This is the sixth 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 are posted weekly.
Not your grandfather’s mine anymore
I was on my way to have a look at Tyler Forks, a splendid little stream with lots of ripples and gentle falls. I had just passed the Harvest Camp, which the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe and their supporters had been occupying for over a year. They were using the camp as a way to educate the community about the mine and its potential impact on the environment, as well as a way to share Ojibwe harvest traditions.
I rounded a curve on the gravel road and noticed a sign. No, it was a long series of signs, each one hand-painted on a panel of wood. It was like those Burma-Shave signs from my childhood, except those were posted on high-traffic highways, not an old gravel road where only a couple of cars a day might venture. The signs concerned the mine. The last one, near a cabin in the woods, said something like This land is not for sale! I decided to stop and pay a visit to whoever had posted them.
Russell Buccanero lives in Iron Belt, on the highway north and east of here, but he owns this land and built this cabin himself. The cabin and land abut the would-be mine site. He is three-quarters Finnish and one-quarter Italian, he tells me. He does whatever kind of work he can get in order to survive: “I’ve driven truck, worked in the woods as a sawyer, cleaned houses … you do what you have to do, and live within your means.
“My first thought on the mine, I was for the mine,” he confessed. “I was drinking the same Kool-Aid as everybody else. It was going to be good for the economy. It was going to be good for the area and our community.
“The more that was said about how they were going to do it, and let’s face it, the more lies that were told to keep people believing it, the more you were against it.”
As one might expect for a person raised in a place called Iron Belt, Buccanero comes from a family of miners. His father worked in the mines and once got caught in a cave-in. He survived.
“There was a lot of people who died in these mines here, in these gopher holes. The good old days weren’t all that good. There was a lot of mistrust of the company, and when a miner died, the wife didn’t get the benefits. She had 30 days to marry another miner or get out of the company housing.
“The Finnlanders would work all day in the mine, and then they would go home and they’d blow stumps and tend their fields and cattle and move rocks. They say they’d smuggle the dynamite home to remove stumps.”
Buccanero doesn’t believe GTac or any other company will bring back the boom days of the 1940s and 50s. Although GTac had promised, from the start, 700 good-paying jobs, he thinks the only employment local people can expect from a new mine is spin-off jobs in gas stations, restaurants or discount stores.
“The people who are gonna have the $80 thousand dollar jobs aren’t from here,” he said. “They’re gonna come from other places, out of every other union hall in the United States. And there’s not going to be that many jobs in this mine anyway, because everything’s all automated today.”
Buccanero had been offered money from GTac for his land, but he refused to sell. So did his neighbor across the road, who let the harvest campers pitch their tents on his land when they were evicted from county land.
“They’ve done nothing to offer anything to anybody here,” Buccanero said, “and Iron County has just bent over backwards to give it away. They must think we’re the biggest bunch of hicks that they’ve ever run across because we’re giving all this away to GTac for twenty dollars and a twelve-pack. It doesn’t make any sense, to rip up your environment in return for nothing.
“If the mine goes through, my land will be gone. I’ll never be able to take the noise and the dirt. They’ll never be a good neighbor. You’re going to be able to hear and see this mine for miles.”
“The reason Iron and Ashland counties are among the most depressed in the Midwest is because they’ve already been victims of a boom-bust cycle during the previous era of iron and copper mining,” Al Gedicks contends. Jobs are displaced according to the needs and whims of the market and international corporations. “These local economies are not going to be in any different position now than the previous mining-based economies were, where the welfare of the corporate empire supersedes the welfare of local communities,” said Gedicks.
In the modern era of mechanized mining, Gedicks says, the only companies that will survive are those that invest heavily in robotics. Australia is paving the way with its focus on “worker-less mines” where robots drive the trucks and do the drilling, controlled by computer technicians at a command center miles away.
Thomas Michael Powers is a professor at the University of Montana who researches and writes about the costs and benefits of mining for local communities. He spoke at a binational forum on mining and the Lake Superior watershed held in Ashland, Wisconsin in the spring of 2012.
Powers points out that many mining-dependent communities are synonymous with lagging economies and persistent poverty and unemployment. He lists four causes for the lack of prosperity in mining towns: 1) the instability and volatility of mining jobs and earnings; 2) the impact of labor-displacing technology; 3) environmental damage that is also an economic problem; and 4) the displacement of other, more sustainable economic activity.
In his presentation in Ashland, Powers pointed to St. Louis County, Minnesota as an example of a community overly dependent on mining. The county accounted for 75 to 80 percent of metal mining income in the state, but it experienced a loss of 9,300 mining jobs in 30 years, dropping from 12,000 jobs in 1979 to 2,700 in 2009.
Wisconsin has a long association with mining, dating back to the 1820s and lead ore mining in southwestern Wisconsin. The badger is not only a school mascot but is the official state animal and emblem, emblazoned on the state flag. It is said that the early miners, instead of building homes, would simply burrow holes in hillsides for shelter, earning the nickname of “badgers.”
“What we’re talking about now has nothing to do with that type of historical mining,” Mike Wiggins, the former Bad River Tribal Chair, told me. “The tactics of a badger burrowing into the side of a hill versus a bulldozer and tons of ammonium nitrate that are set up to explode the entire hill. How could you compare both of these and say that that’s part of your history?
“If the true history of this place was open-pit mining, none of us would be here crying about the fact that it’s economically downtrodden,” he said. “We would have a compromised ecosystem, rivers of toxicity, and essentially a place where no one is going to invest their business and their families. We’d all be someplace else.
“To put the notion of those shaft mines alongside the notion of mountain-top removal is an absolute injustice and an absolute travesty to the people and ecosystem around here. You only have to travel to West Virginia to see what mountain-top removal has done to the landscape and the communities around there.”
Jill Hartlev is with the Environmental Protection Alliance (EPA) of the Bad River Tribe. She also works with reservation youth on gardening, beekeeping and various cultural projects. “It’s not really about the mine anymore,” she says, “it’s about protecting the water and learning how to get away from the extractive industry.
“What I have learned is that it is a boom and bust. There may be some prosperity for a few years, but the potential danger and devastation is not worth it. It may bring a few homes, some better income, but the other things that come along with it, people are already suffering from. That little town of Hurley is nothing but bars, and 90 percent of them, for lack of a better word, are nothing but strip bars.”
Terry Daulton and her husband Jeff Wilson are Iron County residents who harbor a vision that the county can attain a modest prosperity that doesn’t depend on mining and taverns. They both attended Northland College and met while doing loon research.
Daulton worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, ran the Loon Watch program for the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland, and more recently organized the Iron County Citizen’s Forum. The forum has been exploring strategies to enhance economic development while also protecting the environment.
“I think what’s at stake is the quality of life in Iron County,” Daulton told me. “I cannot believe this mine won’t have significant environmental impacts, but I think it will also really change the character of the place we live. Even if it brings lots of people with more money, do we need more shopping centers and fast-food joints? I think it would be better to build on things that would sustain us more than a boom and bust economy.”
Jeff Wilson worked for over 30 years with the DNR in wildlife and forest management. He and Terry live on an island on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage and Jeff supplements their income with trapping and fishing. A transplant from Iowa, where he grew up on a farm, Wilson said what excited him most about northern Wisconsin was the vast stretches of public land. What disturbed him most about the mine was the threat of losing some of that public land.
Iron County signed an option/lease agreement with Gogebic Taconite in January, 2011 to lease 3,331 acres of county forest land for the mining project, as well as the right to designate up to 833 more acres to add to “the premises.” The agreement and accompanying lease would have not only allowed GTac to dump its mining waste on the public forest land, but would have let it do almost anything else it wanted including construction of buildings, power lines, utilities, sewer lines and drainage ditches.
GTac paid the County $20,000 every two years to keep the lease in effect. A payment was due the end of January, 2015, but GTac forfeited and left the state shortly thereafter.
“The average citizen doesn’t know about the county forest, yet it’s public land,” Wilson explained. “It’s open to hunting, fishing, trapping, berry-picking, mushroom-hunting, hiking and camping.”
Lumber barons had cleared much of the land in Wisconsin’s great northwoods by the late 1920s, and then moved on, leaving it tax delinquent, as the stock market collapsed and the depression deepened. Then settlers tried to farm the cutover land, suited better for forestry than agriculture. When the farms failed, the land again reverted to the tax-delinquent rolls.
The Iron County assessors report for 1938 provided a bleak chronicle of what had happened: “Our timber is nearly gone. Land that once produced a rich source of revenue is now denuded … There is little use for this cutover land in such vast quantities with even the best of agricultural commodities … so that owners have stopped paying taxes entirely, forcing counties to take title to enormous acreage.”
Fires followed the would-be farmers, Wilson pointed out, and soon the land “was basically a bunch of brush”.
The State Legislature created a county-state partnership to address the problem and in 1927 Wisconsin became the first state in the union to enact a county forest program. In 1933, the Iron County Forest was born.
Wilson says he still remembers the day he walked into a County Board meeting and the County Forest Administrator announced that the County had surpassed $1 million dollars in timber revenue for the year. (These days the County harvests over $2 million in “stumpage value” annually.) “The main income we have to run our County is forestry” said Wilson. “It’s just appalling to me that my colleagues, both county and state, have put all this energy, all this expertise, into bringing this brush into sustainable, saw-log quality forest that will be that way into perpetuity, and our County Board has given it away to a mining man from Florida.”
State law says a county can withdraw land from its county forest program if the benefits of withdrawal will outweigh the benefits of continued entry and if “the land will be put to a better and higher use”. When I asked a DNR county forest specialist who would be working with Iron County on any withdrawal application if he thought using the land for a mine tailings dump would constitute “a better and higher use”, he declined to answer directly. “Ultimately it’s a department decision,” he said.
“Here’s how bad the deal is,” Wilson told me. “When they’re done mining, they’re going to give the land back. They’re going to “reclaim it,” but they haven’t said how. If there’s a problem, in ten years, 50 years, 100 years, it’s our problem. The biggest mistake the County made is, when we get it back, we have a little seedling, if they replant it, and we have to wait another 60 years to get a tree. So we will get $8 million in revenue from them if they mine 35 years, but we lose another $10 to $12 million or more waiting for the land to grow trees again.”
“Without this land, there’s no mine,” states Dick Thiede, who has been researching and blogging on the mining controversy like a bulldog for many years. Thiede sat on the County’s original Mining Impact Committee and was initially in favor of the mine. Then Dennis DeRosso, the County Board Chair at the time, suddenly dissolved the committee and appointed a new one more to his liking. DeRosso, an avid mine supporter, is now deceased.
Thiede says he had a “reasonably cordial relationship” with GTac officials for almost a year. “As time went by,” he said, “I tried to talk to them as engineer to engineer about the technicalities of the project. I first thought I was not hearing them correctly, and then I thought, ‘these people are lying to me’ or else they really have no idea what the hell they are doing. I’m still not exactly sure which it was.
“The reason I’m involved in this is I think they are really nasty people [GTac],” Thiede confided in me. When I asked him if he thought it was possible to mine sustainably in this day and age, he answered: “No. In general, probably not, and in particular, in this place, absolutely not. If you were going to pick the worst place on earth to put an open-pit or mountain-top removal or whatever-you-want-to-call-it-mine, this is it.”
Thiede also said he felt statistics on unemployment and poverty in Iron County were misleading. In the winter, he said, the unemployment is 11 to 13 percent, but it drops to five percent in the summer. There are 115 homes on his lake, he said, but only six families live there full-time. “In the summer, our population shoots from 6,000 to maybe 18,000, certainly at least 12,000.” Besides, he said, a number of people live in an “under the table” cash economy.
“Some people are hurting,” he said, “but you can find work here.” What the region really needs, he opined, are people in professional careers such as doctors, attorneys, dental hygienist and accountants.
Although Thiede came up short in his bid for election to the Iron County Board in the spring of 2014, one of several newcomers who did manage to oust incumbents was Vic Ouimette, a Mercer resident who is head of the Mercer Chamber of Commerce and former chair of the Iron County Democratic Party. These elections were contentious and possibly unprecedented for the amount of outside spending generated for local elections in a rural area.
A few weeks prior to the April 1 election, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) sent flyers to Iron County residents attacking the candidates who were opposing incumbents, even some who happened to be pro-mining. The flyer claimed the local economy was being targeted by wealthy environmental groups from outside Wisconsin. What the flyer failed to say was that Americans for Prosperity is a national conservative political advocacy group founded and funded by David and Charles Koch, two of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country. AFP had just opened an office on Madison’s capitol square, in the same building as a lobbying office that the Koch brothers had opened right after Governor Scott Walker’s election. The Koch brothers invested $10 million dollars and staff resources into supporting Walker’s union-bashing legislation and his recall election.
“My personal opinion is that this is not a good deal for Iron County,” Ouimette told me when I asked him about the county forest lease agreement between GTac and the County Board. “Most of the County Board members at that time admitted, at least off the record, that they never even read it before voting on it.”
Jeff Wilson says he knows most members of the Board personally and doesn’t believe they are corrupt. “All of them are genuine, good, dedicated people that really think they are helping our County by being pro-mine. They remember their grandfather’s mines and they really are sincerely dedicated to promoting the mine for the betterment of Iron County.”
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Next: Hurley and Mercer: A tale of two towns