A hopeful story is happening in northern Minnesota, and it is told through the license plates and bumper stickers at Redhead Mountain Bike Park in Chisholm. Outdoor enthusiasts are discovering this new mountain bike park and its 25 miles of undulating, tree-lined trails on a reclaimed iron-ore mine.
Because visitors come from all corners of North America, they know little of the area’s history or its geological characteristics. Many are surprised to learn that the area now encompassing Redhead was dormant and fenced off to the public for 40 years, or that the valleys and hills they’re riding on are man-made—huge pits that were cut out and small mountains of earth that were pushed together to clear the way for mining that occurred a century ago.
“When you’re standing there, you wouldn’t think that you’re on a completely natural landscape,” said Pete Kero, a senior environmental engineer at Barr. “But it’s amazing what Mother Nature can do, especially when helped by human reclamation activity to revegetate and reforest the land.”
The story of reclamation
Pete knows this landscape well. A mountain biker and resident of nearby Hibbing, he helped spearhead the volunteer effort to convert the 1,225 acres to a recreational facility. And he later served as Barr’s project manager in support of the park’s environmental review, permitting, and site design.
When the park opened, friends encouraged him to write a book about the Redhead story. His research convinced him to author a more expansive history of mine reclamation across the Iron Range, resulting in the recently released Minescapes: Reclaiming Minnesota’s Mined Lands.
The book, published in May, examines how mining and environmental conservation have intersected at various points over the past 120 years in northern Minnesota. Through these historical vignettes, Minescapes proves that reclamation is not a recent phenomenon.
Forward-thinking mine operators have been finding ways to address the industry’s environmental impacts and repurpose the mine-scaped land for decades—sometimes, with remarkable success and recognition. For example, in 1977, Erie Mining Co. received the first National Environmental Industry Award for a program begun decades earlier to revegetate vast swaths of waste material created by mining activity.
“The book focuses on the leading edge of that work, what people were doing that was interesting and maybe unexpected,” Pete said. “Oftentimes those efforts ended up being award-winning. If you stack them all up, you realize we actually have quite a history of what happens after the environmental impacts (of mining) and of people trying to ameliorate those impacts and make the best use of the landscape.”
Mined land repurposing in the 21st century
That visionary spirit to reclaim and repurpose dormant land lives on today, often through converting the idled pits and stockpiles into recreational facilities such as hiking and biking trails, swimming areas, and scenic overlooks. But where reclamation activities were once largely voluntary, they now are guided by legal and social drivers. Pete, along with Barr’s mine reclamation group, work with clients to assess their sites’ post-mining potential by framing the discussion around broader issues of regulatory requirements, public safety, and social license to operate.
“It’s no secret that mining is controversial—now more than it’s ever been,” Pete said. “To be able to demonstrate that it’s possible to make a viable second life out of mined lands—and that companies can operate in a social way and address their ESG goals—is really powerful.”
“To be able to demonstrate that it’s possible to make a viable second life out of mined lands—and that companies can operate in a social way and address their ESG goals—is really powerful.”
A key to successful mined land repurposing, Pete says, is creating something that won’t permanently replace mining, but instead fills a void during what might be a temporary absence. Retooling the country for a clean-energy future will require minerals, signaling the possibility of a second mining boom across the country. Redhead was built on the agreement that it could be moved if mining interests return to the site.
Built in phases between 2019 and 2022 for $1.77 million, Redhead is a picture of mine reclamation and repurposing in the 21st century. It demonstrates that mined lands can play a part in the circular economy of recycling and reuse, while contributing valuable recreation opportunities and economic diversification for one of the world’s largest mining districts. In 2022, it is estimated that nearly $1 million was generated for the local community in just one weekend when Redhead drew competitors from across the state to the high school mountain biking association’s championship race.
“The interest is out there, and people are seeing that there are examples of success,” Pete said. “It’s catching on to the point where people are realizing that there’s a model here to use what some people might call a wasteland and turn it into something valuable.”
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About Pete Kero
Pete Kero is a vice president and senior environmental engineer in Barr’s Hibbing, Minnesota, office. He has over 29 years of experience in mining, water resource management, and site cleanup and redevelopment. His work includes mine reclamation planning, permitting, remediation, and repurposing at more than two dozen mine sites across Minnesota, Michigan, Arizona, Arkansas, Wisconsin, and California. Pete was the visionary behind the award-winning Redhead Mountain Bike Park in Chisholm, Minnesota, which has been featured in Outside Magazine and the nationwide documentary film Biketown. In May 2023, Pete’s book Minescapes: Reclaiming Minnesota’s Mined Lands was released by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Barr worked with the City of Chisholm and the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation to transform an inactive iron-mine pit and surrounding property (covering approximately 650 acres of public land) into the Redhead Mountain Bike Park, which attracts both residents and tourists. We provided pre-construction GIS mapping and conceptual design services; facilitated a unique project-bidding and phasing process; prepared an Environmental Assessment Worksheet and a construction SWPPP; and conducted a botanical survey and a Phase 1A cultural-resources literature review.