Opponents of proposed mining projects in the Minnesota’s Boundary Waters have argued that mining would cause environmental damage to some of the state’s most pristine lands which would damage the state’s tourism industry. The mining industry is fighting back and recently commissioned a study that found that mining still drives the regional economy.
The study was commissioned by Mining Minnesota, a copper-nickel industry trade group, and conducted by Praxis Strategy Group. The study covered Cook, Lake, St. Louis, Carlton, Koochiching and Itasca counties in northeastern Minnesota and Douglas County in Wisconsin.
The study found current iron ore mining and directly related industries such as railroads and shipping employ 5,140 people earning $419 million annually, when all of the region's operations are open and running. That compares to about 6,400 direct tourism jobs that total $116 million in earnings annually.
The mining jobs average more than four times the annual pay of the average tourism job, the study found.
Mark Schill, Praxis vice president and the study's author, said the study was intended to elevate the region's "somewhat lagging" economy to be a bigger part of the discussion over copper mining's future in the region.
The study didn't look at other large industries in the region, such as health care, which directly accounts for about 33,233 jobs in the Arrowhead region, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, or about six times the number of mining jobs.
Several mining opponents have said that more mining, especially expansion into new copper mining in northeastern Minnesota, won't be compatible with the region's successful tourism industry that is largely based on clean, scenic waterways such as Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Some critics have said the potential threat from copper mine pollution could destroy parts of the region's tourism industry, pushing visitors to spend their money elsewhere.
The study notes that mining jobs average $81,500 in annual pay compared to $18,000 for tourism jobs. That difference would only expand if Minnesota advances proposed copper mines such as PolyMet and Twin Metals, the study concludes.
In February, mining opponents released the results of a study they paid for that found the BWCAW brought in $57 million in spending to St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties in summer 2016, with a total economic impact of $77 million from summer visitors who live outside those counties.
The report equated the Boundary Waters to an export for northeastern Minnesota, because so much money comes in from outside the immediate region. And of those outside visitors — mostly from the Twin Cities, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan — more than half reported household incomes of $100,000 or more. That study found about 1,000 jobs are supported by visitors to the wilderness area, which range from outfitters, lodging, food service and other retail and government positions.
The Praxis study did not include restaurants or food service in figuring tourism jobs.