Is it mining? Timber? Weather? Upper Peninsula population trend puzzles


A curious, century-old population trend in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula shows a yo-yoing cycle of growth and decline every 20 years.

Is the timber industry responsible for the yo-yoing population in northern Michigan? Photo: Flickr.

Is the timber industry responsible for the yo-yoing population in northern Michigan? Photo: Flickr.

The U.P. grew slightly in the 1910s, 1930s, 1950s, 1970s, 1990s and, just like Old Faithful, is growing early in the 2010s, according to data from the U.S. Census. It declined slightly in the other decades, including a loss of 2 percent from 2000 to 2010.

Projections by economist George Fulton of the University of Michigan suggest that the pattern will continue with a 3.3 percent jump this decade.

The reasons for such a trend are speculative, but Yoopers can hazard a guess.

Is it the timber industry? The U.P. has a long history of lumbering and continues to have a large forester presence compared to southern Michigan.

“We have not seen growth,” said Brenda Owen, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Timbermen in Newberry. The industry has been “struggling severely” of late because of changes in the business:

“No young families are coming into the industry because retirees who may want to pass down the family business, sometimes the children do not want to take it over,” she said, adding that it’s similar to the situation of Michigan’s farmers.

The costs of running a business in the industry can be so high that lenders are unwilling to OK loans to those who want to enter it, she said. Meanwhile, technology changes have enabled one logger to do the work of two and produce just as much.

Timbering probably has “no impact whatsoever” on population trends, Owen said.

What about mining? The abandoned buildings and copper-mining equipment dotting the landscape are evidence of past industrial booms.

Maybe there’s a relationship there?

“The mining industry is just starting a rebirth,” said Jerald Wuorenmaa, a planner with the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Regional Commission in Houghton.

“The Orvana Copperwood project is the first example of growth in the Western UP,” he said. “Eagle Mine would be a significant employer of residents from Marquette and Baraga counties. The Toronto-based mining company Orvana Minerals Corp. has negotiated long-term mineral lease agreements to mine copper there.

“Part of the reason that growth is on the horizon for mining is that as mineral supplies dwindle in other areas and mineral values rise, it is again becoming cost-effective to tap some of the deposits in our area that are more difficult to access,” he said. Copper mining has growth potential throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula as surveyors are finding new ore deposits.

So growth may bring more people to the UP as miners dig their way into the 2010s, but does that explain the cycle over the past 100 years?

“I’m suspecting that this is more of a coincidence, that different things have affected it over time,” said Gary Campbell, an economist at Michigan Technological University.

“Certainly mining was very important in this area up into the 1950s,” he said. “It’s had an impact, but Ontonagan County lost a lot of jobs.” The last mines in the Houghton County/Hancock area closed. Cliffs Natural Resources, a mining company, used to have three large iron ore mines in the Marquette area that were closed.

“Those ups and downs could have been affected in some of those years, but I don’t think it’s any single cause for every 20 years.”

Moreover, there is growth in the UP that isn’t attributable to mining or other traditional UP industries:

“Currently we’re seeing changes in the Marquette area with health care—there’s a lot of activity there,” Campbell said. “It’s also becoming a place for retirement for a better quality of life.

“Houghton and Hancock have lots of small, high-tech companies developing around Michigan Tech,” he added. And those companies may attract even more high-tech companies in the near future.

High-tech companies popping up close to Michigan Tech's campus could be one reason for the odd population trend. Photo: Michigan Technological University/Flickr.

High-tech companies popping up close to Michigan Tech’s campus could be one reason for the odd population trend. Photo: Michigan Technological University/Flickr.

“Whether or not you can tie this into a longer period of time, I don’t know.”

It’s not likely due to recessions. Those don’t occur in 20-year cycles.

So what else could it be? Is it the weather? Are folks getting tired of the snow and wilderness and leave, only to return because they miss Pure Michigan’s coniferous countryside?

“Yeah, well, economists are often wrong, so maybe there is a pattern there,” Campbell said.

Kenneth Darga, Michigan’s state demographer, says he might be on to an answer: Generational gaps created by the Great Depression, World War II and the Baby Boom.

“The Great Depression and World War II caused a decline in births, and that was followed by the Baby Boom,” Darga said. “The Baby Boom was followed by an echo of the Great Depression when the small generation born in the Depression was in its peak childbearing years.

“That phase was followed by an echo of the Baby Boom a couple decades ago, when that large generation was having children, and we are currently in the second echo of the Great Depression.”

The recent recession and slow recovery seem to be delaying another echo of the Baby Boom, he said.

In other words, those major events created gaps in the distribution of ages that are reflected in birth and death rates over the century in cycles of roughly 25 years, Darga said.

“I doubt that there is a mystical 20-year cycle unique to the UP that trumps other factors like mining, lumbering, agriculture, economic development, colleges, prisons, second homes, retiree migration and all of the other factors that affect population in the UP,” Darga said.

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