Report: Return of metal mining a threat to regional economy
HOUGHTON – A recent study, which is part of a larger local education campaign, has concluded that a return to metal ore mining and processing would damage the economic well-being of the western Upper Peninsula.
Dr. Thomas Power, professor emeritus and former chair of the University of Montana Economics Department, through his organization Power Consulting, Inc., recently completed his 109-page report, “The Economic Impacts of Renewed Copper Mining in the Western Upper Peninsula of Michigan.” Power, who has a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University and has spent more than 40 years as a researcher, teacher and administrator, was contracted in September to do the report by Friends of the Land of Keweenaw. FOLK is using the report in its broader grassroots Mining Education and Empowerment Campaign.
The study recommends that future economic development in Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties continue to focus on “economic gardening” – a term coined by the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance describing a focus on nurturing existing businesses and supporting new start-ups – and the protection and enhancement of a “quality of life” amenity-based economy that has emerged over the last 40 years.
The report, which can be found in its entirety at folkminingeducation.info, summarized the following findings in its executive summary:
There are significant costs associated with mining activities that tend to offset the positive impacts of the high pay associated with mining jobs.
The economies of the western Upper Peninsula have been successfully transitioning away from past reliance on unstable land-based, export-oriented economic activities.
The attractiveness of a place in terms of its social and natural amenities is an important part of that place’s economic base and future economic vitality.
For that reason, economic activities that damage those attractive local characteristics are incompatible with the current sources of economic vitality, and, if allowed to develop, will displace other important economic activities in the region.
The western Upper Peninsula has begun to develop a cluster of entrepreneurial manufacturing firms and other supporting firms built around social and cultural assets, high-tech knowledge workers, attractive small urban areas and high-quality recreational amenities.
“For all of these reasons, it is our professional judgment that a return to reliance on metal ore mining and processing in the western Upper Peninsula would damage, not improve, regional economic well-being and vitality. Instead, the economic development focus should continue to be on local ‘economic gardening’ and further developing the positive economic trends already under way,” the report states.
Power noted the boom-and-bust effect from the short-term lives of mines as a potential threat, and he said in his report that Keweenaw, Houghton and Ontonagon counties make up a set of contiguous counties that were in the top quarter of all U.S. non-metropolitan counties in terms of quality of outdoor amenities. Gogebic and Baraga were in the top half. Combine that with Houghton County being in the top 5 percent of U.S. non-metropolitan counties in terms of concentration of professional-technical “knowledge” or “creative workers,” and the “economic gardening” strategy is more viable than mining, according to Power.
While mining is clearly an important part of “Copper Country” history, Power acknowledges, he uses a wide variety of data to show the region has been transitioning away from mining for more than 40 years.
The recent resurgence of interest in mining, including the Eagle Mine in northwest Marquette County and Orvana Copperwood Mine in Gogebic County, led FOLK to start investigating.
According to FOLK President Linda Rulison, Power’s report will be widely disseminated. It’s available at folkminingeducation.info, and it will be discussed in public presentations – including a November presentation still being finalized with Dr. Power – house parties and meetings with representatives of public and private institutions, including government entities.
“It is vitally important that our citizens have a solid grasp of the many implications of a resumption of mining on the western U.P.,” Rulison said in a FOLK press release. “This excellent report will help them to understand the economic implications.”
The report is one of three action research projects already completed through FOLK’s Mining Education and Empowerment Campaign, with the others being a closer look at mineral rights and property rights, and a description of the emerging quality-of-life economy. Several others are in the works.
“Our goal in all of this was to actively involve our citizens in decision making about new mining,” said Scott Rutherford, campaign director. “What became clear was that the area was just sort of sliding into this.”
FOLK, an all-volunteer organization formed in 1989, currently has about 140 dues-paying members, and Rutherford and FOLK member Linda Belote emphasized that FOLK doesn’t have a position on mining; rather, it’s trying to provide information to help people develop their own positions.
“The campaign’s purpose is for people to get educated, it’s not to give them a decision,” said Belote, a former dean of students at Michigan Technological University. “We’re not presenting to them that we want you to take this stand or that stand. What we’re saying is we want you to know what’s happening, and speak your voice, whatever it is.”
While FOLK lists in its mission to protect and preserve the ecological integrity of the Lake Superior Watershed, Rutherford emphasized that it’s not a choice between the environment and the economy.
“I think it’s the economy and the environment working together to produce our long-term prosperity,” he said.
For more information about FOLK, visit folkup.org, and the report and a library of other mining resources are available at folkminingeducation.info. Information about upcoming events, including house parties and presentations, many of which are still being finalized, will also be included on the two websites.