Paramilitary armed guards, death threats, standoffs. It’s not what you might expect amid the peaceful greenery of northern Wisconsin, but it’s that greenery, and what lies below, that has led to an intense battle over land, water and jobs.
It all began when a company called Gogebic Taconite, or G-Tac, got permission to test the soil in northern Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills area for minerals, including iron ore. The company eventually wants to carve a 4-mile open pit mine through the heavily wooded area.
G-Tac has leased thousands of acres of land in Wisconsin’s Iron County, an area which is popular with hikers in the summer and snowmobilers in the winter. Terms of the lease still allow the public to access the area.
Many of those who live in the economically depressed towns nearby said they support the company’s efforts and look forward to the potential for much-needed jobs and growth in the region. Dozens of signs are posted on lawns in the small city of Hurley with messages like “Mines mean jobs” and “Mining is our History” and “Say yes to mining.”
But opponents worry mining activities will poison the water supply and ruin the wetlands. And Native Americans in the area claim the mining violates their treaty rights because it would interfere with hunting and fishing.
“We certainly don't need a mine,” argued Frank Koehn, who runs the website SaveTheWatersEdge.com.
“All that does is produce the same mess we have now, but when they're done we've got piles of dust, poisoned streams; some streams will be obliterated, the ground water will no longer be protected,” he said.
Confrontations between the two sides have been violent and dramatic. Once G-Tac workers went out and began doing the testing, at least a dozen protesters wearing bandanas over their faces showed up ready for action.
The showdown, which is filled with yelling and expletives, was recorded and posted on YouTube. One protester can be seen wrestling with a woman over her camera. That protester was later arrested and charged with a felony. Others face trespassing charges.
“These folks broke into our camp, they barricaded the roads so that law enforcement wouldn't be able to help us, they held the site for over a half hour, they attacked one of our workers, and they destroyed a bunch of our equipment, and they threatened our people with burning our homes down,” said G-Tac spokesman Bob Seitz.
Gogebic Taconite brought in armed guards to protect the property and its employees. Both sides claim their lives have been threatened.
Critics call the protesters “Eco terrorists.” Some environmentalists call them heroes, but the majority of opponents in the Penokee Hills area said they don’t support the anarchy of the activists who were caught on the YouTube video.
All this has happened, and yet so far G-Tac has only been doing exploratory drilling, and gathering samples to send to the Department of Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Army Corps of Engineers. If results show the process is safe, Gogebic Taconite will be allowed to go ahead with its plans to construct a massive iron ore mine.
"If they (protesters) have the courage of their convictions and they believe in what they have been saying, they should want us out there finding this information, because they'll be able to use those facts to kill the mine," said G-Tac spokesman Bob Seitz.
G-Tac officials claim the mining will not introduce chemicals to the earth. Instead, dirt will be removed, pulverized, run over magnets to remove the iron ore, then put safely back on the ground. Since the heavily-wooded area of the mining site is an actively managed forest, trees will be harvested, then replanted when the mining is done.
Environmental activists said they are still concerned.
“They’re basically saying to us 'trust us,' but I don’t trust the politicians," said Koehn. “They've written the laws that govern mining. The public trust doctrine in Wisconsin has been gutted to say the best, and the doctrine was all about water.”
The Penokee Hills are the head waters of the Bad River watershed, which extends south into Lake Superior.
Mining in the lush hills of the dairy state has a long history. The industry was prominent, not just in Wisconsin, but also in northern Minnesota and Michigan, as far back as the 19th century. In addition to logging, mining was the main source of revenue in the area up through the first half of the 20th century, with as many as 30 different companies exploring and digging for lead, zinc and iron ore.
Many of the people who populate the small towns and cities in the upper Midwest states, such as Hurley, are descendents of miners. Even Wisconsin’s nickname, Badgers, is derived from the name of the basic hillside homes miners frequently constructed, according to the Wisconsin Mining Association website.
“My father worked in the mine," recalled Hurley Mayor Joseph Pinardi, who grew up in the area. Lots of my uncles worked in the mine. "My grandpa worked in the mine when he first moved over here from Italy.”
Mining through those generations provided a vast amount of iron that were used to build tanks and weapons for World War I, World War II and for cars.
But it all came to a halt in the 1960s when mining became financially impractical. When the jobs went away, so did many of the residents, and the economy suffered.
With the prospect of a mining comeback, protesters have set up what they call a “Harvest Camp” in the area where they believe the headquarters for the operation will be located. The camp, which has housed anywhere from three to 30 people at different times, is set up deep in the woods of northern Wisconsin. The camp is stocked with cans of non-perishable food and tents of all sizes litter the landscape. Sleeping bags and blankets are strewn around. Some people said they have been living at the camp for months.
Mel Gasper, a Native American tribal elder for The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, manages the camp and promises to “keep troublemakers out.”
Gasper said efforts to start a mine in the area will not just be dangerous, they may also be illegal. Treaty rights prevent anything that gets in the way of the tribe hunting and fishing. “They start messing with the Native American treaty rights, we take it to a pretty high extent” he said, and vowed that the battle would continue up to the highest court.
“I think there's a knee-jerk reaction in Wisconsin to mining,” said Seitz. “We have effectively drilled mining out of Wisconsin, and now the reintroduction of mining scares some folks."
“We all need to live here yet, we all need to drink the water, we've got to breathe the air,” Pinardi said. “We're not trying to harm our own environment. If it's not going to be safe, we want to know, too.”