When Cindy Stene drives across the Iron Range these days, she becomes rather emotional.
During a recent trip from Grand Rapids to Ely to Gilbert and back, “I had tears in my eyes — seeing all the signs that have sprung up,” she said.
She’s talking about “Iron Range Proud” yard signs. Displayed prominently under the word “PROUD” is the hashtag: #fight4miningMN.
Stene and 12,000 of her closest friends have been fighting that fight together now for a good year and a half.
Though she lives in Grand Rapids, Stene’s family has called the Ely and Babbitt areas home. And she, along with Joe Baltich, owner of Red Rock Wilderness Store and Northwind Lodge near Ely, joined forces to get the ball rolling on a fight that’s improtant to so many.
They formed a nonprofit group dedicated to fighting for mining and educating the public on its importance to Minnesota, the nation and the rest of the world.
What started as a Twitter campaign and social media group has extended beyond, with board members encouraging those who may or may not be vocal on the Fight For Mining Minnesota Facebook page to get involved — in some way.
Currently, the group is seeking volunteers to walk or ride in Fourth of July parades in Ely, Nashwauk-Keewatin, and Aurora, and then possibly during Grand Rapids’ Tall Timber Days parade in early-August.
Fight For Mining Minnesota — or FFMM or F2M2 for short — all began following the Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, announcement that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management had initiated the process to withdraw more than 230,000 acres of federal land and minerals in Northeastern Minnesota from future leasing, exploration and potential development.
Twin Metals Minnesota, seeking to build a copper-nickel mine near Ely, held two expired mineral leases near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness dating to 1966. The Obama administration denied their renewal on the grounds that future mining would contaminate the region’s watershed.
Baltich “was so angry with the announcement that could put mining on hold for 20 years (in that region), that he began the (Facebook) group,” Stene said. “He added me within the hour.”
Stene, at the time, was working on a master’s degree in creative non-fiction writing, and had been exploring the topic of mining for two years.
“I said, if there was anything I could do to help… Twenty-four hours later we became best friends — for the next year and a half of our lives.”
That friendship continues, and Stene, FFMM’s chief operating officer, jokes that she and Baltich, the group’s chief executive officer, sometimes talk with each other on the issue of mining more than they do altogether with their own spouses.
FFMM “took off,” Stene said. “We had 10,000 members by the end of that first weekend.”
Soon Greg Mosher, of Ely, FFMM board vice-chairman, and others became involved, including John Stene, chairman, Jane Mosher, treasurer, and member Mike Banovetz.
The “original concept was to get everyone tweeting” regarding the land withdrawal. All the tweeting “gained some attention,” she said. “(Washington), D.C. newspapers started calling Joe and I wondering what was going on.” Pretty soon, “that got us to Washington for the first time.”
Stene said the group wanted “to educate people that mining would not create all the horrors the ‘antis’ were saying.”
She and other FFMM representatives have traveled to the nation’s capital two subsequent times, meeting with the likes of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Reps. Rick Nolan and Tom Emmer Jr., all of Minnesota; U.S. Rep Paul Gosar of Arizona, and U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas — all “big advocates” of mining.
“They were very helpful in showing us how to reach out to people to bend their ears.”
Last month, the U.S. Interior Department announced it had re-instated the mineral rights for the Twin Metals leases — an “important step,” the company said, in the lease renewal process.
Additionally, the PolyMet copper/nickel/precious metals project slated for the former LTV Mining Co., site near Hoyt Lakes keeps moving forward, with the permitting process through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in full gear. PolyMet officials are hopeful the project will be fully permitted this year, and a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service is expected to close today, giving PolyMet full control over the ore body.
PolyMet is slated to create nearly 1,000 jobs — 360 full-time and another 600 indirectly.
But work remains on the road to eventual production and paychecks; the fight for mining in Minnesota continues.
Deneese Johnson, of Tower, wife of former Minnesota Sen. Doug Johnson, DFL-Tower, actively posts to the FFMM page.
“To me, it gives the silent majority a voice,” she said. “There are so many people who are pro-mining, but they haven’t had the ability to join together like the anti-mining folks.”
After all, “there is strength in numbers,” she said. FFMM “helps to further the pro-mining message. Plus, it’s a great group of people.”
FFMM has a number of educational materials and talking points available to members.
“That helps, to be able to look up actual facts and quote them,” Johnson said.
Many of those materials detail FFMM’s mission to “develop sound mining practices guided by science, engineering, and environmentally sensitive standards set forth by the State of Minnesota, the modern mining industry and individual residents.”
FFMM states that: “We understand that every venture presents inherent risk. Should a problem occur in mining, our people will mitigate it, improve it, and move forward. We trust the scientists and engineers paid by our tax dollars to do their job in assuring that our lands are protected.
“We remain opposed to the illegal dumping of metals into the U.S. Minnesota has a proven track record of coexistence and we have mined near the pristine nature of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for over 100 years. We know that relying upon China and other countries for metals has and continues to result in massive worldwide pollution that affects the entirety of the United States, including the BWCAW.
“It rains down upon us because our global economy is not committed to preserving our global ecology. We do not support the simple-minded conclusion of ‘Not in My Back Yard’ when it comes to mining. Minnesota and the Iron Range has 100 years of proof that we have done it better and can continue into the future.”
“We are all concerned about our environment,” said Stene, who has five children and a grandchild. “We want to stay on the Iron Range.”
Unlike other parts of world, such as China, she said, “we have strict regulations and environmental policies.”
FFMM is not against tourism, but states that it is an industry that is declining, including around the BWCAW, and it cannot solely support the area’s economy.
“We realize that the estimated $2.4 trillion dollars worth of minerals located outside of the Boundary Waters will have far more impact on this region than the Boundary Waters alone,” according to FFMM.
“… We do not ask that we replace outdoor recreation with mining because the two have survived side by side for a century. We can and will have both. We support both, knowing they can exist alongside one another in an ecologically sound environment.”
Sales of the Iron Range Proud lawn signs, available at various locations across the Range, “have really taken off,” with close to 1,000 claimed or far, Stene said.
Car window decals with the same logo and FFMM clothing is also available.
The group now has more than 12,000 members, and roughly 8,500 people visit the Facebook page each day, Stene said.
“There are a lot of ‘silent’ members.” But she has no doubt, “they are doing things in their own way,” whether making phone calls or talking with others to fan out the message.
The group will be updating its website this summer to better serve those people who are not on social media, Stene said.
“We appreciate any help we can get” — from marching in parades to sending out tweets to simply spreading the word of the importance of mining in Minnesota, she added.
“We would like to continue to grow our numbers. We are not going away until this issue is solved.”
FFMM is “a great place to share articles one finds on the Internet or in the papers,” Johnson said. “You can share them so others know what’s going on with the pro- and anti-mining people.”
And when it comes to the Iron Range Pride signs, Johnson said her husband always says: “Yard signs don’t vote.”
However, they do stand out and call attention to the topic, she said.
They do demonstrate the great passion felt by many when it comes to fighting for mining in Minnesota.