What the Wilderness Needs

A trip to Ely offers insights into businesses which the wilderness supports, and inspiration to keep working for its future.

Photo: Flickr/Chad Fennell

Photo: Flickr/Chad Fennell

I went to Ely this Tuesday, to learn from people who live and work on the edge of the wilderness. It was refreshing to spend time in person with our Northern Communities staff member Ian Kimmer and, frankly, to just get the heck out of the office.

On my way north, I passed several billboards that spoke directly to the wild character of where I was headed. One showed a family dog sledding down a cathedral-like forest winter trail that went on forever. Another showed a couple relaxing next to a wood fire with a lovely view of an undeveloped lake, the pine trees on its shore drooping with snow. I related to both and bumped up the cruise control.

Ian and I spent the entire day with people who make their living in this country, right next to the 1 million acre wilderness. Either through running canoe tripping programs into and around the Superior National Forest or providing cabins with those lovely views of the lake, these people know the woods, lakes and trails and the way to get around them better than anyone. They also know how to make at least a little money, for themselves and their employees, sharing this asset with other people – the people the billboards are talking to.

We learned how sulfide mining is affecting not only their business but how it is affecting them personally. In some cases, the noise and traffic from exploratory drilling has actually created a significant decrease in their operating revenue. One told me point blank, mining and tourism are not compatible and his friend is considering leaving the home to which he just retired if mining occurs. Another said these waters and woods are everyone’s personal legacy. They are healthy now, even after so much conflict and division over the years. People love them in different ways. But they are providing a living for many of us. If we allow them to become degraded, we and our children lose.

He pointed out the window across the lake to the snowy white and grey wilderness beyond and said, “Your job is to preserve this. We need to do this and we need to succeed.” I couldn’t agree more and that’s a job I am honored to do.

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    20 comments to What the Wilderness Needs

    • richard travis

      ive been to the boundry waters 6 or 7 times leave it be no mining leave it wild

    • Although I’m from Tennessee, along way from the BWCAW, I have been canoeing there several times. I’m also a member of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. From my point of view, it’s the finest wilderness area in the United States, and I have visited quite a few of them from Alaska to Georgia. Having grown up in the coal fields of West Virginia, I’m familiar with the detrimental effects of sulfide mining and strip mining for coal on the environment. It’s despicable. Hopefully this kind of mining can be prohibited anywhere in the USA, and especially anywhere near and a long way from the BWCAW.
      Ray Payne

    • Not everyone is against mining. It seems to me the focus should be on how do we mine safely. To just say that it cannot be done safely because it hasn’t been done that way before is very short sighted in my opinion. If we can put a man on the moon I think it is worth considering the possibility that there are ways to mine heavy metals AND keep the wilderness safe. My business depends on the wilderness but I am not blind to the possibility that there are perhaps ways to protect the wilderness and have safe mining.

    • Richard Pucel

      Boy, I don’t know where this person lives that said that there is a lot of noise, but I live on the south edge of Ely and have never heard a drill rig. We just had a few miles of highway 1 worked on this past year and there was a lot of drilling and blasting to accomplish that task. As far as mining in Ely, that dates back way over 100 years and has been a staple of the business climate in Ely for that many years. Mining, logging tourism can and have worked side by side. I welcome a new mine in the area knowing that the MPCA and other regulatory agencies will be watching the industry. This town will not survive without multiple industries.

      • Steve Koschak

        We do hear the exploratory drill rigs regularly and it does affect the quality of our lives, and we have grave concerns for the impact to the fragile watershed. Ely is a vibrant tourism town known throughout the world. It has not been a mining town since the last iron ore mine closed in 1967…some 46 years ago. To change our lakes district, with clean water, clean air, and an untrammeled landscape, into a sulfide metal mining district, with a perfect track record of being the worst kind of toxic environmental polluter there is which lasts into perpetuity, would be criminal. That is not the inheritance we want to leave our grandchildren.

    • Jim Maki

      It’s interesting that anyone commenting on this article are required to sign their name, whereas all businesses and people that claim the potential mine is already hurting them remain anonymous.
      Ely’s school enrollment is down about 66% from the classes of the 1960-1970+ era, when mining and timber harvest were the major industries.
      Now that tourism is the major industry, businesses are closing and many houses are for sale. This will even get worse, unless the proposed mine is allowed to go into operation.
      My observations throughout the years lead me to believe that evnvironmental organizations like The Friends of the Boundary Waters, and others, want the town to die.

    • Janet Glidden

      I live in IL and have done 20-some wilderness trips in the BWCAW and Quetico. I love it and have seen it change a bit over the years…but not a lot. It’s still beautiful, quiet, and has lots of wildlife. I’ve read about all kinds of mining and the politics involved and wouldn’t trust a company’s promises! I’ve seen too many disasters and surely don’t want one in “our” wilderness!

    • Susan White

      Those who are willing to sacrifice the areas in MN and Wisconsin to sulfide mining in order to produce jobs apparently do not realize that they won’t want to live there once the sulfide rock is exposed to the air. Sulfide mining leaves the exposed foliage, rock and trees black as if the area had been burned over. The sulfide mines in Canada have not succeeded in renovating their surrounding areas. Check out Sudbury in Ontario. It’s a moonscape.

    • Becky Rom

      Ely is a wonderful community in which nearly every business relies on people who live or visit the area because of the natural beauty, clean air, clean water, and wildness of the Superior National Forest and the BWCAW. Sulfide ore mining will be devastating to the local economy and the health of the community. I encourage those who think that this type of mining can be done safely to visit other areas that have experienced this type of mining. Every sulfide-ore mine in the world has caused the release of toxic pollutants into surrounding waters. The mining industry has no plans to change its practices. The draft environmental impact statement for Polymet, the first sulfide-ore mine to undergo review, stated that it would pollute waters for 2,000 years. The EPA commented that the Polymet mine “will result in unacceptable and long-term water quality impacts, which include exceeding water quality standards, releasing unmitigated wastewater discharges into water bodies [during operation and in the postclosure period], and increasing mercury loadings into the Lake Superior watershed.” The MPCA has failed to protect its citizens from toxic pollutants released by sulfide-ore waste; the Dunka Pit near Babbitt has leached pollutants into a creek that flows into Birch Lake since 1976. The Dunka Pit is a small fraction of the size of waste pits proposed by these new mines. Polymet’s waste pile will be the size of 500 football fields 20 stories high and will produce sulfuric acid and release heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury. Sulfide-ore mining will destroy the Superior National Forest and the BWCAW. For those who think mining jobs are more important than protecting our waters, land, and community, remember that Polymet projects 90 local jobs for 20 years, a poor trade-off if there ever was one. For those who hear no noise from the hundreds of exploratory drilling sites in the Superior, please visit one of the many homes, cabins, and businesses on the Spruce Road or elsewhere on the Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake.

      • Jim Maki

        Ms. Rom,
        It’s very easy for someone who left Ely about forty years ago, worked as an attorney, accumulated a nice retirement, then moved back to Ely, to see the area through rose colored glasses.
        Your father, “America’s Canoe King” made a very good living off the wilderness and bailed out just before the permit system came in.
        As both of us mentioned, most of Ely’s business today relies on tourism. That is why about 20 businesses are closed, and countless homes in Ely are for sale.
        The school enrollment and population began dropping when the environmental groups begin banning logging, fighting the taconite mines at every turn (current bogus dust standards being imposed), imposed air and motor bans, etc. All of these were the beginning of the end to Ely as you and I once knew it.
        I stand by my previous statement that you and others of the same mind set, would love to see Ely’s population at several hundred people. That would be just enough to support a small grocery store in case you needed supplies for your large log cabin on Burntside Lake.

    • Becky Rom

      Some think that this is a debate about mining versus tourism. It isn ‘t. But it is a debate about Ely’s future. Will Ely continue to move toward a healthy, diversified economy that will be sustainable over time, or will the Superior National Forest be transformed into a large industrial mining district hosting the toxic industry of sulfide-ore mining sure to permanently damage our land, air, water, and economy? The US Forest Service manages the Superior National Forest on the basis of ecological sustainability, and factors into its management decisions biodiversity, best available science, ecosystem services, sustainable timber harvest, and recreation. This approach supports our economy. In addition to tourism, many families have developed seasonable properties that provide a host of local jobs. Many people have moved here with portable jobs and telecommute to offices located throughout the world. Businesses have moved here because of the quality of life for their employees. If sulfide-ore mining is developed we will lose most if not all of this. New local jobs will be relatively few and short term. Most of these mines are automated and operated remotely with highly skilled employees located elsewhere. Man camps will house construction workers who will leave once the mines are built. Shell companies disappear and cannot be found when the effects of long term (2000 years) toxic pollution need to be addressed. Sadly, sulfide-ore mining will not cure lower school populations and fill empty houses. The mining history of Ely (Ely’s last mine closed in 1967) may be one of nostalgia to those who grew up here, but sulfide-ore mining is not a roadmap to a healthy community and economy.

    • Ely hosted underground mining for nearly 90 years. Its five major producing mines operated within ten miles of what later became the BWCA. Without that mining, there’d have been no schools, no hospital, no business district, no community. Besides leaving behind those services that support residents and visitors, what is the legacy of that mining? There is one more lake in an area called “pristine” and “precious” by wilderness advocates. I don’t know if the resumption of underground mining near Ely will create another recreational lake, but I expect it to keep Ely from shrinking to a ghost-like community without schools, a hospital, and a future. I urge wilderness advocates to change their focus from being anti-mining even outside the BWCA and instead help assure that the mining that is coming will be done safely and responsibly while providing opportunities for the future of this deserving community.

    • Jim Maki

      In reply to Mr. Koschalk’s letter,
      Steve is 100% correct that mines located within a mile of Ely have been closed since 1967.
      However, for that last 40-45 years many of Ely’s residents worked at Erie Mining Company in Hoyt Lakes, Minntac in Mt. Iron, Inland Steel Mining Company in Virginia, and Reserve Mining Company in Babbitt, commuting on a daily basis. They lived in their homes in Ely, sent their children to Ely schools, paid property taxes in Ely. Mining companies donate generously to projects and organizations in the communities in which their employees live.
      As far as his hearing drilling rigs in the distance, it is possible but not life ending.
      A lot of people in this area have sacrificed over the years. Many lost their cabins and businesses when the Wilderness Act of 1964 took about 1 million acres of land (and people’s property) to create the BWCA.
      As I stated earlier, Ely is a dying town with tourism being it’s number one source of income. If anyone reading this is ever in Ely, look at the number of homes and businesses for sale or closed. That tells it all.
      The town needs this mine to survive.

    • Chad Fennell

      * There has never been a sulfide mine in Minnesota.
      * Sulfide mining is different: in states like Montana, New Mexico, and Nevada, sulfide mining has contaminated
      thousands of streams and devastated entire ecosystems. Faced with clean-up costs in the tens of millions of dollars, companies have frequently filed for bankruptcy, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab.
      * One of the biggest factors in the dark history of sulfide mining is how frequently mining companies are wrong about what their impacts on water quality will be. One peer-reviewed study found that, while all projects that were reviewed predicted they would not pollute, at least 76 percent of the time they still did. [1] The same study found that 89 percent of mines that have polluted said they would not.
      * This doesn’t have to be a yes/no situation, the laws could be improved to protect tax payers from having to pay millions in cleanup costs by, for example, making companies put up enough capital at the outset of mining in case they go bankrupt


    • Carla Arneson

      The “Great Recession” is the reason businesses have closed in Ely. Not a lack of mines. My mother’s home is located near Ellsworth, Wisconsin, which is the Pierce County seat and has a population comparable to Ely. There are just as many, if not more, empty stores in Ellsworth as there are in Ely. And no one says Ellsworth is dying.

      If mining creates vibrant communities that attract people, why have mining proponents from Ely not moved to Virginia in the almost half a century since Ely’s last mine shut down? They had fifteen years until 1982, when the mining industry experienced an economic downturn and its labor force was cut roughly in half. From then on the population of Virginia continued to drop, despite it being almost surrounded by operating taconite mines; today growth is negligible even as employment websites list multiple mining and mining related jobs available in the area. It is also interesting to note that property crime and violent crime levels in Virginia reportedly tend to be higher than Minnesota’s average.

      As for future jobs in the mining sector, recent reports from the industry indicate that there will soon be more mining jobs available, through retirements alone, than it can fill with the upcoming workforce. Reportedly, a quarter of the current workforce may need to be replaced in the next five years. So there will be no shortage of mining jobs for those who want one, and are qualified, without permitting any sulfide mining projects.

      If the wish is to have sons and daughters stay or return to Ely, then give them something to come back for other than mining. Mining is their heritage; it is not their future, or their children’s future. Many of them have other interests. When the industry held its mining conference at Fortune Bay for area high school students, the news media could not find a student to say that he or she wanted to work in the mines. Rather students said that they valued their parents’ heritage, that they knew mining was important to their parents, that they respected their parents’ views; however they did not say that mining was the career they would choose for themselves.

      We all need to work together to identify and attract businesses that are compatible with our waters, sustainable, and will bring the jobs that interest our young people. We need to ask them what kinds of jobs they want.

      Instead of proposing sulfide mining, which would leave future generations with few resources to rebuild their economy after mining. Instead of proposing sulfide mining, which would leave generations condemned to a legacy of perpetual water treatment, and the toxicity of 99% waste. The most vulnerable would be the children. Their water is their future; it is our responsibility to protect it and in so doing, protect them.

      Northeastern Minnesotans now know that, compared to other rural regions of the state, we have the highest overall mortality rate; highest rates for cancer, asthma hospitalization and emergency room visits, diabetes, Alzheimer’s in those over age 65, heart disease, etc. Those facts ought to elicit anger at the lack of adherence to our air and water quality standards by the taconite industry. So far our agencies have failed to protect us.

      Anyone who says that sulfide mining in our water rich area is an acceptable risk has not done adequate research. Proposed sulfide mining would expose the people of the Arrowhead, particularly children, to numerous additional toxins with many unknown synergistic effects. We already have 10% of newborns tested in the Lake Superior Basin with toxic levels of mercury in their blood. We are still waiting for the results of the mesothelioma/silicosis study. Taconite mining needs to clean up its act. “Prove it” first with taconite. If we cannot do that, we have no business considering a copper-nickel experiment.

      • Jim Maki

        To address Carla Arneson’s letter and her blaming anything but the truth on Ely’s demise.
        We are very close to be on a pure tourism econonmy in Ely, and that means NO JOBS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE, PERIOD!!!
        I have lived in Ely my entire life, minus 3+ years in the Army in the late 60′s.
        I worked in the Taconite Mines for 33 years, have run a tourism based business for the last 29 years, so I’ve seen both sides, and mining company wages and benefits are far better than jobs based on tourism.
        Now the enviros are attacking the proposed copper mine, and just to put a little icing on the cake, the existing taconite mines for dust in the wilderness.
        You say the sons and daughters of Ely residents should have something to come back to? Come back to what, the vacant lot where their home USED to be, empty businesses, empty schools, no living wage jobs, etc.
        Let’s cut to the chase: Supposing the mine is stopped by some bogus law suit, exactly what type of jobs do you suggest saving Ely’s future and increasing school enrollment. In the process, let’s keep them living wage jobs, with a realistic chance of them ever materializing.

    • Wever Weed

      The job, Paul, that you are honored to do ought to be not only about stopping economic opportunites that will degrade the BWCAW but also about starting economic opportunities that can sustain it and those who choose to live and work near it. If over the past ten years as much effort had been put into the latter as the former, today we might not have any need to debate the merits of a relatively few good jobs promised by sulfide mining companies. The only way to protect the BWCAW from the economic opportunity of mining is to work as hard for a different kind of economic opportunity. Perhaps that is the future of wilderness protection.

      • Wever,

        Thank you for your comment. I am honored to work where we can to bring more economic opportunities to the communities that neighbor our wilderness lands. It is something this organization has acknowledged and in which it has invested. In fact, it has been a joy for me to work as the co chair of Heart of the Continent Partnership’s International Community Congress. This four day bi-national workshop brought 100 American and Canadian business leaders, tribal and elected officials, conservation group staff and Provincial Park, National Park and USFS leaders together to plan sustainable economic initiatives for their towns and connect with each other and their public lands. We hired a Northern Communities staff person specifically to build relationships and trust between groups like ours and local citizens – recently, our staff person, Ian Kimmer, met with the new mayor of Ely. He is also excited to start working on a local grant with the EADA to help solve conservation problems locally. And as part of our Sigurd Olson Lecture Series we sponsor with Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, we brought economist Spencer Phillips to VCC to speak with students and community leaders about successful economic efforts in similar places elsewhere.

        I believe that the well-being of the gateway communities is connected to the well-being of the wilderness. And the Friends and other conservation groups should play a role. We won’t get there overnight, however, and we will not lose sight of our mission to protect, preserve and restore the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters. Yet, we will always look at news ways to do this work as long as we are able to carry it out and be part of the solution.

    • Jim Maki

      In response to Wever Weed’s post, Thank you!!
      Finally a voice of reason and a common sense position, suggesting that the Friends would have been better served by trying to find jobs, rather than fighting jobs, for the Ely area.

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