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American Society of Landscape Architects


September 2008 Issue

Can landscape architects help create a more constructive future for northern Minnesota’s vast open-pit mines?

By Diane Hellekson, ASLA


In 1919 the town of Hibbing, Minnesota, was in the way of iron. So, over the next two years, at the behest and expense of the Oliver Mine Company, 185 homes and 20 businesses were moved two miles south. New civic buildings were erected around the relocated structures, and the old town became North Hibbing, which gave up the ghost in 1968 when the last remaining house was moved off its foundations. Today, most of the original town site has been consumed by the three-mile-long, 500-foot-deep Hull Rust Mine, shown above, which has relinquished about 1.2 billion tons of ore and waste rock during its 113-year history.

Such is life on Minnesota’s Iron Range, where the surface landscape can seem like a temporary skin for the riches that lie beneath. It’s a place where ownership maps come in sets of two—one for the owner of the visible surface of the land, one for the holder of the rights to the minerals below. In the early part of the century some residential communities were called not towns but “locations,” which, rather than move, would simply fade away whenever the nearby ore ran out.

Since the late 19th century, the landscape of the Mesabi Range (the largest of three iron-rich areas of Minnesota) has been shaped by mining companies—lately, U.S. Steel, United Taconite, Northshore, and ArcelorMittal—and the generations of Italians, Slavs, Finns, and other immigrants who worked there. The shapes they made often became beautiful, deep-blue pit lakes and mountains of waste rock, grown over with aspen and pine.

In the past eight years, another sort of land shaper has emerged on the Iron Range: the landscape architect. A small, dedicated group of landscape architects and other designers, invited to the region by a mine executive with a longer-range view than most, saw that while the dramatic landscape of the range was beautiful, it was also scarred. Mining practices had made lakes that were inaccessible to humans and challenging habitat for wildlife, as well as steep ziggurats of earth unsuitable for building and difficult to revegetate. Future mining, depending on global demand for iron and technological advances in extracting it, could disrupt roads and the edges of cities.

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