A Red Earth Loop bike trail marker in Negaunee's caving grounds
A Red Earth Loop bike trail marker in Negaunee's caving grounds

Northern Michigan Mountain Biking, Sponsored by Mining

The course for last weekend's Red Earth Mountain Bike Race in Ishpeming, Michigan, cruised past the ghosts of mining's past—but was underwritten by mining's present.

A Red Earth Loop bike trail marker in Negaunee's caving grounds

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Last month, I was walking through a ghost town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when a Spandex-clad mountain biker whizzed past.

To be fair, it’s not really a ghost town. It’s a ghost neighborhood in Negaunee, Michigan. This and the nearby town of Ishpeming were booming in the late 1800s, thanks to rich veins of iron ore under foot. But as the 20th century arrived, prices fell and the mines started to close, and then the ground above many of the shallow mine shafts began to subside. 

Officials asked residents to take their homes and leave these “caving grounds” before the earth opened up below them. Buildings were pulled from their foundations and half the town was gated closed until 2006, when Negaunee’s caving grounds—which includes the open pit iron ore Jackson Mine (now a lake)—were turned into a park. Just moments before I saw the cyclist, I was thinking it would be fun to ride through these overgrown former streets and abandoned playgrounds.

(Overgrowth and building foundations, caving grounds. Photo: Mary Catherine O’Connor)

Last weekend, mountain bikers raced through Ishpeming, just a few miles to the west, on a 35-mile and 15-mile course, as part of the debut Red Earth Classic. Race organizers (and Ishpeming natives) Justin Koski and Matt Palomaki are hoping the event will help make Ishpeming and Negaunee mountain biking destinations. The race is one of a dozen races and bike events this summer in the U.P., including a cyclocross tour and an upcoming enduro in nearby college town Marquette.)

The Eagle Mine, a nickel and copper mine currently being developed in the Yellow Dog Plains north of Ishpeming, is the lead sponsor of the Red Earth Classic. While mountain bikes would not exist without mining, mining companies are not your typical mountain bike race sponsors. But the move did not surprise Alexandra Thebert, an Ishpeming native and executive director of Save the Wild U.P., an advocacy group that fought hard to prevent the Eagle Mine from ever breaking ground, based on environmental concerns.

“Many outdoor sports events are sponsored by mining companies in the area,” she says. “It’s part of their efforts to create a social license to operate.”

In layman’s terms, a social license to operate is the support and acceptance of people who will be directly affected by industrial projects, but especially extractive resource industries such as mining. By reaching out and benefiting communities that have to take the good (some jobs) with the bad (truck traffic, the constant risk of environmental harm), Lundin Mining, which owns the Eagle Mine, is trying to “control outrage,” Thebert says. “The industry uses a simple formula. Corporate Risk = Real Hazards + Public Outrage.”

(A bike frame mysteriously lurking in a foundation in Negaunee’s caving grounds. Photo: Mary Catherine O’Connor)

The rock to be mined at Eagle Mine is heavy in sulfides, which poses an environmental threat in the form of acid rock drainage. While the Eagle Mine has installed a water treatment plant and a tailing processing system that it says will prevent harm the to local watershed, opposition was quite fierce during the early stages and the Keweenaw Indian Tribe, which worships at a sacred plot of land at the mine site called Eagle Rock that the mining company is literally operating all around and under, is still pursuing a lawsuit against the mine.

While a number of towns around the U.P. have suffered economic hardship since the mining boom days, some mines still operate, including the Tilden and Empire massive open pit iron mines just south of Ishpeming and Negaunee, which you can see from in this satellite image below. The upper Great Lakes region is seeing an overall resurgence in mining activity and interest, including a proposed iron mine in Wisconsin that has turned quite contentious.

The Eagle Mine has also sponsored dogsled races in the area, says Thebert, adding: “I know some spectators that refuse to go to these races because the mine is a sponsor, but I don’t know any mushers that refuse to race.”

A call to race organizer Justin Koski, seeking comment on the sponsorship and to ask whether he has seen any protests from riders over the sponsor slot, was not returned by press time.

UPDATE: Since the story ran, we’ve received a response from Eagle Mine. We are pleased to have been a part of the inaugural Red Earth Classic. The Red Earth Classic is a great addition to the Upper Peninsula biking scene, an area widely known for some of the best trails in the country. We will continue to support events and programs that are important to the community.” —Dan Blondeau, Senior Advisor, Communications & Media Relations, Eagle Mine

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