ELY, Minn. – Every year Randy Stender and his family spend Memorial Day weekend at Birch Lake Campground, a tradition that ties him to the wild, unspoiled lands here on the edge of the Iron Range where he grew up. There was a time, he says, when he and his wife would have moved back — if there had been a job like the one his father once had at Reserve Mining.
So when he heard that Birch Lake’s shoreline could become the site of one of the largest copper mines in the country, he immediately grasped the conflict gripping this charming tourist town and spreading across Minnesota. “That’s the catch,” he said, opening his arms wide to the lake that shimmered in the morning light. “Because I kind of like it like this.”
The prospect of a massive new mining industry here is igniting long-simmering tensions — between those who long for the surge in prosperity it could bring and those who say it threatens the splendor of the North Woods and the tourism that relies on it.
At least a dozen companies are exploring for copper, nickel, gold and other precious metals in a vast geological formation called the Duluth complex, which stretches from Tamarack, Minn., to the nearby Kawishiwi River that feeds the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Company officials say hard-rock mining can — and will — be done safely, while creating thousands of jobs and spawning a new industry that could someday dwarf the state’s taconite and frac sand mining operations.
“A viable community has to depend on more than tourism,” said Brian Krunkkala, who works at an Ely bait shop.
Opponents say hard-rock mining is not like taconite, and point to western states where similar mines have polluted thousands of miles of streams and rivers with acidic runoff. Even at its best, they say, mining that produces acid along with precious metals is too risky for the water-rich environment of northern Minnesota and the outdoor recreation that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
“Do you want the Superior National Forest … to be home to a mining-industrial complex?” asked Rebecca Rom, a retired attorney who lives in Ely.
This summer the first of the new mining companies, PolyMet Mining Corp., will disclose how it plans to mine some 6,700 acres of national forest near Hoyt Lakes without polluting water that drains to Lake Superior.
And nowhere are people more intensely interested in the outcome than in Ely.
“This has the potential to be huge,” said Marshall Helmberger, publisher of the local newspaper, the Timberjay. “There is a significant dividing line.”
A town divided
Dean DeBeltz was one of nearly 1,000 people who turned out recently for PolyMet’s open house in nearby Hoyt Lakes. He stood inside a cavernous and now-silent taconite crushing facility, the first place he ever worked — before its owner declared bankruptcy. Soon, it might come to life again as part of a $600 million PolyMet mining project that promises to create 350 jobs.
DeBeltz grew up in Ely. His father and grandfather worked in taconite. Now he works for Twin Metals, the company exploring for copper-nickel along the edge of Birch Lake with the hopes of digging a vast underground mine, the first of its kind in the state.
“I think mining and tourism could really complement each other,’’ DeBeltz said.
Others around Ely feel differently. A few days later, dozens of people braved a frigid rain to paddle down the Kawishiwi in celebration of the grand opening of Sustainable Ely, a converted house on Ely’s main street run by volunteers trying to call attention to the economic and environmental risks from mining. The group launched their canoes from the Voyageur Outward Bound School, which for 50 years has taught visitors to navigate the wilderness with confidence. This past winter they had to reroute their dog sleds around exploratory drill rigs in the national forest, and now the board of directors might consider moving the school.
“That’s not an easy question,” said Jack Lee, the school’s executive director.
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