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Deputy Secretary of the Interior's View: Minnesota mining has big potential to put 'America first'

Minnesota is uniquely blessed with the mineral-resource wealth of the Iron Range. Ore from the Iron Range was fired and forged into the vast majority of the steel that supplied our nation during World War II. At that time the United States supplied over half of the world's steel. Today, our nation finds itself largely dependent upon foreign nations for many important resource needs, including critical minerals, despite our tremendous geological resources.

The Department of the Interior — which manages 20 percent of the acreage in the United States, or one in every five acres — is working hard to decrease this foreign dependence. Under the direction of President Donald Trump, Interior is focusing on economic development in rural America. Public lands throughout our nation have vast mineral resources that belong to every citizen in this country.

Minnesota is the largest producer of iron ore and taconite in the United States, and Minnesota's strong mining tradition continues today. Areas of Minnesota, notably the Duluth Complex, are known as among the world's largest undeveloped deposits of platinum group metals, a critical mineral group that is crucial to advancing our tech economy.

The previous presidential administration made it a priority to take a lot of these resources off the table. The Trump administration has changed course. On Dec. 20, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to support domestic production of critical minerals. Under the bold leadership of President Trump and Secretary Ryan Zinke, Interior has reversed course, and we are all in on America.

Interior has freed up more than 10 million acres to mining exploration from California to Nevada that the last administration sought to close. In order to streamline permitting, Interior has proposed common-sense policies to reduce overly complicated and confusing, thousand-page environmental documents so they are more readable and better inform decision-making.

We have set aggressive goals to finish environmental analyses within one year on normal projects. Interior also has reduced permitting approval times by reforming our business processes. Documents do not simply sit for weeks or months on a bureaucrat's desk in Washington.

In the past, entities like the United States Geological Survey (USGS) used geospatial technology in countries like Afghanistan to identify potential mineral resources. Today, the Trump administration has moved these efforts back home to better identify domestic resources that belong to the American people.

From precision-guided missiles for our nation's military to computer chips in our cell phones, our reforms promote access to our nation's domestic resources so we do not have to depend on other countries for the minerals we need and already possess. As a nation, we can harness our resources to create job opportunities right now and power our vibrant economy.

Most importantly, access to such resources means more well-paying jobs for folks I met from small towns like Ely and Hibbing. I grew up in a community that was highly dependent on mining jobs, and I know firsthand that these jobs are well-paying jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly salary for a mining employee is over $30 per hour — while the average private, non-farm workforce hourly salary is about $27 per hour. That translates to greater income and perhaps more time a worker can spend at home with his or her family rather than driving further away from home for work or working multiple jobs just to pay bills and get by.

According to USGS, the estimated value of mineral production in the United States today is $75.2 billion, despite our being 100 percent reliant on countries like China for many of the minerals we need. Just imagine what enormous prosperity we could spark in rural communities by producing these resources right here.

It's time to change the game — and bring greater prosperity to rural America.

David Bernhardt is deputy secretary of the Interior. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune in the wake of President Donald Trump's visit to Duluth last week.