Mining, mountain biking come head to head on Cuyuna Range
CROSBY, Minn. – Will the economic future of the Cuyuna Range be made in returning to mining, or in a growing recreation industry? Can the two coexist?
This summer, the two came head to head during an, at times, tumultuous meeting to introduce the idea of bringing mining back to the Cuyuna Range.
For the people who have invested both time and money into the growing mountain bike trail system in the Cuyuna Country Recreation Area, the idea was startling.
For Sheila Haverkamp, executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., the potential of the minerals left when mining companies abandoned the area has always been intriguing. For decades Haverkamp’s mission has been to increase the diversity of the lakes area’s economic base with a goal of bringing in good-paying jobs. To do that, the focus has often been on manufacturing.The long-dormant mining industry seemed to have the potential to power innovation and prosperity, so the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., which also oversees Cuyuna Range Economic Development Inc., started to research mining opportunities.Two of its Exec’s Program senior members, Mike Burton and Kevin Egan, went to seminars, traveled and did research. They provided an update at CREDI’s annual meeting.The timing came just as a master vision plan was introduced to increase the existing 30 miles of acclaimed mountain bike trails from a current one-day riding experience to three days.After the mining industry abandoned the Cuyuna Range, with the last mines closing in the 1950s, the abandoned mine pits became clear, deep lakes. Discarded earth and rock stockpiles were reclaimed first by trees and vegetation, and more recently by mountain bike enthusiasts.Now 30 miles of biking trails challenge locals and visitors alike, drawing international attention to the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby and Ironton.For years, the recreation area was considered a hidden gem even to lakes-area residents. But a determined group of bike enthusiasts worked to carve out a trail system that spawned a tourism draw for the Cuyuna Range.“I don’t think they were prepared for the backlash from the recreation clubs,” said Crow Wing County Commissioner Doug Houge, who represents the district. The idea of taking away the ground on which the recreation clubs thought they were building a different economic future caught people off-guard.‘Preservation andprosperity’The CREDI presentation spoke of “bringing both preservation and prosperity to the Cuyuna Range as innovation and the economy have changed the possibility of mining returning to the area.”Egan and Burton talked about a rich mining history, saying the natural resources beneath the recreation area could hold the key to prosperity for the local economy. Burton said the mining doesn’t have to mean digging and blasting, but could start in the stockpiles and provide the most immediate return. He suggested starting with the stockpile that isn’t part of the trail system, but is visible rising by the Ironton Industrial Park just off Highway 210 entering the city. Millions of tons of value may be sitting above ground, Burton said.Determining ownership of mineral rights could prove challenging, but what was clear is there is an increasing interest in the Cuyuna Range’s red soil.“Our mineral resources might be very expansive,” Haverkamp said. “We don’t know yet. There are a lot of questions, but a lot of excitement about what our future could be.“It could be a unique opportunity for us to diversify our economy. It wasn’t that our mineral resources went away, their value in the world changed.”Doug Learmont, the consultant working with the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., said once there is an active interest, the state Department of Natural Resources will research mineral ownership of stockpiles, surface and under the surface. Those owners can all be different. It can be a complex and time-consuming task.“This is an interesting area because it’s lain dormant for 40 some years,” Learmont said. “I do find people asking what about the Cuyuna.”John Schaubach questioned whether the economic development groups were was putting the same energy into helping the tourism and recreation industries sprouting out of the grassroots efforts to build the mountain bike trails.Haverkamp said the organizations were created to diversify the economy, and tourism was well-established, so it has focused in other areas.Joel Hartman, maintenance director for the mountain bike trails, said he was afraid the economic development people have the wrong motivation after a depressed area was finding vitality, health benefits and a growing recreation area.The mining companies are just going to leave again, he said, and this time after the community picked itself up.“I really think we have to be more interested in what the community needs,” Hartman said. “We’ll be just like we were when they left before.”There was also concern that people would be afraid to invest in the trails thinking they won’t be there.Houge said that after converting the area into a spot that is desired by people seeking activity – which is witnessed in increased real estate sales and by his own business and others in the area – he would need to be convinced the mining was a long-term opportunity to justify it.The tourism created with the recreation area and the bike trails is forever, Houge said. Some businesses in the area wouldn’t be here without the recreation area and the mountain bike trails, Houge said, adding that more are interested in coming to the community because of it.“There are a lot of things we have to consider,” Houge said.Opportunitiesfor more trails?Haverkamp noted a vintage map where Brainerd was identified as the city of mines.During the mining boom, there were mines in south Brainerd and in Barrows.“Honestly, at first I thought, ‘Oh boy, we are going to start dismantling everything we worked so hard to get in place,’ but in the presentation I think I was able to pick out some positive notes that I think will be a win-win.”Houge said the positive could be an ability to expand what the recreation area offers with greater financial means than are available today.“I think it is going to open up some financial options that would assist in more trails,” Houge said, both from additional taxes and potential conditions on mining opportunities.In their report, Burton and Egan said the DNR controls 12 million acres of mineral rights and in 2013 that was a net income of $70 million. Revenue from leases is divided by ownership, with 80 percent of money from tax-forfeited land going to school districts, the county and cities or townships. Other than a small downturn in 2012, the number of state mineral leases has grown steadily since 2004.Mines also have limited lives. Of the examples presented at the meeting, the range was 14 to 26 years. Burton pointed to the mining jobs in the state averaging $55,000 plus benefits to equal $85,000. Burton did note in some cases the material is taken and processed elsewhere, meaning the majority of jobs may not be here.Conditions may require two miles of trail for every mile lost.“I think some of those opportunities are going to exist,” Houge said. “If it is this pile of ore that is in the rec area, that’s where I think we have those financial opportunities. It’s complicated. It’s very complicated.”Aaron Hautala, Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew president, said a concern when talking about replacing trails is that they keep in mind it needs to mean the same quality and riding experience, not trading the hill terrain for flat land that isn’t connected to the system.Hautala said they will continue to work on the trails and expanding them, and he hopes the state will look to its existing investment in the bike trails. What makes Cuyuna an amazing experience is the stockpile hills of the trails, Hautala said.“Could it work together? I hope so. It would certainly change the entire landscape of Crow Wing County.”Hautala said he hopes the economic development groups put equal research into what mountain biking and recreation is bringing into the community. Hautala questioned whether the 25 years estimated with the mining life cycle was enough.“We have to ensure we have something in place for 100 years,” he said. “I have to be concerned. What we started here with cycling we hope will be here for 100 years.”The goal, he said, is to be a world-class destination, and too many people have worked too hard to let that go.Haverkamp said she was sensitive to the feedback and planned to involve the recreation community representatives. She told them she heard their concerns.“I don’t want it to be one or the other,” Haverkamp said.There could be tough decisions in the future, Houge said.“We need it all,” Houge said. “I don’t want to replace one with the other, and to do that I think would be a setback to the community.“If it is going to benefit our area in a long-term fashion, then we have to listen and to take it seriously.”