Now, mining supporters, among them Representative Rick Nolan, a Democrat who represents Ely’s district in Congress, are trying to undo the moratorium. The battle is being fought on both moral and economic grounds. Mining advocates stress the hundreds of tangible construction and mining jobs this copper-nickel operation could create in the coming decades. Boundary Waters activists argue that the very presence of mining — its disruption of this area’s natural character, not to mention the specter of pollution — could hamper the region’s “amenity-based” development in a multitude of tangible and intangible ways, from destroying property values to stripping away jobs that feed off this area’s natural beauty.
In the land of iron and water, opposition to copper-nickel mining is more than just a protect-the-wilderness stance; it also reflects a deeper desire to change the area’s character, from hardscrabble mining region to tourist destination that prioritizes protecting the wilderness over creating more mining jobs. Central to the debate between the two camps is a philosophical question: What is the right kind of economy for a place like the Boundary Waters?
For as far back as he can trace it, Dan Forsman’s family has lived here, where iron meets water. His great-great-grandfather migrated from Finland in the 1890s and homesteaded on a 474-acre lake. His great-grandfather, Emil Forsman, worked in the mines before opening a longtime Ely watering hole, Forsman’s Tavern. Emil’s son worked as a maintenance foreman in the crusher at an Ely mine. In 1947, Emil’s eldest grandchild was born above Forsman’s Tavern. That boy, Mike, grew up in Ely, worked for a canoe outfitter for $1.25 an hour, volunteered to join the Marines in the 1960s and worked in the mines for 34 years. His youngest son was Dan. Dan grew up in awe of the giant machines that his mechanic father worked to fix. When he turned 20, after training at a two-year community college to become a heavy-equipment mechanic, he got a job at the same mine as his father.
At 4:40 a.m. on a chilly late-spring morning, I pulled up to Dan Forsman’s house to drive with him to work. The diesel engine of his 2002 Chevy Silverado pickup was already growling. He had gotten up 12 minutes earlier, thrown on torn jeans, a T-shirt and a camouflage hunting jacket and packed a lunch: turkey and American cheese on white bread, a banana and a Little Debbie Cosmic Brownie. The 29-year-old tugged down on a cap that advertised the brand of nitrous oxide he uses to soup up car engines. A block away, he steered past his father’s house and the garage where he learned to tinker. His prized car is a 1979 Chevy Camaro; he can get it up to nearly 150 miles per hour on a nearby drag strip.
Forsman drove up the hill of Ely’s business district. Some people call this a mining town, others a tourist town, but East Sheridan Street shows it to be both. There’s the grilled-cheese shop frequented by tourists and the grocery store that stocks the hot smoked bologna local residents swear by. There are liquor stores that boycotted a local brewery after the brewery publicly sided with clean-water advocates, but down the street is a stylish new wine bar serving that same beer. More than a dozen local canoe outfitters that organize trips into the Boundary Waters are based here. Neighboring storefronts display yard signs: “We support mining. Mining supports us.”
“There are two Elys, two different realities, different visions,” Tom Coombe, the editor of The Ely Echo and a fourth-generation Elyite, told me.
As Forsman’s truck rumbled to the top of the hill, we passed a two-story building that used to be Forsman’s Tavern. Now it’s occupied by Piragis Northwoods Company, a successful canoe outfitter and outdoor store. Steve Piragis has run this shop a decade longer than Dan Forsman has been alive, but Forsman’s family still considers Piragis an outsider — a “packsacker,” the local term for people who moved here for wilderness instead of mining.
Past the city limits and into the heart of Minnesota’s Iron Range, fog lifted over white pine trees. A ring-necked pheasant strutted alongside Wolf Creek Pass. As Forsman parked in the same lot his father used to park in — 52 minutes door to door — steam poured from four chimneys.
Forsman is proud of his part in this 360-employee mining enterprise. He’s proud that his labor makes something tangible: Huge chunks of rock become tiny bits of rock, which are ground and baked into half-inch pellets containing 67.5 percent iron, which leave this processing plant on the rails at a rate of 8,500 tons a day. The pellets are loaded onto ships in Duluth, where they float along Lake Superior to the other Great Lakes. At the bottom tip of Lake Michigan, just east of Chicago, tons of these pellets are fed into the largest blast furnace in the Western Hemisphere and smelted into steel, eventually becoming cars or trucks or household appliances or plate steel for ships and armored vehicles.
Up a flight of metal stairs, Forsman entered the locker room, put on his blue coveralls and laced up his steel-toed boots. Everything in his workplace seems improbably enormous. The mining trucks, with their 12-foot-tall tires, can haul 240 tons of rock from the open-pit mines into the processing facility. Miles away, off a gravel road as wide as a six-lane highway, 280,000 pounds of explosives had been loaded into 132 16-inch-diameter holes in a mining pit — it was blast day. The explosions would shake the earth, breaking up rock for the processing facility. The pit looked like a gray moonscape.
“To make money, you have to make something that wasn’t there,” Forsman told me. “You dig it up or you grow it. Without those things, you’re just making nothing. Without the basic minerals to make a phone, you can’t make an app for the phone. Because there’s nothing there.”
Forsman says he loves and wants to protect the Boundary Waters. He also believes copper mining and clean water can coexist. Then again, the mine that Forsman works in is a taconite mine, not the type of copper-nickel mine that environmentalists decry as a threat to this watershed. But what matters most to Forsman is the need for jobs in this hollowed-out region. Ely’s population has shrunk 30 percent since 1980; school enrollment is a third of what it was in the late 1960s. “If they stop this new mine, what’s the draw to be up here if there’s no jobs?” Also, he notes, those who oppose new mining jobs — “elitists” and “hypocrites,” Forsman calls them — benefit from the same metals that blue-collar workers like him produce. “People don’t understand where things come from anymore,” he said.
When Forsman refers to these “people,” he’s often referring to one person in particular. Her name is Becky Rom, and she is the head of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. What makes him most angry is Rom’s condescension, her moral certainty: “The way she comes off, her attitude and way of doing this, it’s part of the problem.”
“Danny Forsman drives to the mine in his truck, comes home and watches TV, and he doesn’t know this world exists,” says Becky Rom, a 68-year-old lawyer who returned to her childhood home after retirement and now leads the environmental campaign. One afternoon this spring, I stood on a dock with Rom and her husband, Reid Carron, as they lowered a canoe into the South Kawishiwi River. Rom dangled her feet over the water, which was a couple miles of portages, rivers and rapids from the southwestern border of the Boundary Waters. Chokecherry and juneberry trees were in bloom. Sometimes Rom sees moose, otters, timber wolves or black bears. Today a blue jay hopped along the shore near where a beaver had built a lodge of alder limbs. Rom guessed newborn beavers were inside.
Rom has an energy that can be difficult to keep up with, whether she’s channeling it into hourlong soliloquies about the history of the Boundary Waters or a breakneck march into the wilderness. Rom slid into the canoe, her husband in back and me in the middle. The water beneath us was nearly black, tannin-stained, jarringly cold. A few years ago, an environmental group cited the South Kawishiwi as one of America’s 10 most endangered rivers because of the possibility that Twin Metals would begin mining for copper-nickel nearby.
Rom has become the most prominent foe of copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters. She makes frequent lobbying visits to St. Paul and Washington to drum up support from administrative and elected officials. Her group commissions studies and opinion polls; she takes part in public debates. But even the miners who hate her most wouldn’t dare call her a packsacker. Rom’s family has lived in Ely as long as the Forsmans. Her grandfather, Caspar Rom, emigrated from Slovenia in the 1890s. In December 1917, three weeks after his ninth child was born, Caspar Rom was leaning over an ore car when a cave-in crushed his head. That newborn son was Bill Rom, Becky’s father. He hunted and fished with his brothers to help his mother put food on the table. In 1946, he opened Canoe Country Outfitters, soon one of the most successful outfitters around. Three years later, Becky was born.
Her father became a leader in the fight for the federal Wilderness Act, whose passage in 1964 helped create federally designated wilderness areas. During the battles over the tightening of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness regulations in the 1970s, Bill Rom became a symbol among local residents, who for generations had enjoyed this land with few restrictions, of environmentalism run amok. Under new rules, airplanes were banned, which meant no more flying seaplanes into remote lakes. Resorts were torn down. Motorboat use was limited. Resentful local residents harassed Rom. In 1975, logging trucks blockaded his business on two of the busiest weekends of the year. Snowmobiles buzzed around his house at night to keep the Roms from sleeping. Becky’s brother camped inside the family business with their dog and a gun. Eventually, Rom sold his business rather than endure protests from people he grew up with.
But his cause left a lasting imprint on his daughter. After Rom and her husband, Reid Carron, retired from the largest law firm in the Twin Cities — she was a commercial real estate lawyer, he a management labor lawyer — they moved north in 2012 to a modern log cabin they had built on land her father bought decades before on Burntside Lake. Today a copy of the 1964 Wilderness Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson hangs on Rom’s bedroom wall.
Rom maneuvered the canoe toward the other side of the river. Docks jutted into the water, evidence of homes hidden in the trees. She lifted her paddle and gestured toward some white pines: “This would be all mines,” she said. “The noise, the lights, the dust, it would be everywhere.” A woodpecker pounded its beak into a tree. A smallmouth bass hunting mayflies broke the river’s surface.
The edge of the Boundary Waters is several miles from three mineral deposits that Twin Metals hopes to develop and just a half-mile from a fourth one. The deposits are near or under lakes and rivers that stream directly into the Boundary Waters. Acid mine drainage could potentially flow past 30 resorts, outfitters and campgrounds, as well as hundreds of homes, before reaching the Boundary Waters at Fall Lake. From there, water enters Basswood Lake, a popular fishery that straddles the Canadian border, then Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park and then Voyageurs National Park and Rainy Lake. All told, polluted water could theoretically affect up to 2.3 million acres of American and Canadian public lands, according to a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Hydrology. Pollution could harm fish, wild rice and property values. (This sounds alarmist to those who support underground copper-nickel mining near Ely; the multiyear process of planning the mine and clearing it with regulators would, they believe, set up ample safeguards against pollution.)
Rom and her husband climbed out of the canoe. Back in town, they pointed out thriving enterprises. One family company makes outerwear, which nicely complements the family’s other business, a lodge that runs winter dogsledding trips. An outfit called Crapola makes cranberry-apple granola. An art gallery displayed prints from a nature photographer. A fancy new restaurant, a spa, a gift shop that also sells saunas, a renovated historic theater looking for a tenant — Rom regards all these small businesses as evidence that the future here will not replicate the mining past. The jobs may be seasonal or not pay as well as mining jobs; on the other hand, they are not as backbreaking and they foster a local creative class. Last year, National Geographic Adventure ranked Ely as one of the world’s nine best outdoor towns, citing its proximity to vast public lands. Only one other American community — Moab, Utah, near Arches and Canyonlands national parks — made the list.