Mesabi Daily News: IN D.C., A CHANGING TONE ON WITHDRAWAL
The meetings were set in a private hallway on Capitol Hill last week, just outside the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar emerged first, and at a separate meeting time U.S. Sen. Al Franken briefly left the hearing for one of President Trump’s most important appointments.
A coalition of six representatives from the Iron Range were waiting for the lawmakers, packets of information in hand.
The gatherings were orchestrated as part of a larger effort by the Range delegation to persuade Washington to roll back a proposed mining activity moratorium on more than 234,000 acres of federal lands in the Superior National Forest. Less than a week earlier, the U.S. Forest Service collected public comments and extended the deadline by 120 days, but the cordial face-to-face time with senators, congressmen and agencies was a measured lobbying effort to hear the impacts from the Range itself.
“So many of these decisions will be made in Washington,” said Congressman Rick Nolan, D-Minn., one of the many lawmakers to meet with the delegation, in a phone interview Friday. “If you don’t show up, Washington doesn’t know you exist.”
A federal decision on the withdrawal of mining lands isn’t expected for months, but the Range delegation sensed changing winds over the moratorium, citing a different tone to the same conversations some members had with the Obama administration in April 2016, before the acreage was temporarily removed from future activity.
“Our advocacy this week seems to be moving the needle,” said Kyle Makarios, vice chair of Jobs for Minnesotans and director of government affairs for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. “Elected officials from both parties acknowledged that the mineral withdrawal proposal was a regulatory overreach, they’re well-briefed on the issue, and we seem to be making real progress at ensuring that responsible mining will be allowed to continue throughout Northern Minnesota.”
Nolan said the agencies and other Minnesota representatives, particularly Sixth District Congressman Tom Emmer, R-Minn., were impressed with the group’s knowledge and articulation of its message to Washington. He expected sympathetic lawmakers to offer goals and objectives to the group to help them persuade federal decision makers on the issue.
The group said it found willing listeners in Klobuchar and Franken in the brief, but productive meetings outside the Senate hearings. An exchange between Congresswoman Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Ely Mayor Chuck Novak proved the only tension. McCollum, of St. Paul, has been an adamant supporter of banning mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Rainy River watershed, publicly trading barbs with Nolan earlier in the year.
“Seeing Congressmen Nolan and Emmer working in a bipartisan way gave a real sense of optimism that our voice is being heard,” said Aurora City Councilor Dave Lislegard, who is also a board member of Jobs for Minnesotans. “However, we know the fight is far from over. It’s critical the region continues to be engaged and ensure that our families and communities get the results and opportunities we deserve.”
Meeting later with members of the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior (BLM), Range delegates met with Kathy Benedetto, acting deputy director of the BLM, among others in the agencies.
Benedetto, a geologist who founded the Women’s Mining Coalition in 1992 to educate and work with members of Congress, anticipated a changing mind set in the bureau, but is awaiting confirmation hearings for directors and other staff. She stressed the importance of the process the withdrawal action is currently on, a sentiment shared by other agencies and a described trait of new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Montana congressman.
“New leadership in the Department of the Interior and Agriculture should lead to a fresh perspective on the future usage in the Superior National Forest and hopefully for the future economic stability of our region,” said RAMS Executive Director Steve Giorgi. “We were assured by both the USFS and the BLM that the request for withdrawal can be reconsidered by the new administration.”
Lawmakers and agency representatives were left with packets from the delegation containing information, opinion pieces from local media and resolutions passed by local municipalities and organizations against the withdrawal action.
Among the details were how mining, the proposed projects in the withdrawal area, and the moratorium itself would impact the economy and livelihood of Northern Minnesota.
“We made it very clear to our elected officials where the people of the region stand on this withdrawal issue,” added Frank Ongaro, executive director of MiningMinnesota.
Nolan called the visit an important one, noting the numerous organized efforts in Washington by anti-copper-nickel groups. While the decision can still be stopped or withdrawn any day by the Trump administration, the expectation leaving Washington was that the process will work itself through, but with a different set of ears.
In the meantime, said Nancy Norr, chair of Jobs for Minnesotans and a regional development director for Minnesota Power, it will be important for the Range advocates and communities to keep their foot on the gas pedal.
She was also confident the federal agencies are listening and will scrutinize the socioeconomic impacts as the process moves along.
“It’s not lost on us that [anti-copper-nickel groups] worked hard to achieve what they achieved in the waning days of the Obama administration,” she said, anticipating more lobbying trips to Washington. “We are going to have to work equally hard.”