenty years. Imagine what could happen if the Iron Range communities together with the IRRRB could provide incentives for high-technology internet providers to locate offices and factories here in northern Minnesota. Not only would our students benefit, but quality internet access would also be available to any new manufacturing firm that seeks to locate here. These are the types of good-paying, steady, and long-term jobs that will remain even if the mining industry does not.
The mayor is correct when he says Democrats and Republicans share the blame. Neither party has been willing to seriously commit to diversifying the economy of northern Minnesota. The myopic vision of both sides limits their ability to see the Iron Range as anything other than mine pits and a fun place to catch fish on the weekends. If the two arch rival school districts in our area can fiercely unite, surely we can find a way to bring new and exciting job opportunities to our communities, without sacrificing — or becoming overly dependent upon — our mining heritage.