Grassroots Battle by the Gichigami:

Voices of Resistance from the Penokees

This is the first in a series of eight posts which together comprise an in-depth article concerning a proposed iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills of Northern Wisconsin and the widespread resistance to the project. Two installments of the article will be posted each week for the next month.
Here is a link to a Go Fund Me site where you can learn about my campaign to raise funds to complete a traveling photo/text exhibit about the potential mine and threats to the Lake Superior region. Visit the GoFundMe campaign.

Devil’s Creek, Copper Falls, Potato River, St. Peter’s Dome, Hardscrabble Creek, Marengo Tower, Ballou Gap, Bull Gus Creek. The names themselves suggest something of the rugged and enchanting nature of this place.

The place is the Penokee Range and the Bad River watershed in far northern Wisconsin. Water is central to this place –wetlands, creeks, rivers and lakes–and the watershed has been the center of a heated controversy that is far from resolved.

Florida coal magnate Chris Cline had a plan to extract low-grade iron ore from the Penokee Hills. What followed was a divisive drama that included a number of acts stretched over several years: the hiring of an Arizona-based private-security firm, with guards dressed and armed like mercenaries, to patrol the mine site; millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions  funneled into the state in a successful effort to transform Wisconsin’s strict environmental regulations and the composition of the state legislature; and the sudden departure of Cline’s local subsidiary from the state, not once, but twice.

But the curtain may not yet have been drawn on this drama. Although many people assume that Cline’s company, Gogebic Taconite (GTac), will never return, many also suspect that major mining interests have not been banished for good from Wisconsin’s northwoods.

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The watershed: water, water everywhere

“An amazing place! Water, water, water everywhere,” said Kim Wright, mimicking Coleridge from his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Wright is the executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, a public interest law firm, and I met with her in her Madison office in early 2014. Wright, an attorney herself, had worked for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) years earlier and had helped TNC and the Bad River Tribe protect some of the most critical water resources in the watershed.

But if one explores this region for very long, it quickly becomes evident that every body of water, no matter how massive or minute, is equally critical. It is all interconnected and interdependent. It would be difficult to divorce one water source from another without doing damage to the integrity of the whole.

The Penokee Range is a 25-mile long escarpment rising 1,200 feet above Lake Superior. In these rather remote hills lie the headwaters of the Bad River. They are also home to a hundred miles or more of Wisconsin’s finest trout streams, hardwood forests, pristine lakes, spectacular canyons and waterfalls, and an amazing array of unspoiled wetlands.

Between the Penokee Hills and Lake Superior sit the Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs, 16,000 acres of diverse marsh ecosystem often called “The Everglades of the North”. Considered the finest wetland complex remaining in the Great Lakes, the sloughs were recently designated a Ramsar site, a “Wetlands of International Importance”. Quite possibly the only freshwater estuarine system of this magnitude and quality in the world, the sloughs tie the Bad River to the Big Lake. They link land to water and people to place.

The people who call this place their home are known as Chippewa or Ojibwe or Anishinaabeg. Patty Loew is a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, a professional journalist, a Native American historian and a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. One day in early 2014, I talked with her for three hours at her campus office about the proposed Penokee mine and the impact it might have on her people and their land. Barely pausing to take a breath, she traced the itinerary that potential run-off from mining waste would likely take.

“We know that 76 percent of that area in the Penokee Hills is wetlands,” she began. “We know that the rock formation tips northward and everything drains downward to Lake Superior, and we know that once that rock is exposed to air and water, it’s going to create sulfuric acid from the pyrite and enter the Potato and Marengo rivers, and ultimately the Bad River. Then flow through the Bad River Sloughs, where our ancient and precious rice is, onward through the Kakagon Sloughs, which is 76 acres of prime rice lands,  and into Lake Superior, which is the greatest fresh water resource on the planet.”

“The death of the Bad River is what scares me the most,” Mike Wiggins, former chair of the Bad River Tribe, told me. “It’s our namesake and the driving life-force of this reservation.”

“If I cut the Kakagon Sloughs out of the mining debate, if I could wrap a protective shield around it and didn’t have to worry about the sloughs,” Wiggins continued, “it would do absolutely nothing to my passion or my stress level, as it relates to what our tribe is facing.

“The Bad River is an unbelievably vibrant, robust, absolutely critical river to our reservation. The Bad River carries the heart of the Penokees out to Lake Superior. When you think of the blood of the Penokee Mountains bubbling up in the form of groundwater, and interacting up there in those hills with surface water, and groundwater becoming surface water becoming groundwater again, and the way all those falls and different waterways play out up there, and the fact that they come down off that mountain –not in clay and dirt and things–but they come off on the back of Nashomish, smooth polished rocks.

“The beauty of the hand of the Creator, sending cold, clean water from Mother Earth and high places to Lake Superior in a good way. Keeping everything fed, keeping the water volume up, keeping things moving. All those rapids and thousands of unnamed waterfalls up there, each one an aerator and an ionizer in and of itself.”

And then there are the upland wetlands themselves, which likely were the deathblow to GTac’s second attempt to mine the Penokees. I explored those wetlands several times with Tracy Hames, the executive director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association (WWA). Hames is a Minnesota native who studied at UW-Stevens Point and then spent 22 years working with the Yakama Nation in Washington state. Tracy and other WWA staff and volunteers made numerous excursions to the Penokees between 2013 and 2015, leading tours and documenting what they saw.

“When I saw it for the first time, it was unbelievable!” Hames recalled. “I was expecting a disturbed wetland. From a hydrologic standpoint, it was one of the most intact wetlands I’ve seen anywhere, and the amount and diversity of wetlands is unbelievable.

“There’s everything from large beaver-created wetlands to really beautiful ephemeral wetlands, alder thickets, wet meadows, cedar swamps, large, open-water emergent marshes, absolutely gorgeous sphagnum-carpeted spruce bogs … and beavers, beavers, beavers holding whole upper wetlands together. We saw beaver dams two feet tall to over ten feet tall!”


Tracy Hames, Wisconsin Wetlands Association

There are two things Hames stresses when talking about the wetlands in the Penokee Hills. First, he notes that although there is “hardly an invasive plant there to save your life,” these are not “pristine” wetlands but rather “working” wetlands. Like the people who choose to live in these hills and hunt, fish and harvest here, these are blue-collar wetlands. You might picture them wearing Carhartt hats and jackets and knee-length waders. They do not shy from the hard work of capturing the considerable snow off the hills, filtering and releasing water down the watershed, feeding cool-water trout streams and connecting the vast network to a myriad of streams, many of them unnamed.


The second thing Hames stresses is that the wetlands are all connected. “I think the company thought there would be a small amount of unconnected areas,” he posits, “but what we’re finding out is they’re connected. When they first proposed this project, the company wouldn’t call them wetlands. I think they thought there were just a bunch of puddles up there.”

Bill Heart, a local guide, avid fisherman, and a local and national leader of Trout Unlimited, echoed Hames’ analysis of the nature of the Penokee wetlands. When I visited Bill in a simple wooden shack at his sugar bush near St. Peter’s Dome, where he milks his maple trees for syrup each spring, I asked him what could stop the mine from becoming a reality. With words that soon would sound prophetic, he replied: “All the water up there’s gonna stop it. All those wetlands that are supposedly isolated. It can’t be done without wrecking everything, and I think the mining company knows that.”

Both federal and state law distinguish between wetlands that are connected and those that are isolated. Wisconsin regulations require all wetlands to be mitigated (replaced or compensated for), while federal law requires mitigation for all wetlands that are considered navigable or connected to other wetlands or water sources.

“That watershed, because of the condition it’s in, is absolutely the model for other parts of the state,” Hames told me. “Understanding how this one works will help us figure out how other wetlands are screwed up and how they can be restored.”

One summer evening, I sat around the dinner table with four people on a rural homestead near Saxon, just up the road from the charming Potato River Falls.  This conversation too revolved around the concept of connectivity. The four people I dined with had a wealth of knowledge about the watershed, earned from years of study and first-hand exploration.  But even they were concerned that there was so much still to learn about how the thousand-square-mile Bad River watershed works.

Jim Meeker and Joan Elias were wetland scientists who had taught at Northland College in Ashland and also worked with the Bad River tribe. Their neighbors, Bobbi Rongstad and Tom Podlesny, are local activists who have also done considerable research on the hydrology of the watershed.

“We don’t know how the groundwater and the surface water are connected, so that’s a big concern,” Rongstad said in starting our dinner conversation. “There’s a ton of surface water, and lots of wetlands and all kinds of tiny little streams that aren’t even properly documented or named, and how does all that connect to what’s underground, and what would happen if you dug a big hole under it?”

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Tom Podlesny

“One of the known problems with mining is to affect the hydrology and affect the lakes nearby, changing temperatures and depths and things like that, and the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) just doesn’t have that kind of information,” Meeker commented.


“Our concern is that the water that comes from underneath the earth is at least as much as comes in above, to keep the water in the lakes and keep it cold,” Podlesny added.  “So the aquifer that is providing the water, if it was ever toyed with, or you dug a one-thousand-foot hole four miles long, water will come into that hole. What is the effect on this aquifer? No one knows, and I don’t think anyone is capable of knowing. They just don’t have the knowledge to predict that.”

Tom and Bobbi spend part of their time at a lodge on O’Brien Lake, which they share with other families. They have been monitoring their lake and Elias has also been collecting data on water quality as a volunteer with the Bad River Watershed Association.

Bobbi Rongstad-0705

Bobbi Rongstad

“All of these lakes are suspended, with water coming from under the earth that keeps them cold,” Podlesny explained. “It keeps them lakes instead of potholes. We get good snowfall, we get good rainfall, but there’s a lot of water that is coming from underneath, like with Bull Gus Creek.


“If there’s any change in the water from underneath, of even if you dam up an inland stream, you can affect a chain reaction to streams down below like Tyler Forks. A lot of these streams have no names but they all flow into Tyler Forks–which keeps it cold enough for brown trout and brook trout–which flows into the Bad River, so it’s all this chain reaction. The aquifer is a big mystery, a huge mystery. As to digging a hole in an aquifer right in a key spot, how do you gauge that? How do you know what you’re doing?”

John Coleman, with a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology, works for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) out of a lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For two decades he has been modeling the relationship between natural resources, landscapes and various species, such as fisher and pine marten. More recently, he has been working on water modeling for various mining projects including the would-be Penokee mine. Looking over charts and maps in his office, he told me he and other GLIFWC scientists had discovered many streams at the mining site, both perennial and intermittent, that had never been mapped by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) or the DNR.

“So we started mapping out those streams and found approximately 100 new stream segments in the area,” he said. “We’re trying to document how much water they carry, what the water chemistry is, and how much of the year they are flowing.

“That’s really important because it reflects both the groundwater discharging from the Penokee Hills, but also the potential transport routes for any contaminants that might come out of the project. Those small streams feed high-quality trout streams in the area.”

In smaller-scale industrial activity or mining, you’re generally just looking at impacts to water bodies, Coleman said. “With iron mining, you’re looking at total removal or destruction of the water bodies. A lot of wetlands at the site would be filled by this project.

“We are concerned about downstream impacts. A project like this will probably be between ten and 30 square miles of direct footprint. Outside of that, these projects modify the hydrology so much that you see things for many miles downstream.” Coleman points to the St. Louis River watershed in Minnesota, where you can see the impact of mining activity all the way down to where the river empties into Lake Superior.

Coleman noted that discharges from Minnesota mines have also resulted in elimination of wild rice beds and that cooking ore into taconite pellets results in mercury discharged into the atmosphere. “All that stuff can be captured and controlled,” he said, “but that’s an expensive process. It’s unclear to me how a company’s going to compete if it’s going to use the latest, expensive technology. The owner of this project (Cline) is not known for spending a lot of money on environmental protection. I think the only way this is economically feasible is if they do it on the cheap, and it’s hard to protect the environment on the cheap.”

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Part 2: The Food that Grows on Water