A truck passes a mural depicting miners of the past who worked in the iron ore mines near Hurley, Wis., on July 5, 2012. Many Hurley residents believe the addition of a new mine could help rejuvenate their local economy. Lukas Keapproth / WCIJ
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In this three-day series, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism explores rural population losses in three Wisconsin counties — and potential statewide solutions.


Would young people stay in rural area for mining jobs?

Oct. 7, 2012.

Interactive map

Click the map to explore which Wisconsin counties lost the most people between 2000 and 2010, and compare these shifts with changes in other states.

Audio slideshows

Click to watch audio slideshows of some of the young people interviewed by the Center’s Lukas Keapproth and Mario Koran.

HURLEY — It’s Fourth of July weekend in this Iron County community, and 19-year-old Chanel Youngs tends an empty store.

Aside from the whir from the ceiling fan, and the sound of a slow-passing car down Silver Street, the Liberty Bell Chalet is quiet. “Nothing ever happens here, nothing ever changes,” Youngs says.

Youngs, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, doesn’t plan to stay in her hometown much longer. “I knew if I wanted to be successful, get a degree, a good paying job, I had to leave.”

During the 1990s, only Milwaukee County lost population in Wisconsin. But from 2000 to 2010, while the state’s population grew by 6 percent, 19 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties lost population, with the declines concentrated in rural areas. The losses continued in most of those rural counties in 2011.

In these places, the population is aging, fewer babies are born, and fewer workers are left to support — and care for — those left behind.

“When we think about the needs of the community and the tax base that’s required to support a community and all of its services, this is where it really starts to matter, not only for the current well-being of the community but for the future well-being for the community,” says Katherine Curtis, a UW-Madison assistant professor of community and environmental sociology.

Since 2000, Iron County has lost nearly 14 percent of its population — roughly one out of every seven people. With a median age of 51, its population is the oldest in Wisconsin.

Curtis says an aging county means fewer economically productive people in the community. Less than half of the population over 16 years old was in the workforce in Iron County in 2010 “due to its old population,” according to the state Department of Workforce Development. That compares to a statewide rate of 69 percent.

Until recently, a relatively diverse constellation of industries — farming, manufacturing, mining and tourism — has sustained these communities, say experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory (APL).

While “these patterns exist across the country,” each county has its own story about why young people are leaving, says Dan Veroff, APL director and demographic specialist.

“In the story of rural population loss, you’re not going to find a one-note song,” Veroff says.

Communities such as Hurley are hoping for a revival in the long-dormant mining industry, while hemorrhaging the same young people — often the most talented — who could help stave off the brain drain.

And while Youngs complains about the pace of small-town Wisconsin, the inconveniences, the lack of opportunity, she says she would miss the sense of community in Hurley, where people pitch in when neighbors need money for medical treatment or other crises.

If Hurley were to fade away, Youngs says, “That’d be sad. Because I really love it here. I have really cool memories here.

“It’s a great place to grow up, but you have to leave.”

A county on pause

Sonni Lauren tends bar on a Friday night at the Liberty Bell, her family’s store and restaurant, which has served local residents and tourists since 1923.

Sonni Lauren takes a break while bartending at the Liberty Bell Chalet in Hurley, Wis. on July 6, 2012. Lauren has lived in Hurley her entire life where she works in her family’s restaurant. Lukas Keapproth / WCIJ

She slides around the bar, pouring drinks, greeting customers by name. She knows some people confuse living in a small town with lack of ambition, but Lauren says she has never wanted to leave.

“Some people make you feel like, ‘Why are you here in this small town?’ But I don’t have to explain myself. It’s my family’s restaurant, and I’m a lifer. I’m sure of it.”

In Hurley, her children can ride their bikes around the block in safety, they have the same teachers she had, and the principal knows them by name. But the quality of life that keeps Lauren close to home may be slipping away.

The effect of Iron County’s graying population can be seen in the Hurley School District, where enrollment dropped nearly 19 percent, to 626 students, between 2000 and 2010. As a result, annual state aid dropped by $1 million to $3.5 million.

Some look to mine with hope

To reverse the population slide, many residents are counting on a revival of a plan to open a large iron mine in Iron County and Ashland counties.

Last year, Gogebic Taconite proposed a 4 1/2-mile-long mine that would cost $1.5 billion and bring an estimated 700 jobs. But the project stalled after the state Senate, facing stiff opposition from environmental groups and Indian tribes, turned down a bill sought by the company that would have eased mining regulations.

Solutions: Fixing Rural Wisconsin

Experts cite a variety of problems and potential solutions regarding the population losses in Wisconsin’s rural counties. For example, in Iron County:

Problem: Exodus of young adults. Solution: Market rural areas’ amenities — safe neighborhoods, outdoor recreation. Expand an existing young professionals group and promote social and community connections.

Problem: Mining legislation has stalled, setting back efforts to open a massive mine with hundreds of jobs. Solution: Reintroduce the bill in the next legislative session, seeking acceptable compromises. But some worry that the environmental risks are too great and may harm the region’s tourism.

To learn more: Iron County UW Extension, Next Generation Survey.

Hurley Mayor Joe Pinardi says 95 percent of his constituents favored the mine. He says the county cannot continue to rely on tourists drawn to its lakes, scenic beauty, hunting and fishing.
Tourism, he says, is too unsteady.

“What we really need is some sort of industry. Tourism is great—it’s gravy on your potatoes, but you need something substantial. We all need to eat a little meat too,” Pinardi says.

The mayor believes the mine bill, which is expected to be resurrected in January, could be the key to reversing Iron County’s population slide. Critics counter that a large mine could keep people from visiting the area, where restaurants and drinking establishments are the top employer.

“Attract young people? You don’t need to do anything to attract them. All you have to do is create jobs so that they can stay here,” Pinardi says. “That’s what we need to do. That’s the reason why we’re pushing this mining issue.”

Will Andresen, a community resource development educator at the UW-Extension Iron County office, is working on a variety of strategies to attract and retain young people.

Andresen has helped organize a young professionals’ group, planned mountain bike trails in the surrounding area and worked to market Iron County as an ideal destination for young professionals who value outdoor recreation.

“We’re not going to compete with a larger city, but we can compete with the amenities and the core community values we can offer,” Andresen says.

But there can be tension between tourism and the need for good-paying jobs, says Gary Green, UW-Madison professor of community and environmental sociology.

“The problem with tourism is that it tends to be part-time jobs, seasonal jobs,” Green says.

“(Tourists) go to northern counties to canoe in the rivers and hike in the woods, and they don’t want to see a bunch of manufacturing plants. The local people want the jobs, but the seasonal residents and the tourists don’t want the manufacturing there.

“So it’s a real dilemma. How do you not kill the golden goose of tourism in these counties?”

Back at the Liberty Bell, Lauren says everyone is worried what will happen if the mine does not come.

Andrew Harvey, 24, plays with his daughter in Lake Superior on a warm summer afternoon July 5, 2012. Lukas Keapproth / WCIJ

“I think we’re all concerned about young people leaving, even my grandpa,” she says. “He talks about it all the time — how the mines have to come so he won’t have to worry about us. He wants to know that when he leaves here that we have enough to be taken care of.”

She adds, “I think that the anticipation of the mine and the possibility of it not coming is very worrisome for everybody because it’s the possibility of our children not having to leave. We hope that we can have more than what we have now. Attract more people. Have more tourism. Have more for the locals. So, fingers crossed.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

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Mario Koran / Wisconsin WatchReporter

Mario Koran reports on education, immigration and issues affecting communities of color. Most recently, Koran was a 2021 Knight Wallace reporting fellow at the University of Michigan. Previously, Koran served as a west coast correspondent for the Guardian US and spent five years covering education for Voice of San Diego, where he was named the 2016 reporter of the year by the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists. Since leaving an internship with Wisconsin Watch in 2013, Koran’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Appeal, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, among others. Koran holds a BA in Spanish literature and MA in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

4 replies on “Would young people stay in rural area for mining jobs?”

  1. And the Market lost my $750,000 retirement. Boo-hoo-hoo! People come and go, the land, once destroyed, stays that way. Greed, one of the Deadly Sins. U.S. Corporate greed, unparalleled.

    1. Funny how people can twist a statement… especially when it comes to someone they have no idea about.

      Zee, you’re ignorance may have some traction if we’re talking about families who own major corporations (Walmart, Home Depot, Mcdonalds, etc…). But we’re talking about small, family owned businesses in rural communities. These are mothers and fathers (possibly not unlike your own) who are the backbones of these communities. Mothers and fathers who just want to see thier kids grow up without having to worry too much about thier childrens futures…

      If you have kids, maybe you would understand. Where you see “boo-hoo, my market lost my $750,000 retirement”, I see, “I just want my kids to have the option of having a better future here”. So I ask, between the two, which statement is more accurate…?!

      People DO come and go, and the land, once destroyed… will heal over time. These particular pits usually end up becomeing lakes themselves. The communities that have these particular types of mines in thier area are amoung the cleanest in the country. There are also multiple government agencies that regulate how clean these mines must be. Therefore, if you’ve done your research, shouldn’t be so concerned for two-headed fish popping up amoung the rivers and lakes in these areas.

      Lastly, and I may be assuming too much, but based on your “Deadly Sins” quote, I can make a case you are religious, maybe even a Christian. That’s cool… to each his own. Though, if you preach of deadly sins, isn’t it just as much of a sin to judge your peers? Or to twist thier words and become a lying scribe yourself…?! Just sayin’…

  2. Regarding the article “Rural Retreat”, about the population declines in some Wisconsin counties—each of the factors discussed including fewer family farms, tourism fluctuations and loss of paper industry are legitimate issues. However, the biggest contributor to the decline of the younger demographics has been caused by the inability of the United States Forest Service (USFS) to execute their own Forest Management Plan. The USFS explains they lack funds to conduct enough timber sales. If they had the funding—about $4 million per year—they could produce another 60 million board feet annually providing jobs for another 4,500 people and annual economic benefit of $125 million—not to mention the value of the timber. It is no accident that the four Wisconsin counties with the largest National Forest acreage—Forest, Vilas, Ashland and Bayfield—suffer some of the highest unemployment rates and double-digit outmigration with younger demographics, namely people under 45. Poor timber management is causing economic decline as families are forced to seek work elsewhere. It is killing paper mills and is the primary reason the west has been on fire the past few years. Even Wisconsin sawmills have been forced to import from Canada. Kind of crazy, eh?

  3. I’m trying to visualize a 4.5 MILE LONG mining scar in those counties, which would invariably cause horrific destruction on-site and for many more miles around it.

    As one mining company pointed out in the past, “We don’t just affect the environment, we remove it.”

    Also, a mine that size is never just a mine … it also brings unavoidable degradation during the ore processing, as well as during transportation of the raw ore, the purified metals, and the toxic chemicals used in processing (… with high potential for lethal spills on the roads and rails).

    And where will the water, gas and electrical power come from? More high-capacity wells? More pipelines? More polluting power plants and destructive electrical transmission lines?

    If the mine is 4.5 miles long, how HUGE will the lagoons and/or landfills be for the disposal of the toxic ore tailings and other wastes created during mining?

    How would groundwater drinking supplies be affected by a gash that huge? During the last big Wisconsin fight over mining, we all should have learned about the extensive acidification and groundwater poisoning that usually occur around mines in this type of rock.

    Some of the most expensive and extensive Superfund hazardous waste clean-ups in the country are due to big mine sites like this … and they’re impossible to clean up completely.

    Worse yet, all this destruction would be for TEMPORARY jobs that might last only 1 or 2 generations. Mining towns are famous for their boom and bust economic cycles.

    Meanwhile, the sustainable tourism and forestry industries would suffer PERMANENT job losses for many miles around the site.

    Who could possibly believe that tourism could co-exist with that level of destruction? The visual blight would be unavoidable and permanent (… for several generations at least), creating revulsion and avoidance behaviors in would-be tourists.

    Why would anyone travel so far and spend so much money to visit Wisconsin’s “beautiful northwoods,” just to be slapped in the face with MILES and MILES of depressing ugliness?

    The very fact that Republicans are working overtime to weaken Wisconsin’s mining regulations should raise a hundred red flags in everyone’s mind.

    This is another REALLY BAD IDEA for Wisconsin.

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