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Study says Northland mining industry jobs are worth more than tourism

Train cars filled with taconite pellets wait their turn to be unloaded at the CN dock in Duluth last September. (News Tribune file photo)

With claims by some mining critics that tourism is a more sustainable option than copper mining for the Northland, and with the federal government mulling a moratorium on new mining near the Boundary Waters, industry officials fired back Tuesday with a new study that claims mining jobs still drive the regional economy.

Mining supporters say the study offers proof that mining and tourism can co-exist but that tourism doesn't stand up to mining in terms of economic impact.

Mining Minnesota, the copper-nickel industry trade group in Duluth, paid for and released the report by the Praxis Strategy Group that covered Cook, Lake, St. Louis, Carlton, Koochiching and Itasca counties in Northeastern Minnesota and Douglas County in Wisconsin.

The study found current iron ore mining and directly related industries such as railroads and shipping employ 5,140 people earning $419 million annually, when all of the region's operations are open and running. That compares to about 6,400 direct tourism jobs that total $116 million in earnings annually.

The mining jobs average more than four times the annual pay of the average tourism job, the study found.

"There's a significant difference in the return of different industries. You have much more of an economic impact from mining jobs than tourism jobs," Mark Schill, Praxis vice president and the study's author, told the News Tribune.

He said the study was intended to elevate the region's "somewhat lagging" economy to be a bigger part of the discussion over copper mining's future in the region.

The study didn't look at other large industries in the region, such as health care, which directly accounts for about 33,233 jobs in the Arrowhead region, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, or about six times the number of mining jobs.

Several mining opponents have said that more mining, especially expansion into new copper mining in Northeastern Minnesota, won't be compatible with the region's successful tourism industry that is largely based on clean, scenic waterways such as Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Some critics have said the potential threat from copper mine pollution could destroy parts of the region's tourism industry, pushing visitors to spend their money elsewhere.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, said that's not the case. Copper mining supporters say the region's iron ore mining and tourism industry have thrived simultaneously, and copper mining can co-exist with tourism as well.

"Mining and tourism are so often positioned as adversaries," Ongaro said in a statement. "The results of the Praxis study confirm that the Duluth-Arrowhead region depends heavily on the success of both industries. Mining provides the high-paying industrial jobs we need and tourism creates an appealing quality of life for both visitors and residents."

The study notes that mining jobs average $81,500 in annual pay compared to $18,000 for tourism jobs. That difference would only expand if Minnesota advances proposed copper mines such as PolyMet and Twin Metals, the study concludes.

"Expansion of the Duluth-Arrowhead mining industry offers perhaps the most attainable path to creating good jobs, and future growth in mining will provide significantly more economic impact than equivalent tourism growth," the study states..

The study's authors say Duluth and Northeastern Minnesota aren't keeping up in top-end industrial job creation, falling behind areas such as Fargo and Sioux Falls. Northeastern Minnesota's economy "is not creating enough value for residents and visitors. ... High quality jobs in mining represent a tremendous opportunity to create that value and sustain the future," the study states.

The Praxis Strategy Group is a North Dakota-based "economic research, policy and strategy company."

In February, mining opponents released the results of a study they paid for that found the BWCAW brought in $57 million in spending to St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties in summer 2016, with a total economic impact of $77 million from summer visitors who live outside those counties.

The report equated the Boundary Waters to an export for Northeastern Minnesota, because so much money comes in from outside the immediate region. And of those outside visitors — mostly from the Twin Cities, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan — more than half reported household incomes of $100,000 or more. That study found about 1,000 jobs are supported by visitors to the wilderness area, which range from outfitters, lodging, food service and other retail and government positions.

The Praxis study did not include restaurants or food service in figuring tourism jobs.

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