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ELY, Minn. — This northwoods town is quiet and closed up for the winter — no throngs of tourists, the snowy streets largely empty. But there's a range of emotions running among residents from hope and excitement to angry defiance.

The Biden administration's decision last week to cancel the leases for the Twin Metals copper-nickel mine marked another dramatic turn in a dispute that has roiled this Iron Range community for decades: Does mining play a role in its future or is it firmly in the past?

Ely is a major gateway to the immaculate Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and some say that tourism is the town's way forward. But mining proponents vowed to fight on.

"We don't stop," said Ely Mayor Roger Skraba, a mining advocate and Boundary Waters guide. He described the lease cancellation as a hindrance, not the end.

The underground Twin Metals mine would produce about 20,000 tons of ore a year for 25 years, for copper, nickel and cobalt, and generate 750 direct jobs.

But environmental groups saw an industrial accident waiting to happen about 15 miles outside Ely, spoiling the boreal wilderness that draws around 150,000 visitors a year. The copper mining industry's track record on leaks and spills is poor. Given that there's water in every direction from the mine, any release could carry sulfide leached from the ore and toxic metals into the Boundary Waters.

The company, owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, vowed to fight the decision.

That didn't stop mining opponents from cheering the Biden administration's action.

People stopped by Becky Rom's table at a downtown coffee shop-wine bar on Thursday afternoon to congratulate her.

"We're on the right track to protecting this great resource," said Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. The next step, she said, is to secure permanent protections for the wilderness.

A woman in a neighboring booth at Northern Grounds called out, "Yay for you!"

Rom countered, "Yay for us!"

Elli Piragis, whose family owns a major outfitting and guide company in Ely, said she hopes the cancellation of the leases helps calm tensions around mining. She read a recent editorial in the Ely Echoc that said: "This battle has been going on for over 50 years and won't end anytime soon."

"I hope that's not true," Piragis said. "I think we're a really cool town and I think we have a lot to offer. I worry sometimes that we're detracting people from living here because it has been a fight for 50 years."

Continued push for mining

Down the block from the Save the Boundary Waters office, the mood at the Up North Jobs Inc. office was defiant.

"If we don't get the Twin Metals project it's going to be an even darker day up here," said Gerald Tyler.

Tyler, who described himself as a retired real estate developer and venture capitalist, moved to Ely two decades ago. He started Up North Jobs Inc. and spends most of his days in the office trying to spur economic development.

Ely is struggling and shrinking, he said, and has been since 1967 when the Pioneer Mine closed. It's too far out of the way for supply chains and distribution to attract major manufacturers, he insists, and cannot sustain itself without mining.

He ticks down the list of what Ely has lost. There's no taxi service, no car dealership and only one grocery store. The hospital no longer offers maternity services.

Tyler vehemently disagrees with the idea that the outdoor recreation industry will build a sustainable future. That's a "myth," he said, "an illusion."

Iron ore mining in Minnesota pays so much more than outdoor recreation hospitality, he said, and offers the salaries, benefits and pensions that can provide for a family.

Nancy McCready agrees. Retired now, McCready used to lead tours at the Dorothy Molter Museum. Her husband is a retired miner. For two decades she led a nonprofit called Conservationists with Common Sense that urges greater access to public lands and waters, including motorized boats, in the Boundary Waters and other areas.

People are frustrated, she said.

"Why haven't the environmentalists done something to give us those high-paying family jobs?" she said. "They've been crying that we need other jobs here for the last 40 years. I haven't seen nothin' moving in. That's all they keep saying: We need something other than mining."

Interest in a change

Rom, who graduated from high school the year Ely's last iron ore mine closed, said the town is resilient.

"Our little community kept chugging along with more and more really interesting people moving into our town," she said, like the Piragis family, explorer Will Steger, and the people who worked at the folk school. "Really interesting people who wanted to live here. It really started changing.

"If you go to the towns that are mining towns and walk through downtown, then walk through our downtown, there's a big difference," she said. "We're doing a lot better."

Piragis said Ely is eclectic now, with a mix of families who have been around for generations and remember the iron ore mining days, and people with fresher roots, drawn by the wilderness. There's been a recent influx of younger people. Some have opened small businesses, she said, and some started working remotely during the pandemic.

She fears the possibility of a new mine may keep people away.

"My dad described it as a dark cloud looming," Piragis said.

Meanwhile, Ely's outdoors business is shifting to a year-round industry, she said, pointing to the growing interest in winter camping. Their family business is expanding and adding a canoe showroom across the street.

A few doors down, inside the Save the Boundary Waters office, Lacey Squier, 32, said she was drawn to Ely three years ago for the chance to live in a rural area. She immediately celebrated the lease cancellation with dinner out.

"We're celebrating small victories every time we're in the woods, reveling in the glory of what is being protected and conserved," Squier said.

Deep pockets

Antofagasta, one of the world's largest producers of copper, hasn't said what it will do about Twin Metals.

"Twin Metals Minnesota is currently in the process of defining its next steps," the company said in an e-mail response to questions. "As to other projects, TMM is the only one in the permitting stage outside of Chile. The company has exploration projects in several countries in the Americas, including the U.S., Canada and Perú."

Twin Metals says it has invested more than $530 million in the Minnesota mine plan. Antofagasta has spent $1.2 million lobbying in Washington, D.C., in the last two years alone, according to OpenSecrets data, plus more in Minnesota.

Rom has said they should go back to Chile.

McCready, Tyler and others want them to stay and aren't ready to concede. They await Twin Metals' next move, holding onto hope.

"There's like over 100 years of copper, nickel, palladium and other mineral deposits in the Duluth complex," McCready said. "You don't walk away from that kind of deposit. They've got a big investment.

"The troops will rally around."