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The debate over the economic future of Northeastern Minnesota is often pitted as a choice between encouraging more mining or prioritizing tourism. Center of the American Experiment often explains why this dichotomy is false, because mining helps boosts the local tourism industry by injecting more money into the local economy.
However, if you believe it must be either mining or tourism, the recent outbreak of COVID-19 and the associated closure of businesses deemed “non-essential” by the Walz administration should make the choice blindingly obvious: the mining industry is essential, the tourism industry is not.
Of course, there should never have even been a question about which of these industries is more essential to our everyday lives. We rely on the products that come from iron mines, copper mines, nickel mines, cobalt mines, and every other kind of mine, every single day. The phrase “If it can’t be grown, it must be mined” may have become a bit cliche in the 14 years that the Polymet permitting saga has taken, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
In contrast, tourism and leisure industries are, by definition, what people do in their free time when they have extra money to spend. It’s no surprise that these industries were the first to be declared nonessential during the current “Stay At Home” order issued by the Governor. These industries also suffer during economic downturns, as families have less money to spend on nonessential services when they are struggling to pay their bills.
In all fairness, the mining industry is cyclical and it is subject to fluctuations in commodity prices. These prices are also closely tied to the overall global economic outlook, with demand for metals and minerals falling during recessions. Also, COVID-19 will affect Minnesota’ iron industry because the Big Three automakers (Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler) have shuttered their plants, and the auto industry is a large consumer of American iron products.
This is why Northeastern Minnesota must have a diverse mining economy, where we take action to responsibly develop our copper, nickel, platinum, cobalt, and titanium resources, which are some of the largest undeveloped deposits in the world. The environmentally responsible development of these resources will also help keep local businesses afloat during hard times by making the region less dependent upon one commodity, iron, or tourism.
The people of Northeastern Minnesota support expanded mining in their region, and one would assume the current closure of nonessential businesses would only reinforce this support. Why would they want to put all of their eggs in a nonessential basket?
If Montana and Michigan can approve copper and copper-nickel mining projects, why can’t Minnesota?