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Don Felton, second left, led a tour of the rock outcrop area proposed to be mined and was joined by fellow property owners near it. From left: Gayle May, Kathy Longhenry and her sister Nancy Aune. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Quarry proposal opens mining debate on the edge of Minnesota's western boundary waters

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Western Minnesota has its own version of the mining debate taking shape on the edge of the Boundary Waters. Can we allow mining and still protect what remains of a unique and endangered natural environment?

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This debate is taking place on the edge of the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge between Ortonville and Odessa. Strata Corporation of Grand Forks, N.D., is proposing to develop a 104-acre quarry on scenic rock outcrops.

The quarry would be part of a 478-acre property that is host to nine different species of rare and endangered plants, including ball cacti found nowhere else in Minnesota.

And since 1977, it's been home to Clark Mastel and his family and their 400-head, beef cattle operation. "We've went to bed more than once with tears in our eyes worried about what is going to happen here,'' said Mastel.

He spoke Sunday as he and others opposed to the quarry gathered in Clinton. They hope to convince the Big Stone County Board of Commissioners to reject the conditional use permit Strata is seeking for the project.

The Ortonville Township Board of Supervisors was planning to adopt its own zoning ordinance on Wednesday night in a move aimed at stopping the project.

In separate action, the Big Stone County Planning and Zoning Commission was expected to recommend approval of a conditional use permit for the project today and send the matter to the County Board for a final decision.

Strata filed its permit application on Dec. 20, triggering a 60-day period in which the county is expected to act. The timing of the application just before Christmas is among the issues which upset opponents, but it is what happens to the landscape that remains central to the debate.

"This is special,'' said Don Felton. A neighbor to the site, he and other adjoining property owners led a tour of the rock outcrop site Sunday. He pointed out where bison once rubbed off their winter coats on the protruding rocks; the buffing still shows as a lichen-free shine on select rocks.

Felton was joined by Kathy Longhenry and Nancy Aune, sisters who grew up across from the site along Highways 7/75. They have memories of horseback rides and adventures on the open landscape of rock and prairie.

Mastel hosts an annual trail ride on the property that attracts well over a hundred guests. "I didn't know this was down here. It's absolutely beautiful,'' he said people always tell him.

It's not just the possibility of losing so unique a natural landscape as the rock outcrops that is at stake here, according to the two sisters. The "view shed'' and outdoor opportunities found here support a tourism industry in the county and a way of life worth fighting for, they explained.

The quarry would pay a projected $20,000 a year in aggregate taxes to Big Stone County and Ortonville Township annually. It is projected to create six to eight jobs.

Lodging and hospitality industry revenues in 2010 in Big Stone County totaled $4.1 million, with tax revenues to all sources of $282,000, according to the Minnesota Department of Revenue.

The environmental harm -- the loss of yet another endangered rock outcrop -- and what mining operations ultimately means to the area is what brought Duane Ninneman to Clinton on Sunday. Blasting and crushing rock and loading trains are all certain to add silica and other dust to the air and cause noise pollution to the detriment of residents in the area, he explained.

A Big Stone County resident and consultant with Clean Up the River Environment, Ninneman has been helping residents opposed to the project. "Our concern is our residents and making sure their way of life is a good way of life,'' said Ninneman.

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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