There is no question the Iron Range has experienced a resurgence in its mining industry.
But the region for decades has endured a turbulent economy and a divisive debate over prospective jobs and environmental protection, with several proposed projects pointing to a continuance of the polarizing fight.
With the winner of a Nov. 6 special election for a two-year term in the U.S. Senate figuring to bring significant influence to policies affecting the the area's economy, mining and natural resources, the News Tribune asked appointed DFL incumbent Tina Smith and Republican challenger Karin Housley to weigh in.
Having endured decades of ups and downs, how can the economy of the Iron Range be stabilized?
SMITH: I'm working to help build a strong, stable, and diverse economy in the region that ensures economic opportunity for the hard-working, resilient and innovative people of the Iron Range. To do that, I've been working hard to expand access to broadband, expand the job training needed for the modern economy, and make investments in scientific research to make sure U.S. mining remains the most efficient in the world. I've also been fighting to improve rural health care to ensure people who choose to build their lives in rural areas have access to the care they need.
HOUSLEY: Much like the rest of the state, the economy of the Iron Range is changing. We need to do what we can to ensure copper-nickel mining brings good-paying jobs to the region - and that its tax dollars bring much-needed revenue to the region's communities. However, we also need to be mindful of working to diversify the region's economy, exploring opportunities for new industries and economic growth.
How have President Donald Trump's tariffs impacted the region, and what do you hope to see in U.S. trade policy going forward?
HOUSLEY: President Trump's tariffs have had an impact on the entire state, but nowhere has there been a more positive impact than northern Minnesota. President Trump kept his campaign promise to stick hefty tariffs on imported steel and it has brought a much-needed boost to our economy, the taconite mines and American steel in general. In turn, people spend more money in our communities and those communities are better able to thrive - and that's what we want to see happen here in Minnesota. The president has recognized that trade in our country has been unfair for too long - and he has taken the appropriate steps toward leveling the playing field. I'm hopeful the president will continue to advocate for a fair and free trade policy that ultimately benefits all of us.
SMITH: For too long, workers have faced layoffs because of bad trade deals and unfair foreign trade practices. We need to crack down on countries that violate international trade rules, particularly China. I pressed the president to take action against foreign steel imports that threatened our national security, and shortly afterwards, he took action. I've also pressed the president to open new markets to buy Minnesota agricultural goods and I'm glad he has recently taken a handful of key steps to do so.
In the long-term, though, we can't rely on tariffs alone to level the global playing field and ensure we have a strong U.S. iron and steel industry. The Trump administration must engage meaningfully with China to make progress in ending their illegal steel subsidies, and I'm concerned that right now, the Trump administration doesn't have a long-term strategy.
Do you believe copper-nickel mining can be achieved at the proposed PolyMet and Twin Metals sites without damaging the region's waters?
SMITH: I believe we can create jobs and opportunity and also protect our environment. Each project should be considered on its own, and must undergo a rigorous environmental review process, based on science and the facts, and include many opportunities for public comment. The same should hold true for copper-nickel mining projects. According to the law, the state of Minnesota has primary responsibility for this environmental review process. PolyMet's NorthMet mine proposal is currently undergoing that review. If it successfully completes this process, including guarantees of financial assurance to protect water quality in perpetuity, then it will go forward.
The Twin Metals project, which would be in the Boundary Waters watershed, has not yet submitted a mine proposal. Demonstrating that a copper-nickel mine can coexist with the BWCA is, and should be, a very high bar to clear.
HOUSLEY: Mining is one of Minnesota's most important industries - and when it comes to copper-nickel mining, I believe we can both protect our environment and mine responsibly, maintaining our clean water while opening the door to a major economic boost. Despite the rhetoric you hear from opponents of copper-nickel mining, there is a way to ensure it is environmentally responsible. With a strong and workable regulatory process in place, Minnesota has some of the strictest environmental standards in the world - which mining companies are required to meet or exceed during the environmental review and permitting process. Plus, today's mining process is responsible, precise and thoughtful, utilizing modern technology and scientific knowledge to better predict, plan for, and prevent or control adverse environmental impacts.
In a region known for pristine lakes and forests, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, are additional environmental policies needed to protect our natural resources?
HOUSLEY: There are already regulations in place to ensure the protection of our lakes, forests and other natural resources that make Minnesota's environment so incredibly pristine. In fact, state and federal regulations are designed to ensure we can appropriately manage our natural resources. Mining has developed in significant ways over the past several decades, and we need to trust state and federal officials to work with developing companies to put the proper safeguards in place to ensure we're caring for our natural resources in the best possible way.
SMITH: Like many Minnesotans, I have a personal connection to Minnesota's lakes and forests, including the Boundary Waters, where my kids have spent many summers. I think all Minnesotans can agree on the need to protect environmentally sensitive areas, and that our policies should be based on sound science and the facts. For example, in the Senate, I have been working to push legislation through that would permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which invests millions in conservation efforts for Minnesota's lands and waters. I am also a strong supporter of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), and I worked across the aisle with Republicans and Democrats to increase funding for the GLRI. We need to continue looking for ways to preserve and protect the natural resources that are so vital to our state.
The debate over economic development and environmental protection has sharply divided the region, state and country. Do you believe it's possible to reach any consensus on these issues?
SMITH: I hope we can find common ground around the goal that northeastern Minnesota should have opportunities for a strong economy, where people have opportunities to make a good living, and where their kids will want to stay to raise their own families, and also protect the water and natural resources that make Minnesota so unique. People have sometimes starkly different views on how to get there, but the goal remains the same. In working towards consensus, we should be guided by science and economics, and by listening to each other. We are Minnesotans. I know that we have what it takes to protect our environment and grow an economy that works for all of us, and especially Minnesotans who live in the north country.
HOUSLEY: Despite the divisions, I believe there is a way to work together and reach a consensus on the economic importance of mining and protecting our pristine environment. We all have an interest in protecting Minnesota's unparalleled natural beauty - but we need to recognize that we can both encourage economic growth in our communities and be good stewards of the environment. We can only accomplish this by working together and listening to one another.