The Timberjay takes on the nation’s most heated mining battle

The Timberjay office in Tower, Minnesota. Image via Tony Webster/Flickr.

“Minnesota as Trump Country? Don’t bet on it,” Marshall Helmberger, publisher of The Timberjay, headlined his June 27 editorial, which ran a week after President Trump held a rally in the nearby city of Duluth. Like most of Helmberger’s editorials, the piece was expansive, gutsy, thoroughly researched, and left of center. It was also written from the heart of the Iron Range, a taconite and iron-ore mining stronghold President Trump has zeroed-in on. There’s a hotly contested US House seat up for grabs in Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, where Trump stumped for Republican candidate Pete Stauber. And the Trump administration is quietly dismantling environmental regulations to pave the way for Twin Metals, a subsidiary owned by Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta, to build a controversial sulfide-ore copper-nickel mine near the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

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Headquartered in Tower, a one-time mining and logging boom town on the edge of Lake Vermilion with a population of 492, The Timberjay has four full-time editors, a readership of 8,000, and a coverage area the size of Connecticut. (St. Louis County, which includes Tower, is the largest county east of the Mississippi River; in addition to its Tower edition, which also covers Soudan, Minnesota, The Timberjay publishes versions of its paper for Ely as well as Cook and Orr cities.) Helmberger and his wife, Jodi Summit, the paper’s general manager and Tower editor, work out of a cedar-sided office overlooking the town’s American-flag-draped main street. Inside, a few dozen awards cover the wall, including Minnesota Newspapers Association accolades for General Excellence, Best Social Issues Feature Story, Best Investigative Reporting, and Best Columnist; and three Premack Awards, a now-defunct prestigious honor bestowed by the University of Minnesota Journalism Center. More awards are stacked out of site, under a shelf of books for sale by local authors. Loki, a stray dog from the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Reservation, sprawls on the floor under a sign with the word “Whine” crossed out.

Marshall Helmberger, Timberjay publisher. Photo by Stephanie Pearson.

The proposed mine has made national headlines for a number of reasons: It’s the latest example of the Trump administration’s zest for prioritizing resource extraction over the welfare of public lands; Minnesota’s largest-ever underground mine and one of the first two sulfide-ore copper nickel mines could have potentially disastrous effects on the region’s water-rich environment; and Ivanka Trump rents a home in Washington, DC, from Andrónico Luksic, the family that controls the majority share of Antofagasta. The New York Times Magazine covered the increasingly polarizing issue last October.

But no publication has covered it with the depth or tenacity of The Timberjay. While national publications tend to flare emotions by focusing on the “us v. them mentality” of the Iron Range, Helmberger drills down on the facts of the increasingly unethical federal process and the economic and environmental realities of what the new mine may bring.

“Marshall is one of the best reporters in Minnesota,” says Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Company, a canoe trip outfitter and retail store in Ely, a town of 3,390 that sits just nine miles northwest of the proposed mining site. “His editorials are extremely well-written and influential, but he manages to remain objective and keep his personal views out of his reporting.”

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Those in favor of the new mine—generally second-, third- and fourth-generation Iron Rangers whose fathers and grandfathers have worked in the mines—make their opinions about the paper known on The Timberjay’s Facebook page, where a collection of reviews read: “Timberjay supports worn out zealot-held beliefs, not science, engineering, the tax bases and quality of life for Iron Rangers. Just because you want the Range to go back to the Stone Age to somehow protect a declining-use Boundary Waters, doesn’t mean we have to support you!” (The same message, posted numerous times by different accounts, appears to originate with Fight for Mining Minnesota, a nonprofit group whose mission is to boycott local businesses that oppose the Twin Metals project.) One commenter urged Helmberger to go back to the Twin Cities, despite the fact that he moved to northeastern Minnesota 34 years ago.

“It’s a cliché to say that things have gotten tribal,” says Helmberger, who wears a T-shirt that reads “FOIA The Leaders”  and operates from a cluttered desk with a window overlooking Tower’s main street. “On the editorial page, I’m going to stay true to my beliefs. But we keep that on the editorial page. When we’re reporting, we play it pretty fair and that’s one reason people have a sense that when they read something in our paper, they know we’re not just reporting willy nilly.”  

In 2014, in a testament to Helmberger’s dogged reporting, Governor Mark Dayton signed the so-called “Timberjay bill” into Minnesota law. The law gives the public the right to information on contracts between government bodies and private contractors, and results from Helmberger’s five-year investigation into Johnson Controls, a Milwaukee-based building contractor that the St. Louis County School District hired for a $78 million reconstruction project. Helmberger sought and was denied access to the architectural contract and other details, so he brought a lawsuit against the company that eventually made its way to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of Johnson Controls. Five months later, the state legislature unanimously overruled the Supreme Court and passed the Timberjay bill.

 

‘I spend more time writing up high school sports than I do investigative pieces. That stuff that wins awards, most of our readers don’t really care about it.’ At its heart, says Helmberger, The Timberjay is ‘just a really solid community newspaper.’

 

FOUR DECADES AGO, HELMBERGER bought 20 acres of land adjacent to the Lost Lake Swamp, seven miles west of Tower. At the time, he had no intention of becoming a newspaper publisher. The self-trained naturalist was a high school student from the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington who wasn’t old enough to sign the property’s purchase agreement. (His father co-signed the deal.) In 1984, fresh out of the University of Minnesota with a degree in political science, Helmberger and his then-girlfriend Summit, a recent Bowdoin College graduate from Connecticut, moved north to live off-the-grid in solar-powered home. The couple earned money by planting trees for the Forest Service and Department of Natural Resources. Looking for entrepreneurial ways to make a living, in 1989 Helmberger and Summit opened a “branch office” of the local paper, then headquartered in the town of Orr, after an acquaintance talked them into it.  

Jodi Summit, Timberjay general manager. Photo by Stephanie Pearson.

“The fellow who started it, Bill Arthur, convinced us that doing a Tower Edition was a great thing,” says Helmberger. The Timberjay moved its main office to Tower in 1993. “We figured we would work 10 hours a week. It never took 10 hours. If you count nights and weekends, I work all the time.” The couple’s relentless schedule is one of the reasons Helmberger and Summit recently hired a new full-time reporter, who the couple hope will eventually move into a managerial or potential ownership role.

When Helmberger isn’t writing editorials, investigating contentious issues, covering high school sports, or writing about the natural world, he’s digging for better information on the issues that affect the 4,000-square-mile region he covers. Helmberger took issue with an independent economic study commissioned by the non-profit Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, released last summer, about the risks associated with sulfide-ore copper-nickel mining in the Ely area. To Helmberger, the economic effects spanned a geographic area that was too large, making the estimated job losses and lost annual income too high. He performed his own analysis, relying on census data, county records, election results, and findings from a 2014 survey of residents in the townships surrounding Ely.

“When I read that study I thought, ‘OK, sure, they have the right idea,’” says Helmberger. “But it wasn’t really useful, in the sense that it didn’t give a clear picture of where the benefits from an amenity-based economy were being derived. So what I wanted to do was use some of the ideas and concepts and bring it down to the local level so it would have a lot more meaning.”

Helmberger published his conclusions, in a story titled “Ely’s Golden Goose,” on August 3, 2017. Since then, his study has been cited by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness—which, along with several northern Minnesota businesses, recently filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration on June 21, the day after Trump’s visit to Duluth and a month after Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reinstated decades-old leases held by Twin Metals. Zinke’s decision reversed the Obama Administration’s refusal to renew the leases until further environmental review could be completed. The lawsuit asserts the loss of an irreplaceable, iconic wilderness in addition to water and noise pollution if the mine is allowed.

Helmberger will cover the lawsuit as it winds its way through the courts, a process he expects to take years. In the meantime, he’s working on securing a tour of the new regional schools built by Johnson Controls, which is rumored to have structural problems, including doors that won’t open, cracking foundations, and roof issues.

Helmberger downplays his sleuthing. “I spend more time writing up high school sports than I do investigative pieces,” he says. “That stuff that wins awards, most of our readers don’t really care about it.” At its heart, says Helmberger, The Timberjay is “just a really solid community newspaper.” But the paper’s track record defies Helmberger’s modesty, and that’s good news, because the mining controversy isn’t going anywhere.

Even those who support Twin Metals begrudgingly respect and read The Timberjay. “I think Marshall has one of the finest weekly newspapers in Minnesota,” wrote St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina, a former miner and avid supporter of the Twin Metals project, in an email. “While we agree on many issues such as fair taxes, school funding, helping the needy etc. we aren’t always on the same page when it comes to some environmental issues. However, I will give credit where it’s due, Marshall does his research and for a small weekly, he puts out a damn good paper, even when he’s wrong.”

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Stephanie Pearson grew up in northern Minnesota, received her MSJ from the Medill School of Journalism, and is a contributing editor to Outside magazine.