The rally at Whiteside Park in Ely Tuesday had the feel of a summer festival.

The U.S. Forest Service listening session about an hour later in the Ely High School auditorium was much more tense.

The issue of copper/nickel/precious metal mining will do that.

The pro-Twin Metals rally at Whiteside Park attracted about 350 supporters who then walked in unity to the high school a few blocks away.

The listening session drew a crowd of 800-850, with overwhelming support for federal leases to be renewed for continued Twin Metals exploration near Ely and Babbitt.

The 5 to 7:30 p.m. hearing in the Ely High School auditorium drew a spirited group of supporters and opponents, who offered sharply contrasting views on a possible nonferrous mine.

Testimony at the Forest Service gathering only layered on top of already strong conflicting views that have been presented repeatedly at meetings, including a session a week ago in Duluth.

But Tuesday’s session in Ely was much more feisty than the Duluth event. The applause from both sides, but especially by Twin Metals backers, was sharp and with passion.

Those supporting renewal of the leases did not shy from voicing their disagreement when opponents were trying to make points ranging from this is a national, not local issue, to everything is just fine with Ely’s economy, despite the shuttered storefronts on the city’s main drag.

And when persistent mining critic Bob Tammen of Soudan took the microphone for a second three-minute stint — he first spoke when another person was picked by random drawing and then ceded the time to Tammen — a Twin Metals supporter stood up across the room and yelled, “Sit down.”

In response, a Forest Service official called for civility. That was not met well. “Follow the process,” yelled Twin Metals supporters, referring to a rule calling for speakers only getting one chance at the microphone.

But the Forest Service lost control of the session from the outset with a process that had all names put into a single drawing rather than being separated by pro-and-con on the issue and then alternately called upon. The result was the first six or so speakers representing anti-Twin Metals views and only one in support of renewing the leases.

Supporters argue the process needs to move ahead, with science and regulatory scrutiny to decide whether a copper/nickel project can coexist with the environment.

They say jobs, which are projected by Twin Metals to be substantial and in the thousands, should be an important part of the process.

But opponents say the water quality and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness experience will be forever damaged.

The mineral exploration and a future mining project would be done outside the protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in territory that was agreed to by all parties previously to allow mining, logging and tourism activities.

However, opponents, including DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, say a Twin Metals project in that watershed area poses the same threat as if it was in the BWCAW.

The Forest Service has mimicked that view of opponents in advance of the hearings, indicating a penchant to not approve the extension of the federal leases. The Forest Service said it was “deeply concerned” about what a Twin Metals project might do to the BWCAW.

Forest Service official Kathleen Ackinson was asked repeatedly by the Mesabi Daily News prior to the hearing why the agency decided to use the language of Twin Metals opponents regarding the project before a decision was made on a renewal of the federal leases. She repeatedly said, “We wanted to be transparent on our concerns.”

She was then asked why the Forest Service didn’t say it was also concerned about the economy of the region and how Twin Metals would provide thousands of jobs. She said again, “We wanted to be transparent in our concerns,” she said.

Ackinson was then asked if the Forest Service had considered that a lot of people would view that as a pre-determined decision on the issue.

“We wanted to be transparent on our concerns,” was the robotic answer.

However, Democratic 8th District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan has strongly endorsed a renewal of the leases.

“Having met with all the involved agencies and parties, and spoken with Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Robert Bonnie, I know renewing these leases is the sensible and correct thing to do,” Nolan said in a letter Monday to the Forest Service. “We should never be afraid of exploration and discovery, or using science and facts to dictate important decisions. That is what these initial stages of the proposed Twin Metals initiative are all about.”

A Forest Service official last week said it has no timeline for its recommendation on the leases.

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