Mining opponents: You think you know Ely’s needs? – by Joe Baltich (Minneapolis Star Tribune – August 31, 2013)

Joe Baltich lives near Ely, Minn.

These days, everybody has a lot to say about mining, tourism and the northern Minnesota economy. Many from the Twin Cities area oppose an underground copper-mining proposal near Ely and have been trying to stop the project in its tracks.

One of their reasons for doing so is well-intended — they want to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The second reason is more self-serving — they want to protect it for whenever the day comes that they decide to pay a visit.

I felt that it is time someone actually from Ely explained our reality. We want to protect the BWCA all the time, and we also want to be a viable, vibrant community. It is hard to do that with outside forces trying to stifle economic activity. I was recently asked by a Twin Cities resident to sign an anti-mining petition. Here is a condensed version of the letter I sent in reply:

The whole town of Ely is economically collapsing. Last year, 156 people were in the obituaries, and the New Year’s baby was born on Feb. 10. Resort bookings for May and June were substantially off, and I’m pretty sure they will be down for July and August.

The anecdotal estimate is that Ely business is off by about 25 to 30 percent. BWCA use is in fairly steep decline. I should know: I’ve been an outfitter and resorter for my entire life in Ely. The parking lots at the entry points were rarely full, most seeing 25 percent occupancy for the majority of the summer.

As America ages, nobody wants to come and sleep on a rock, only to be restricted to paddling a canoe. They want to jump in a boat or on a snowmobile and go fishing without having the government breathing down their necks with permits and rules — dog sleds but no motors; 2-liter plastic bottles but no cans (although burning plastic is illegal).

You can’t leave the BWCA to go shopping in Ely, because it voids your permit. These are only a smattering of the rules that most Twin Cities tourists can’t get right, so they remain in constant violation of the laws they support so strongly. When they come from out of state, it’s even harder to get them to comply.

So, Ely is slipping. Everything is for sale, and nobody’s buying. A liquor store that had been successful since the early 1970s has been on the market for five years. A restaurant building is sitting empty, rotting — but back when the mines were humming, it too was a successful business.

The first decline for Ely began in 1964, when the government closed 17 resorts under eminent domain. The mines were still running at full speed then, so it was harder to notice.

When the so-called “wilderness gold mine” came to be (the final, most restrictive phase of Boundary Waters regulation in 1978), we began to witness the second decline. Another drop-off came with the introduction of the Internet and electronic “toys” in the 1990s.

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