TOWER — At the end of January, the six Ojibwe bands forming the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe based in Cass Lake wrote a letter in support of a federal bill to ban copper-nickel mining in Superior National Forest, in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
MCT President Cathy Chavers signed a letter presented during a congressional hearing that backs H.R. 5598, a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Better McCollum, a DFLer representing the Fourth Congressional District in Minnesota, to permanently ban new copper-nickel mining here. The letter references Twin Metals Minnesota, a company owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, which seeks to build an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely.
Several days later, trades unions began calling State Sen. Tom Bakk to condemn the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in his northeast Minnesota district for being part of the tribe’s letter. They specifically pointed fingers at Chavers, the chairwoman of the Bois Forte, saying that in signing the letter she attacked the proposed copper-nickel projects they hoped would boost the economy of the region.
Previously, Twin Metals representatives told the Hibbing Daily Tribune that it expects to hire 700 people at an underground mine and create 1,400 indirect jobs. The company submitted an operating plan to state and federal regulators for environmental reviews. Still, there remains no expected timeline for that to finish. PolyMet’s permitting process took nearly 15 years, and remains in legal limbo.
Banking on such promises, the trades union told Bakk they wanted to boycott the band-owned Fortune Bay Resort Casino and The Wilderness Golf Course on Lake Vermilion for being attached to the MCT’s letter, even though it was the tribe and not the band that authored the letter.
Living 10 miles from the lake, Bakk spent preparing for the session opening after being usurped as the Minnesota Senate Minority Leader. The notion of trades unions cutting off the resort and golf course weighed heavy on Bakk, a retired union carpenter staff who served as president of the Iron Range Building, since those had been the stages for his annual campaign fundraiser in August for more than a decade.
Earlier this week, Bakk called Chavers. The way he tells his story, they know each other and their families played softball together. But the shared history did not stop him from siding with the trades unions, canceling his event at Fortune Bay and rescheduling it for a later date at Giants Ridge in Biwabik.
“I have a lot of roots in building trades and labor,” Bakk told the HDT during a phone interview Friday. “I have so many friends there. Lots of them come to my event every year and I don’t want them to be uncomfortable about the location.”
The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is comprised of about 41,000 members of six bands: Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and White Earth. The Fond du Lac and Grand Portage bands have publicly challenged proposed copper-nickel mining projects in the state. But the Bois Forte, with about 3,500 enrolled members, has not yet announced a solo opinion on copper-nickel projects proposed in an area that directly affect 700 members residing across three sections of the nearby reservation in Deer Creek, Nett Lake and Tower.
As far as anyone can tell, this is the first time the MCT has publicly voiced their concerns over copper-nickel mining as a whole. Despite applause from many members across the state, the Bois Forte has been singled out for being part of the organization and is now experiencing the backlash.
Bakk told the HDT that his was the first organized event on The Wilderness Golf Course when it opened in 2004. He still goes golfing there and frequents the Sunset Steakhouse and does not plan to stop visiting the band-owned resort, which employs more than 500 people and injects more than $300 million into the regional economy.
“I’m not going to personally boycott the Bois Forte,” Bakk said. He added, “It’s the MCT. The problem for Cathy is she’s the chair of the Bois Forte and she gets implicated by association.”
Despite Bakk’s business at Fortune Bay, his canceling of the event carries weight with the trades unions. Despite his friendship with Chavers, does his decision to relocate the event give the impression that it is fair to hold the Bois Forte solely responsible for the MCT’s letter?
“I just want my golf event to be successful and people have to come,” Bakk said in response to the HDT’s question. “It’s the only fundraising event I do and it’s election year. Events aren’t successful if people don’t come.”
The HDT contacted Chavers and MCT Executive Director Gary Frazer over the phone Friday, but both declined to comment. The HDT also reached out to State Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, who attended the Bois Forte State of the Band at Fortune Bay on Jan. 23, but he declined to comment through a legislative assistant.
On Friday night, Chavers sent a comment via email to the HDT. “Tom Bakk and I have been friends for over 40 years and I look forward to being his friend for 40 more,” she wrote, according to the email from Brian Anderson, director of sales and public relations at Fortune Bay. “We have agreed on many issues and when our positions have diverged we have always had an open and honest discussion.”
In the fall of 2015, the Duluth Downstream Business Coalition created a stir in northern Minnesota when it took a stance against the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mining project near Hoyt Lakes. In response, the owners of Silver Creek Liquors in Mountain Iron and Rocket Liquors in Virginia stopped carrying a product of Bent Paddle Brewing Co., one of the businesses that founded the coalition.
About one year later, the Silver Bay City Council on the North Shore voted to remove Bent Paddle Brewing Co. products from the shelves of the city’s municipal liquor store and lounge. The move caused division among city residents and Bent Paddle representatives said they were confused over becoming a “lightning rod” for the PolyMet issue, according to the Duluth News Tribune. Still, they reported being unaffected by the removals in Silver Bay and across the Iron Range and gaining support from customers in Ely.
At the time, Silver Bay Mayor Scott Johnson, who voted against the removal of Bent Paddle, questioned the boycott. “It’s my opinion you don’t govern by threat or intimidation and I think that may have played a part in it,” he said, according to the DNT. “I hope they learned a lesson. I wouldn’t want to be knee-jerking to everything that’s threatened or perceived.”
While Bent Paddle remains a loaded name on the Iron Range, the boycotting of that business begs the question: Bakk canceling his event and siding with the trades union pits the pro-copper-nickel mining forces against the Bois Forte and Fortune Bay, but to what extent?
On Friday morning, Ely Mayor Chuck Novak took to Twitter to show that he is one of the Iron Range mayors in support of all copper-nickel mining. “Thank you Senator Bakk for canceling your annual event at Fortune Bay and moving it to Giants Ridge. IRRRB and the trades should follow suit. The Fun Run should follow suit.” (Novak described how Minnesota’s Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board holds events at Fortune Bay, as does the annual snowmobile event called the Fun Run which covers Tower, Ely and Babbitt.)
Novak told the HDT that the city of Ely — which he deemed “Ground Zero for Twin Metals” — passed nearly half dozen resolutions in support of “promoting the process moving forward for both Twin Metals and PolyMet copper-nickel mining projects.” He noted that business owners Piragis Northwoods Co. and Canadian Waters Canoe Outfitting in Ely have been critical of copper-nickel mining, but they have not been boycotted and continue to do well with tourists and given their attractive location near the Boundary Waters.
Though Fortune Bay is located in Tower and relies mostly on regional visitors and could suffer from the loss of business. Novak predicted that Bakk’s canceling his event at the resort is “a sign of things to come.” But does he believe it is fair to boycott the business because the band is part of the MCT?
“If they’re going to support Betty McColllum on this bill, that means they are against Twin Metals for sure,” the mayor said about the Bois Forte in response to the HDT’s question. “We want people to get good jobs and spend their money. Why would they go and spend their money to profit an organization that doesn’t support their way of life?”
As first reported by The Timberjay, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s letter expresses support for McCollum’s bill heard in a congressional hearing last week before the House Natural Resources Committee’s Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee in Washington D.C. If passed, McCollum’s measure would expand the “mining buffer zone around the Boundary Waters by an additional 234,000 acres” and essentially stop copper-nickel mining on the lands. It would not prevent iron ore, taconite, gravel or granite projects.
Some members of the Bois Forte say they hope the dust settles on the loss of business at Fortune Bay. Others are supportive of Chavers signing the MCT letter — despite the backlash — since it reflects their beliefs that the Ojibwe tribes are “concerned with the prospect of a series of sulfide mines being developed in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area watershed,” according to the letter dated Jan. 31. Some band members have backed the letter via social media for stating that the watershed of the Boundary Waters, in the 1854 Ceded Territory, “is comprised of vast area of pristine interconnected waterways that have been used by the Chippewa for centuries” and “low buffering capacity of water and soil and the interconnection of lakes and streams, make the BWCA watershed particularly vulnerable to the impacts of mining.”
In recent weeks, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican who represents the Eighth Congressional District, spoke out against McCollum’s bill during his pro-mining rally at the Carpenters Union Hall in Virginia. "I am tired of the Iron Range having to endure these attacks on our way of life,” he said. Stauber opined that McCollum’s bill attacks “our way of life.” The phrase, “way of life,” is a popular political phrase used often in northern Minnesota to support mining. In fact, Stauber recently announced the kickoff of his “Way of Life'' tour at the Range Recreation Civic Center in Eveleth. Yet the MCT also used the phrase in their letter urging the congressional subcommittee to move McCollum’s bill forward as their opposition to copper-nickel mining resulted from trying to defend their own “way of life.”
“We are currently blessed with a healthy environment, a healthy economy and a public resource that offers sustenance and solace,” the letter reads. “All of this is at risk if any mining proposal in the watershed moves forward. It is unacceptable to trade this precious landscape and our way of life to enrich foreign mining companies that will leave a legacy of degradation that will last forever.”
There are other examples of mirrored talking points. For example, Stauber and Iron Range-based state legislators have long laid claim that McCollum is “far removed” from being in-the-know of the needs of northern Minnesotans. But the land being used “by the Chippewa for centuries” throws a wrench in an argument reliant on blaming outsiders for trying to block copper-nickel mining.
“Three MCT Bands, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage and Bois Forte, retain hunting, fishing and other usufructuary rights that extend throughout the entire northeast portion of the state of Minnesota under the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe,” the letter reads “In the Ceded Territory, all the Bands have a legal interest in protecting natural resources and all federal agencies share in the federal government's trust responsibility to the Bands to maintain those treaty resources.”
Over the phone, Bakk continued to talk about his long-standing relationship with the Bois Forte, saying he has “worked pretty hard for them to be successful when they needed things and I’m going to continue to do that.”
“I consider Cathy Chavers a friend. I feel bad we’re in this spot,” Bakk said. “I don’t support McCollum’s bill. I think the Bois Forte made a mistake. They took a position on the bill that’s never going to become law. Zero percent chance. Even if it passes the House the Senate stops it. And even if it passed the Senate, President Trump won’t sign it. We’re in this spot over something that will never happen.”
For all involved, the issue boils down to differing opinions of copper-nickel mining, and whether all ways of life can coexist when those views differ.
Jerry Burnes contributed reporting to this article.