Could MN’s Biggest County Split Up Over Mining?


Tom Rukavina, St. Louis Co. Commissioner

How about Iron County? That’s the latest suggested name for the huge swath of St. Louis County that Commissioner Tom Rukavina would like to split off from the rest of the northeastern Minnesota county.

It could be a big deal in more ways than one. St. Louis County is not only the largest county in Minnesota, but the largest county east of the Mississippi. But that’s not why Rukavina wants a divorce. The split in the DFL family is all about the lack of respect and support for the mining industry the further southeast you go, particularly in Duluth.  The former longtime DFL state representative wants the legislature to give county residents the choice by allowing them to vote on a separation.

It may sound off the wall to Minnesotans outside the Iron Range. But Rukavina’s colleagues on the county board took his loose talk seriously enough to vote down the idea recently, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

The St. Louis County Board on Tuesday passed an advisory resolution against proposed legislation that doesn’t exist yet.

County commissioners, meeting in Hermantown as the committee of the whole, voted 5-2 to reiterate their support for a unified St. Louis County, going on record that any effort to split the county is not on their wish list.

Yet that’s not necessarily the end of an issue driven by ever-deepening divisions over responsible natural resource development with the potential to  transform the regional and state economy.

But it’s clear Rukavina also is miffed over a growing movement in the Duluth area opposing proposed copper mining on the north slope of the Iron Range. While Duluth and the Range have always been linked by railroads and iron ore interests, more southern county residents have been willing to oppose the state’s first copper-mine proposals as an environmental risk not worth taking.

The Range-Duluth rift has even involved beer, with some Rangers like Rukavina boycotting Duluth-based Bent Paddle Brewing Co. and other Duluth-area businesses that formed a group opposing copper mining.

The idea of dividing up the nearly 7,000 square mile wilderness county that borders on Canada goes back 100 years. But Rukavina clearly got under some of his colleagues’ skin.

Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township accused Rukavina of going behind other commissioners’ backs to promote the idea in St. Paul without board support. But Rukavina said it’s time for county residents to vote on the idea of a split, something he said has never been allowed.

“I think we should listen to our citizens,” Rukavina said, noting the county has been around for 162 years. Rukavina called for a county study of the costs and benefits of splitting the county in half. “Show me I’m wrong. Let’s look at the facts. Then let’s let the people decide.”

But where do St. Louis County residents come down on the divide? An unscientific online poll in the Duluth News Tribune suggests surprising support for the split.

Duluth News Tribune Online Poll

There’s a way for citizens to force the issue.

Even without legislative action county residents can petition for a vote on a county split with 28,000 signatures, County Attorney Mark Rubin noted.

It’s a long shot, but clearly the St. Louis County Board isn’t taking chances by sending mixed signals to lawmakers in St. Paul.