Newspaper article

PolyMet Controversy Recalls 1978 DFL Split

Newspaper article

PolyMet Controversy Recalls 1978 DFL Split

Article excerpt

As the 2014 political season gets under way, Minnesota's DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is facing a vexing controversy over the proposal for a copper-nickel mine in the Northern Minnesota. The NorthMet project plan by the PolyMet Mining Company threatens to drive a wedge between two of Dayton's key constituencies -- job-hungry Iron Rangers who support the plan and the state's environmentalists who oppose it.

The current controversy recalls a similar DFL split in 1978 between environmentalists and the Rangers. That year's battle pitted advocates for wilderness protection in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) against Northern Minnesotans who resisted the advocacy efforts by people they viewed as outsiders.

The controversy came to a head during Rep. Don Fraser's unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. While he was busy rounding up support in Minnesota for the DFL Senate endorsement, Fraser was also promoting legislation in Washington that would sharply limited the use of motorboats and snowmobiles in the million- acre BWCA, directly north of the heavily DFL Iron Range.

As he traveled the state, Fraser faced a formidable foe for the DFL Senate nomination -- Minneapolis businessman Robert Short. In the fall, at the September primary, Short and Fraser would vie for the party's nomination to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Hubert Humphrey, who had died in office earlier in the year.

Bill struck a raw nerve

Sensing an opportunity to cut into Fraser's DFL support in Northern Minnesota, Short took a strong stand against Fraser's BWCA bill, backed by the pro-environmental Friends of the Boundary Waters. Ostensibly, the BWCA controversy involved a dispute over the use of motor boats and snowmobiles in the wilderness area. But for many in the northern part of the state, the BWCA was much more than a conservation issue. For them, the environmental movement, with its strong demands for strict wilderness protection, was a symbol of the arrogance and elitism of the Twin Cities. Particularly on the Iron Range, with its long tradition of populism, the environmentalists, like the mine owners, were seen as the enemy. Fraser's support for a seemingly benign conservation bill had struck a raw nerve in that part of the state.

Midway through the campaign, a couple from Cloquet, who were staunch DFL partisans, sent back to the Fraser office a DFL fundraising letter they had received from Hubert Humphrey's widow, Muriel. The couple wrote that if the funds had been requested for Humphrey, they would have gladly contributed. But they would not contribute to Fraser "after what he had done to northern Minnesota."

According to the Cloquet couple, Fraser was interested only in helping those "so called environmentalists whose only goal was to secure a playground for the rich and the able bodied, and to hell with the rest of us! …

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