The dueling realities of the Iron Range

Hibbing Taconite mine overlook at the old tourist center. Proceeds from taconite taxes are used to support local projects. A grant to the Fond du Lac band for clean water was delayed. Photo by Aaron Brown.

I’ve lived on the Iron Range my whole life, always within sight of the steam cloud from an iron ore mine. When I was young I wanted to leave the Range. As I got older I wanted to change the Range. But after 20-some years of writing about the place I find that my shirts are starting to look like my dad’s shirts: Dickies and plaids. I sharpen my knives a lot more often these days. And a couple years ago I started taking authentic Finnish saunas, the kind where your swim trunks stay in the dresser drawer with the flip-flops. I’m very nearly in my final form, round and obstinate.

I’ve come to love this place and its people, both of which have been good to me. As a writer, teacher and involved citizen I’ve come to know more about local history, politics and industry than I ever thought I would. So whether the Iron Range is some strange corner of the state to you, or home, sweet home, I have come to speak 21st Century truth about Northern Minnesota’s Land of the Mesabi.

Here on the Iron Range we live in two different realities. One reality seems to pervade local televisions, newspapers and social media feeds. In this reality our mining economy is strong but enemies from other places seek to destroy us in some infuriating, shape- shifting way. Something about plastic bags and gender-neutral pronouns. “Enviros” and big city liberals muster around our castle walls ready to take our guns and shovels. New nonferrous mining projects like PolyMet or Twin Metals become our only hope in restoring the thousands of jobs lost over the past several decades. Opposition to those projects is a cruel, personal affront by people who couldn’t possibly understand us.

In this reality we can talk about mining only in the terms dictated by trade groups and the companies themselves. Suggesting any weakness or folly in our mining economy is akin to opposing mining itself. And, politically speaking, that is unforgivable. Bad economic news is someone else’s fault. Good economic news is a reward for obedience.

In the other reality, however, we see a different story. In this reality an impending ore shortage at Hibbing Taconite is of grave concern. So is the fundamental weakness of U.S. Steel. This company, a wisp of the one that ruled the world 100 years ago, still controls the fate of the state’s largest mine at Minntac.

Here in this reality iron ore production is high, but Iron Range towns, schools and other businesses all seem stuck in an economic funk.

Opioid addiction and the crime that comes with it affects most families in some way. Addiction is a disease of desperation, a scourge across rural America, and no less of a problem here than any other rural place.

In this reality, even stalwarts of mining understand the limits of a mining-only local economy. Automation and consolidation have destroyed the old high employment mining industry in favor of an efficient, high-tech mining industry. 

Thus, if the Iron Range is dependent on mining, good times will never be good for all. And bad times become very bad, very quickly.

Yes, in this reality, what I call “actual reality,” I meet Iron Rangers who wonder if the equity in their home will still exist by the time they retire in the not-so-distant future.

Entrepreneurs wonder whether to sign the dotted line when their investment could evaporate with the next regional slump. 

These aren’t hypothetical examples. Nor do the people I’ve talked to hold any particular political agenda. This is just what you hear. And yes, here we contend with political challenges, such as environmental policies and the role of public dollars in economic development. But these factors run far secondary to our political, emotional and strategic dependence on a single industry with an aging business model. Our local leaders lack lasting curiosity in alternatives and seem to benefit most from things staying the same.

Like I said, I’ve lived here my whole life. And sometimes you hear the sentiment: “Get it while you can.” Pad your retirement. Buy your toys. Put some money in the bank. We don’t control the future, so just get while the getting is good.

But that’s a hollow worldview. It excludes most of the local population from any meaningful prosperity and remains a short-sighted strategy for everyone else. As Iron Rangers, are we just a bunch of weasels stealing eggs from the chicken coop before the farmer wakes up? If so, we already know what fate awaits us.

I know from my classrooms, from my conversations, and from my experiences that the region can do more for itself. Young entrepreneurs still want to start businesses. Artists want to create. A meaningful life built alongside nature and industry is possible here.

No, we need not agree about mining policy or politics to make life here better, perhaps better than it’s ever been. But we must agree on reality. And the reality is we must diversify our economy and open the imaginary borders we draw between us and the rest of the world.