One of the most vivid memories I retain from flying out of the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island, Wash., during the late 1960s is the view that unfolded during the round trips over the Straits of Juan de Fuca.
The Olympic Mountains punctuated the scene to the south, while Canada's Vancouver Island stretched endlessly to the north. Under me, freighters and tankers carried their cargoes to and from the ports and refineries dotting the shores of Puget Sound.
Raw Douglas fir logs were then among the cargoes leaving the Pacific Northwest bound for the Far East. When the holds of the ships were full they were piled on deck. We find it difficult now to buy anything but spruce, pine or fir dimensional lumber, identified by the S/P/F stamp, because free enterprise shipped our Douglas fir away then.
A couple years ago while remodeling a home in Kentucky I noted with a mix of amusement and dismay that I was cutting 2-by-4s from Germany. Crying over logs from the Pacific Northwest is as useless as wringing our hands over Wisconsin's lost pineries. We have taconite to worry about now.
The political circus playing in Wisconsin over the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine near Hurley would be worth the price of admission if the acts were new instead of the same old exploitation in a clown suit of jobs and prosperity. When the permit for the mine is granted, the jobs will disappear with the taconite. And Wisconsin will be left with diminished land and water and the atmosphere of resentment and despair that comes with the return of chronic unemployment. That much is certain.
What's also certain is that Wisconsin does not need taconite any more than it needed lumber milled from the state's native white pine during the late 1800s. That lumber went to build Chicago and other cities outside Wisconsin just as the logs departing the Pacific Northwest during the 1960s went to fill the needs of the cities of the Far East. Similarly, Gogebic Taconite needs the taconite so it can be shipped out of the state and onto its balance sheet.
Among the hard questions not being asked during the debate over the proposed mine is whether it's wise or fair to support a continual cycle of employment and unemployment linked to an extractive industry that declined decades ago. Wouldn't some honesty about the prospects for long-term employment in regions like northern Wisconsin be fairer to the prospective miners and merchants alike?
Also among the hard questions we should be asking is why record amounts of scrap metal are being shipped to China from the United States while mining companies such as Gogebic Taconite are seeking permits to mine ore of marginal quality.
The quick and dirty answers to that are: It's a free country built on free enterprise, the scrap metal and mining industries are as different as night and day, and the world has changed.
No doubt about the first two. That the world has changed is true only with respect to the ongoing shift of geopolitics and the global economy. With respect to the ability of our natural world to absorb the indignities we inflict upon it, the Earth has changed little.
Bill Williams, president of Gogebic Taconite, can spin his best regards to the people of Wisconsin from the company's website forever, and the ability of our Earth to take hits and still keep going will tick down to a sad resolution.
Williams will tell you that isn't going to happen. He wants the taconite and the profits. I'll respond by saying that granting a permit for the Gogebic Taconite mine will be an affront to what's left of natural Wisconsin.
The final hard question all of us should ask is whether 700 jobs in a diminish-as-you-go industry are worth another risky roll of our environmental dice.
Garson lives in Crawford County; www.karlgarson.com.