'Recycle the Range'

The Virginia Gateway is of Eveleth, a vision that came out of the Virginia Design Charette in 2001. The detailed drawing shows how mining property can be repurposed.

How can Minnesotans “recycle the Range?’’

That is one question University of Minnesota officials, Iron Range communities and the mining companies are trying to answer with “The Laurentian Vision,’’ which has been worked on for more than 15 years now.

The Laurentian Vision partnership has an even more descriptive name for the project: From “Pits and Piles to Lakes and Landscapes.’’with an

Such a project is important with an estimated 250-300 tons of material (including taconite) being moved out of the Iron Range each year, leaving a lake of some size behind.

The area has been known for iron ore and taconite mining for more than a century and has provided steel resources for national infrastructures, war efforts and countless products, according to research compiled by U of M professor John Koepke and former U of M Senior Research Fellow and adjunct​ professor and project manager Christine Carlson.

In the late 1990s, Jim Swearingen, manager of Minntac wanted an improved legacy for the Range. He subsequently asked the University of Minnesota’s Department of Landscape Architecture how to “leave a better legacy for the region other than open pits, abandoned stockpiles and leftover industrial sites.” He was retiring, had grandchildren, and wanted to explore how his industry could help rebuild a better place, Carlson wrote in her research.

The Department took up the challenge on behalf of all Minnesota citizens and, given the extent of taconite mining, included the entire Mesabi Iron Range region as its area of focus.

“For well over a decade, the Department worked with the region’s partners – the iron ore industry, state and local governments, Iron Range businesses and communities to help redefine the landscape from that of an extractive commodity to one of natural and cultural assets. The Department also proposed discussion of alternative economies for this working landscape in order to develop resilience to the ups and downs of the global steel market.''

The Department’s efforts focused on four goals:

1. Improve the state’s reclamation standards to help mining companies and communities better reconstruct biological functioning, habitat, shoreline, forest and other ‘value-added’ landscapes after minerals have been depleted.

2. Build dynamic and effective working relationships among key industry, government, business, community, and education stakeholders.

3. Illustrate how land design can use earth-moving processes during mining operations to rebuild landscape.

4. Promote regional empowerment as a model for alternative development in a mineral-based economy.

To help develop and achieve these goals, community stakeholders participated in design charrettes from 2001 to 2007 throughout the region. Charrettes are intense design workshops organized over several days to solve a specific problem in a cooperative manner.

Based on the ideas generated, the design team of landscape architects would produce future scenarios that would meet all the concerns expressed by the community, each with a different emphasis.

The City of Virginia charrette was sponsored by the city, the Quad City Alliance and the Eveleth mines. Their focus was on the Eveleth Taconite Mining Company’s Auburn pit, a 500-plus acre mine located within the city limits. This was really the first opportunity for Laurentian Vision partners to walk through the collaboration process and develop problem-solving plans addressing the issues the community raised.

Ideas coming out of the charrette included

Distributing 40 million cubic yards of waste rock for community development and islands and mounds created for visual variety and wildlife habitat.

Re-shaping the north end of the former mine pit, which would reconnect the old and new parts of the city; dubbed “Iron Gap.”

Lakeshore property is created around the lakes and connected to the central business district via a new parkway and realigned Highway 53.

Laurentian Lakes are connected by a channel created from an old haul road. Stock piles would be re-shaped and planted. Walking and biking trails would connect to Eveleth and the Mesabi Trail system.

The City of Biwabik charrette in 2007 was hosted by ArcelorMittal Steel and the city. The company and the community wanted to create a 20-year reclamation plan before new mining began. With the support and participation of the regional players, goals were established to address economic development through the re-routing of roads, the development of a land and water trail network, the restoration of beauty, and the maximization of taconite extraction.

Ideas coming out of the Biwabik charrette included:

A new land sculpture that would honor the word, “Mesabi,” which means sleeping man in the Ojibway language.

Re-routing County Road 715 to accommodate further mining in the area. Planning city development with a few new routes in mind conserves energy, resources, and expedites renewal.

A potential new route called “Voyager’s Parkway,” which would open up areas for residential development. Lakeshore housing alongside shallow water wildlife habitats would be situated within walking distance of downtown.

The Laurentian Vision moved from the charrette design phase to small scale implementation to demonstrate that mine reclamation is doable – with two projects moving forward to completion. There was one each at UTAC and HibTac.

United Taconite in Eveleth began the mine reclamation process with one of its stockpiles. Challenges of the project include transforming stockpiles into a community resource, improving appearance and minimizing erosion.

The goals of the project were to reshape the land to a more natural aesthetic, revitalize the soil and reconstruct habitats with plants and trees.

The particular stockpile was made habitable and beautified through plant selection and placement and by minimizing erosion.

Similar efforts were undertaken at a pair of stockpiles at Hibbing Taconite. The restoration targeted the ruffed grouse, which will be at home on the Kleffman Road site near Hibbing because the slope has been graded at a softer incline.

Throughout the reclamation project, mine engineers and mine operators become land shapers. Junior mine engineers and Department of Natural Resources reclamation specialists are also taught land design along the way.

“They have great capacity to make strategic moves during mining that rebuild the mine over time as a valuable future asset for local communities and the state overall,'' the Laurentian Vision documents state. Byproducts and resources removed from mining can then be used as building blocks for future reclamation. “By including these design actions as part of a mining process, they bring these resources back into service to reknit the mine into its local setting.And they create future opportunities for uses that would have been lost had the mine been reclaimed to a less usable state.''

The most recent Laurentian Vision project is at Northshore Mining Company. Cliffs Natural Resources requested assistance in preparing a reclamation plan that meets the DNR's aquatic enhancement guidelines. The Peter Mitchell Landscape Framework Plan came together over a decade of research, collaboration and design.

“It is the perfect opportunity to lay the foundation for reclamation while the mine is still in operation. It is a precedent setting model for future reclamation planning and future implementation. The framework plan can be implemented over the course of 60 years,'' the Laurentian Vision research states.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) is the keeper of the project; and the U of M's Northwest Architectural Archive holds the project’s papers.

Cheryll Fong, Curator of the Laurentian Vision exhibit, and Interim Curator of the Northwest Architectural Archives provided the information on project.

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