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Image of prairie.

Subterranean Wealth

Being terrestrial, humans see things from the ground up. Standing on grasslands—once virgin prairies—that stretch west to the horizon, we might conjure up thoughts of the sea. "From the thick grass arose a chorus of crickets," prairie enthusiast Paul Gruchow wrote in a past issue of MCV, "as evocative of quiet summer evenings in the American heartland as the sound of surf pounding is of the sea."

For all its vastness, a tallgrass prairie actually has more biomass below ground than above. Most prairie creatures are subterranean. Like the ocean, this land harbors untold riches below the surface. As "Little Habitats on the Prairies" tells, an underworld of roots and tunnels supports the life above.

Where do you find wealth, and how do you measure it? In countless ways, of course. In fireflies flashing in the night? In turtles trekking safely cross-country to lay eggs? In hatchlings of rare Blanding's turtles?

Some natural resources are even less apparent, but their stories in this issue also offer clear evidence of prosperity. "Underwater Hunting" pursues fish in their natural habitat. "Good Deal for Wildlife" reveals the financial backers who have been helping restore wildlife habitat since 1937. The most multifaceted story of hidden riches is "Digging Into the Promise of Copper."

John Myers reports on mining proposals under way for northeastern Minnesota. Since 1966 the DNR has had a program for leasing rights to copper and other nonferrous metallic minerals. Now the possibility of copper mining seems likely to become a reality. But as the story reveals, many questions have yet to be answered. Some of the questions and answers depend on what people value—practically, aesthetically, spiritually, socially.

Who has a stake in this mining? Consumers, taxpayers, conservationists, corporate employees, government regulators, land managers, landowners, mine workers, local government officials, and business owners—just about everyone, present and future. But the stakes are not the same for everyone—that is to say, some will gain more than others, and some might lose more than they gain. How can interested parties find common ground?

According to stories reported this past spring in The New York Times, other places are grappling with similar questions surrounding copper mining. In southern Arizona, a Canadian company proposes an open pit mine and processing plant for copper. A copper-industry lobbying group points out that Arizona copper mines met 40 percent of U.S. demand in 2010. Critics worry that these new mining operations would consume too much water and draw down wells. Another Canadian company wants to dig a tunnel under a mountain in a wilderness area of Montana to mine copper and silver. Indian tribes there hope to halt the plan because it would disrupt a spiritual place used for praying and vision quests.

In Minnesota, estimates of economic impacts of copper mining depend in part on how many mines would be operating at what capacity and for how long. For example, according to one DNR estimate, state royalty revenue on three mines during 30 years could amount to a total of $2.4 billion.

Perhaps even harder to calculate are the global impacts. Mining in Minnesota would help meet U.S. demand with a domestic natural resource. Part of that demand comes from use of nonferrous minerals in hybrid cars and other green technology. Proponents say U.S. mining could innovate and set new standards for environmental protection, which could then benefit other countries.

The impacts of the proposed PolyMet mine on natural resources and the environment are being evaluated and will be reported in an upcoming supplemental draft environmental impact statement. Then everyone will have a chance to respond with public comments to regulators, including the DNR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Forest Service.

I hope "Digging Into the Promise of Copper" will help set the stage for considering the essential value of natural resources—above and below ground.

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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