Reclaiming mined lands subject of new book

Negaunee native Pete Kero has authored “Minescapes: Reclaiming Minnesota’s Mined Lands.” The book is about turning mined landscapes into something useful for people and the environment. (Photo courtesy of Piper & Gold Public Relations)

MARQUETTE — Mined lands can have what author Pete Kero called a “full second life.”

That’s a major message of his new book, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Kero, a Negaunee native and environmental engineer based in Hibbing, Minnesota with Barr Engineering Co., has written “Minescapes: Reclaiming Minnesota’s Mined Lands.”

“It’s really a story you don’t often hear about mining, which is: After mining, or periods between active mining, what happens to the landscape in both what Mother Nature does, and it also tells the story of the people who were active in reclaiming and repurposing that post-mining landscape,” Kero said.

The book, he noted, focuses on the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota, but the story could resonate locally.


The book’s description on Amazon reads: “The Mesabi Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota conjures dramatic visuals of open pit mines and ore piles, enormous earthmoving equipment, and once-booming towns with aging architecture. But now many of these towns are busy with tourists. There are biking and ATV trails, forests and lakes. And yes, continued mining.

“Over the decades, people have approached the iron lands with differing perspectives. Early miners opened the Mesabi Range to extract its ore, but key players also upheld conservation principles by setting aside lower-quality rock for use by later generations with better technology.”

Nature, however, found its way into the cracks and crevices of these rock piles, and within 50 years, groves of aspen and other successional plants had transformed the red rock into vibrant green, and as early as the 1950s, residents were repurposing minelands by building ski jumps and cultivating grouse-friendly habitat, it said. These impulses were codified in the 1980 Mine Reclamation Rules that specified how mining companies should care for the land both during and after extraction.

“In the early 2000s, the Laurentian Vision Project brought together landscape architects, engineers and residents to dream up possibilities for the landscape — and then to make those dreams real by building bridges, creating wildlife sanctuaries, and opening former minelands for fishing and mountain biking,” the description says. “In ‘Minescapes,’ environmental engineer Pete Kero explores the record that is written on Minnesota’s mined lands — and the value systems of each generation that created, touched, and lived among these landscapes. His narratives reveal ways in which the mining industry and Iron Range residents coexist and support each other today, just as they have for more than a century.”

A unique tale

Kero said what makes his book unique is that it tells the tale of reclamation and repurposing side by side with active mining.

He has experience with that goal, both as a professional and as a volunteer, he said.

Kero said idled mine landscapes existed near Chisholm, Minnesota, and for about 13 years, he worked on repurposing one into a mountain biking park.

“It’s now Redhead Mountain Bike Park, and that’s since become an award-winning project,” he said. “People love the innovation of reusing this mine landscape.”

The park is nestled next to the Minnesota Discovery Center, which noted on its website that the park was carved from the walls of an abandoned water-filled iron ore mine pit, and has 25 miles of trails — and more on the way.

Kero said millions of dollars had to be raised, and state legislation — the state mine pit fencing law — was changed to allow the park to be created. Previously, the public was not allowed to enter former mining areas, but the change involved making an exception for a government-sanctioned recreational use with liability issues handled, putting up signage and limiting in-and-out access.

“We try to build the trails in a safe way with sustainable design principles,” Kero said.

In fact, the impetus to writing his book, Kero said, was the desire to document the story of the park’s creation.

“I think the lesson is mine lands are not wastelands after mining, or even between periods of mining,” Kero said. “The Redhead Mountain Bike Park is built on the iron formation. There’s still iron in the ground that someday could be valuable for a mining company to come in.

“That was one of the challenges. We can’t built on an iron formation because that would inhibit future economic development of the area, and so the idea was: Could we do it temporarily?”

Should mining continue, the solution would be to just move the trail, he said.

“In a way, it’s symbiotic with active mining,” Kero said.

He referenced the “circular economy” as it relates to mining.

“We need minerals, especially for the green economy that we’re trying to build,” Kero said. “A Tesla requires more steel than a gasoline vehicle. We need to keep this going. How can we do it in the best possible way that when you’ve playing out a mining deposit, it comes back to reclamation and also a second life, whether that’s wildlife habitat or agriculture.

“Some of these tailings basins are used for growing hay for the local farmers.”

Recreation, he said, is a “fantastic example” of the second life.

“People actually get onto the landscape,” Kero said. “They get to experience it. At Redhead Mountain Bike Park, you’re in what looks like a canyon in Utah because it’s these exposed red rock walls. It’s long. It’s 300 feet deep, and you’re standing at the bottom, and there are these paper birches that have grown up.”

There even is a small waterfall, he said.

Kero said his book includes vignettes of various points of time in regard to reclamation.

“I describe my book as narrative nonfiction,” he said. “It just means I’m telling the story of the people who are involved so that it’s interesting to the general audience. It’s not a textbook or a technical book. It’s about the people, and then along the way, maybe you learn some of the technical facts.”


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