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Grant Merritt, environmental attorney who battled Reserve Mining, dies at 88

A descendant of the "Seven Iron Men" who ushered the iron ore industry into Minnesota, Merritt devoted his life to defending the environment, especially Lake Superior.

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Grant Merritt talks to a visitor in a hallway lined with photos from Isle Royale on May 5, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Grant Merritt, an environmental attorney who fought the iron mining industry his ancestors helped create, died at his home in New Hope, Minnesota, on Wednesday. He was 88.

The cause of death is not known, though the family believes it may have been heart-related.

Born Feb. 27, 1934, to Alice and Glen J. Merritt, Duluth’s postmaster, Merritt grew up in Duluth’s Hunters Park neighborhood and graduated from Central High School and the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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Grant Merritt, then 5, and his sister, Mary, 2, in a row boat with parents Glen and Alice Merritt on Isle Royale in 1939. Glen was the postmaster in Duluth.
Contributed / Grant Merritt

After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Merritt earned his law degree and went on to fight Reserve Mining in Silver Bay to get them to stop dumping taconite tailings into Lake Superior, first as a private attorney for grassroots groups and then as the first commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency from 1971-1975.

“It’s ironic in that I came from a mining family, but I fought the Armco Republic Reserve Mining Company,” Merritt said in an interview with the News Tribune last year.

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After all, Merritt’s grandfather, Alfred Merritt, and great uncles were the famed "Seven Iron Men" who discovered iron ore on the Mesabi Range and founded the Mountain Iron Mine in 1890.

“But we didn’t try to put (Reserve Mining) out of business, we said you just should go on land with those tailings like every other company in the world,” Merritt said.

Those efforts were successful. In 1980, Reserve stopped dumping 67,000 tons of taconite tailings per day into Lake Superior. Instead, it pumped them into the Milepost 7 tailings basin it built a few miles inland.

And 42 years later, the basin remains in use and, up until his death, Merritt remained a watchdog of its environmental effects. As recently as February, Merritt was emailing and calling the press and government officials to share his concerns on the planned expansion of Milepost 7. Cleveland-Cliffs now owns the former Reserve Mining operation, now known as Northshore Mining.

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Grant Merritt

“He had that living institutional knowledge,” said Andrew Slade, Great Lakes program director at the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. He added that Merritt’s sense of obligation to the environment kept him fighting the same issues for decades. He wanted to see them through.

Slade also worked with Merritt on other recent environmental issues in the Northland, such as the U.S Army Corps of Engineers putting dredged harbor material on Park Point containing metal waste. Like Milepost 7, Merritt worked on a related harbor dredge issue back in the 1970s.

“He just really loved Lake Superior. … He was never going to give up trying to make sure Superior is pristine,” Carolyn Klein, Merritt’s daughter, said.

In his 2018 autobiography, “Iron and Water,” Merritt wrote about gazing out the window of Historic Old Central High School at Park Point, where his ancestors landed in 1855 and 1856, and thinking about the lake instead of physics class.

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“My family history, coupled with a public school education that stressed student participation, provided the roots of my commitment to citizen advocacy in my adult life,” Merritt wrote.

He enthusiastically shared that family history with his children and grandchildren — and anyone who would listen.

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Grant and Marilyn Merritt pose on their island in Isle Royale National Park in 1980 with their children, Stephen, Carolyn (center) and Linda.
Contributed / Grant Merritt

Klein said his love of Lake Superior and the outdoors was passed to his family through camping trips, visits to their property on Lost Lake near Hovland and the family cabin at Isle Royale National Park, which they continue to use under a unique arrangement.

Before finding ore on the Mesabi Range, Merritt's grandfather, Alfred Merritt, had visited Isle Royale as a deckhand on a schooner at age 19 in 1866. He then returned in search of copper and eventually bought 14 islands surrounding Isle Royale and built a cottage on what is now Merritt Island. But that cottage burned and the Merritts settled into a cabin farther into Tobin Harbor.

The Merritt name is found throughout Isle Royale — at the park’s Merritt Island; Merritt Lane, the thin strip of water separating Merritt Island and its neighboring islands from the main island; and Merritt Lane Campground.

Klein remembers when her father would boat around Blake Point — Isle Royale’s northeast tip — and turn into Merritt Lane.

“He would turn the motor off and he would make us just sit there and listen to the quiet because it was so calming … he felt really good outdoors,” Klein said.

Merritt maintained his family’s presence on the island by visiting the cabin for a few weeks almost every year. He figured he only missed four years since his first visit at age 5 in 1939.

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The Merritt cabin is visible from the Snell cabin along Tobin Harbor on Aug. 5. Historically, there were more family cabins in the Tobin Harbor area than in the Belle Isle area, so much so that residents of the latter area referred to going to Tobin Harbor as “going to town.”
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

When Isle Royale became a National Park in 1940, families with cabins on the island were forced to either sell and leave, or opt into a lifetime lease, which allowed the former cabin owners and their children the exclusive right to use the cabins in the summer for the remainder of their lives.

But children who were minors when the park was created, like Merritt, were often left off the lifetime leases. So for 20 years, he lobbied for a fix and finally, in 1977, a compromise emerged: a special-use permit that would allow for children who were minors at the time to access their cabin for life.

That meant folks like Lou Mattson, one of Merritt's Tobin Harbor neighbors, and his family could stay. The Mattsons had a fishery in Tobin Harbor and Mattson grew up with Merritt, getting into hijinks around the island when the two were boys.

He credited Merritt with lobbying for the special-use permits so he and others could have lifetime access to their cabins. He called it “a very good deal” for the families.

“Grant was certainly an advocate for the folks who were at the park,” Mattson said.

Merritt would then form the Isle Royale Original Families Association in 1982, which is still going strong as the Isle Royale Families and Friends Association.

“He realized there was a community that needed to get together to acknowledge the scarce resource that we were all becoming well before the rest of us fully engaged in that,” said John Snell, whose family cabin is within shouting distance of the Merritt cabin. “He was the one who said this is an important tradition out on the island — the sense of connection that the fishermen and other families that existed on the island before it became a national park.”

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The interior of the Merritt cabin Aug. 5.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Snell would often hear Merritt and his family yelling “Wahoo!” to boats passing by their cabin, which he said meant “Hello,” “So good to see you” or “How are you?” in the “Merritt language.”

Merritt hoped the families that predated the creation of the national park would always have a presence on the island.

Snell said Isle Royale meant “everything” to Merritt.

“That’s where his soul was,” he said.

A few years back, Merritt chronicled his life of environmental activism, DFL politics and legal battles in his autobiography titled "Iron and Water: My Life Protecting Minnesota's Environment," published by University of Minnesota Press.

Merritt is survived by his wife, Marilyn; daughters, Linda Tully and Carolyn Klein; sister, Mary Alice Scheibe; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

He is preceded in death by his son, Stephen, and granddaughter, Kaydence Tully.

The family is planning a service for Merritt next month in the Twin Cities. A date has not been set.

The Rev. Skip Reeves will officiate the service. Before his death, Merritt and Reeves wrote a quotation to be read at the service: “Grant had a heart as big as Lake Superior and a spirit to match. He possessed an uncompromising passion to protect our environment!”

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Grant Merritt talks to visitors in his home May 5, 2021. His home is full of photos, books and other memorabilia of Isle Royale, which his forebears first visited in 1866. The Merritt family cabin was built in 1911. Grant advocates preserving the island’s cabins after the National Park Service takes control of them.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Editor's note: This story was updated at 9:10 a.m., Friday, May 20 to include information on Grant Merritt's autobiography. This story was originally published at 9:49 p.m., Thursday, May 19.

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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