Cuyuna Range remix: Could mountain biking and mining co-exist?
CROSBY – Will the economic future of the Cuyuna Range be made in returning to mining, or in a growing recreation industry? Can the two co-exist?
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, Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. executive director, the potential of the minerals left when the mining companies abandoned the area has always been intriguing. For decades Haverkamp's mission has been to increase the diversity of the lakes area 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 BLAEDC, which also oversees the Cuyuna Range Economic Development Inc. (CREDI), started to research mining opportunities. Two of its Exec's Program senior members, Mike Burton and Kevin Egan, went to seminars, traveled and researched. They provided an update at the CREDI 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 mining virtually ending in the 1960s, 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 mountain bike trails challenge locals and visitors alike, drawing international attention to the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area by Crosby and Ironton.
For years, the Rec 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.
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 same acclaimed recreation area could hold the key to substantial prosperity for the local economy. Burton said the mining doesn't have to mean digging and blasting but could start in the stock piles and provide the most immediate return. Starting with the stock pile that isn't part of the trail system but is visible rising by the Ironton Industrial Park just off Highway 210 entering the city was suggested. 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 increase in interest in the red soil of the Cuyuna Range.
"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 BLAEDC, said once there is an active interest the DNR will research mineral ownership of stock piles, 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 if CREDI/BLAEDC 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 and this time after the community picked itself up, Hartman said.
"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 the concern people would be afraid to invest in the trails thinking they won't be there.
Houge said after converting the area into a spot that is desired by people seeking activity, which is witnessed in an increase in 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 Rec area and the bike trails is forever, Houge said. There are businesses in the area that wouldn't be here without the Rec area and the mountain bike trails, Houge said, and he added more are interested in coming to the community because of it.
"There are a lot of things we have to consider," Houge said.
Haverkamp noted a vintage map where Brainerd was identified as the city of mines.
During the mining boom, there were mines in south Brainerd near the South Sixth Street and Buffalo Hills Lane intersection 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 described the positive could be an ability to expand what the Rec area offers with greater financial means that 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 stated 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 township. 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 CREDI 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 he has when they talk about replacing trails 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.
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, adding it wouldn't just change Crosby. "It would change everything."
Hautala said he hopes BLAEDC/CREDI puts equal research into what the mountain biking and recreation is bringing into the community. Hautala questioned if 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.
"We are going to push expansion like we planned before that (CREDI) meeting ever happened."
Haverkamp was also 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."
About the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area
• The state reports the abandoned mining pits and discarded deposit stockpiles now have regenerated vegetation and clear lakes that draw a wide variety of outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
• Often called the Rec area, it has 25 miles of natural shoreline, fishing for trout, northern, bass, crappie and sunfish.
• The nearly 5,000 acres are largely undeveloped.
• There are 118,484 annual visits and more than 3,000 overnight visits, according to the DNR's state park information.
• Wildlife marshes are home to a wide variety of duck species. Bald eagles frequent the area.
• Its history includes being a border area between the Dakota and Ojibwe and as a long portage route between Mille Lacs Lake and the upper Mississippi River.
• Cuyler Adams, who homesteaded in the area in the late 19th century noticed compass deflections while surveying and discovered ore in 1904. The range is named for him and his constant companion a St. Bernard dog named Una.
• The Cuyuna Range was the last of the state's three major iron ranges to be discovered and mined.
• It extends nearly 70 miles from Randall to central Aitkin County.
• The range's boom years were between World War I and World War II when 20 to 30 mines were operational. Nearly 20 mines continued to operate into the early 1950s.
• Abandoned mines left pits 100 to 525-feet deep and rock stockpiles 200-feet high.
• It became a Minnesota State Recreation Area in 1993.
Note: This story was updated to correct the decade mining virtually ended from the 1950s to the 1960s.