The Social License: Will the people issue a permit?

This is the last 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.

One irony about the new mining regulations the Wisconsin State Legislature passed and Governor Walker signed is that, rather than expediting and simplifying the permitting process for a mining company, as intended, they actually slow down the process and may have ultimately eliminated a meaningful regulatory role for the State.

Federal agencies, namely the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), will have a large say over whether or not a mine in the Penokees is permitted. Normally the DNR and the Army Corps would collaborate on the review process and drafting of an Environmental Impact Statement but the Corps warned the State during hearings on the new legislation that it might not be able to do so in the future.

The Corps wrote the Wisconsin DNR in late December, 2013, stating: “Thank you for your request that we consider entering into a Memorandum of Understanding for the development of a joint Federal/State Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine in northern Wisconsin. At this time, we must decline the request to jointly develop an EIS, due to differences between the state and federal environmental review requirements that would likely apply to the proposed project.” Copies of the letter went to GTac, the EPA and the Bad River Tribe.

“The Corps is not going to be limited by the State’s timetable,” Al Gedicks said. “The Corps said ‘You can pass whatever laws and timetable you want, but we have a job to do, which is to evaluate the scientific integrity of this process, and if that takes three years or five years, that’s how long it’s going to take.’

“This raises fundamental questions about the premise of the iron mining bill, whether the premise was to permit a mine or whether to attack the integrity of the Mining Moratorium Law and essentially give a green light to other companies that will come after GTac and further use a battering ram to eliminate any kind of environmental restriction,” said Gedicks.

The EPA has regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act and, in fact, the Bad River Ojibwe tribe has been designated by the EPA with status similar to a state to implement and manage the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act within its jurisdiction.  The EPA, for its part, recently put the kibosh on the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska. At more than 2,000 feet deep, the mine would have been one of the largest open-pit mines in the world, generating 10 billion tons of toxic waste. A review by the EPA concluded that the project posed potentially “catastrophic” risks to Bristol Bay and its $480 million salmon fishery.

On July 1, 2014 I met with Tony Janisch, Executive Director of the Bad River Watershed Association, at his office in Ashland. “I believe this battle isn’t going to be won in Mellon or Madison,” he told me. “I think it’s going to be won in Washington. I think the fact that the tribes and the ceded territories are an issue, I think that’s where it’s going to have its play, at the federal level.

“I also believe, and this is my gut feeling,” Janisch added, “that GTac’s gonna leave, but they’ve opened the door for any other company to come in and take over, and we know historically that this happens in mining operations. One company lays the groundwork, they develop this perceived profit, and sell it off to another company. And the laws have been changed so it will be easier for another company to come in.”

Al Gedicks and several others I spoke with referred to the notion that nowadays there’s a new type of permit or license that is not issued by any government agency. People call it the social license.

Bad River near Red Granite Falls

The Bad River near Red Granite Falls

“We have this new term in the mining literature called the social right to operate,” Gedicks explained. “The mining industry understands that getting a permit from a state agency or a government is only the first step in a long process to have a successful extraction. If those government-sanctioned permits and activities are not met with the approval of people at the local level, there are going to be increasing challenges by organized groups of indigenous people, or peasants, or combinations of indigenous and peasants and ordinary workers, as we’re seeing right now in the Lake Superior region.

“When you are displacing massive indigenous populations all over the world, those populations are not any longer going to sit down and have their economies and cultures destroyed without putting up opposition,” said Gedicks. “That means increasing military budgets for pacification, militarization of mining zones, and enormous amounts of resources directed from human needs to an increasing military machine.

“We are seeing, for the first time in the State of Wisconsin, the militarization of a domestic mining zone, with GTac hiring a private security firm to police an area, not from so-called terrorists, but from the public, which wants to have scientific information to make decisions about what resources are extracted and under what conditions.”

Patty Loew at Kakagon Sloughs-0794

Patty Loew

“We’re willing to absorb and accommodate all sorts of things,” said Patty Loew, “but when it gets to our center, and that’s the land, and the cycles and the values and the ethics and the stewardship and everything else about us, that’s where the line gets drawn in the sand and this is what’s being threatened right now.

“I’ve spoken to some of the wisest, most mild-mannered people in my tribe,” she confided, “people who I respect who have incredible wisdom and knowledge, and some who have western degrees and teach at Northland College, people that I know to be really level-headed, who have looked me in the eye and said ‘That mine will not go in here. It will literally go in over my dead body.’ “

GTac cited several reasons for its decision in early 2015 to pull out of Wisconsin for the second time. The company claimed they were surprised at how many wetlands their consultants had discovered on the would-be mine site, and they were concerned about the cost of replacing damaged or destroyed wetlands. They also noted the precedent of the Alaskan Pebble Mine. What they didn’t mention much was the drop in value of iron ore on the world market, largely precipitated by the cooling off of China’s economy. Thomas Powers was quoted in Madison’s Isthmus in late 2015 as saying that the price of iron ore had plunged from nearly $200 per ton to about $50 a ton. Finally, perhaps GTac realized it would have trouble obtaining its “social license” to mine.

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In reviewing a recent book by Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich in the New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates wrote:

“The risk for the culturally displaced is that family life, the core of their existence, will be undermined by the malevolent, rapacious, larger society beyond the reservation.”

I doubt one could find a more apt word than rapacious to capture the mindset and political agenda of Scott Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican legislators. When I talked to people–both native and non-native–over the course of 2014 concerning the conflict in the Penokees, I often asked them: what is at stake here? More often than not, their answer had to do with preserving the integrity of a people, their culture, and their place.

Bad River Pow-Wow at Odanah-0843

A Bad River pow-wow at Odanah

The Nature Conservancy has made a significant investment in the Bad River Watershed, protecting close to 27,000 acres of land. Of course, TNC’s primary mission is to invest in places where natural diversity and rare and endangered species are at risk. When it comes to this million-acre watershed, the organization has inventoried a multitude of resources and species that could be jeopardized by an open-pit, iron-ore mine. These include threatened and endangered species in the Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs such as the Piping Plover, Trumpeter Swan, Yellow Rail and Ram’s-head Lady-slipper Orchid. The upland forests provide safe haven for declining forest birds such as the Golden-winged Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler and Goshawk. Of utmost importance, the watershed links two national forests and sustains a wildlife corridor stretching from Northern Wisconsin to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This corridor is critical for wide-ranging mammals that include moose, elk, wolf, pine marten and bear.

But despite all this, when I asked Matt Dallman of The Nature Conservancy what he thought was really at stake in the Penokees, his answer was simple and straight-forward: “This project is really about water, and water’s a long-time process and we all need it. This public resource needs to be considered as we look at profits gained by a few and this common resource that benefits many.

“To me, the biggest thing at stake isn’t the rarest thing out there. It’s the quality of life and this cultural connection of a people to a plant, this food that grows on water. To me, that wild rice is essentially endangered if this gets mined.”


Tribal Chair Mike Wiggins-0486

Mike Wiggins

Al Gedicks is not what you would call an ivory-tower academic. He has been fighting alongside native people for decades in support of environmental justice. When he speaks, there is always passion and sometimes anger in his voice. “This is classic environmental racism,” he insists. Consultation is a requirement of the treaties negotiated between the Chippewa and the federal government in the 1800s, Gedicks notes, and being excluded from the mine permitting process and prohibited access to ceded land is a violation of treaty rights.

“This is a direct threat to the survival of this culture,” he told me. “It is an ethnocidal threat. If those downstream discharges that inevitably will occur when that waste get placed at the headwaters of the Bad River Watershed, and when those wastes enter the Kakagon Sloughs and Lake Superior, that’s going to destroy not just the economy but the entire culture of the Bad River Chippewa. This is the place where they either survive or they die.”

“Capitalism does not have a conscience,” concludes former Bad River Chair Mike Wiggins, who often sounds like a philosopher when he speaks. “Economics does not have any variable that would allow for a conscience or a consciousness as it relates to things of ‘no value’. So the preservation of ecosystems has no economic value in a capitalistic model. The profit has to be as immediate as possible.

“Shadowing us, like a blanket of death, is the absolute give-away of Wisconsin’s land, waters and environmental protections in the form of the new mining bill written by GTac lobbyists. This is a corporate takeover of Wisconsin, pure and simple,” Wiggins said.

“The last thing that any mining company has to have in order to operate is a social license and there will never be a social license granted by the Bad River Tribe. When it comes time to demonstrate how that social license is rejected, it’s probably going to take place up in the Penokee Hills, and it isn’t going to be a positive thing.

“As long as that ore is in the ground, there’s a shadow over this part of the Lake Superior basin that will never go away,” lamented Wiggins. “Nobody wants to die on a fricken mountainside at the hand of some trained special forces mercenary. Who the hell wants to die that death?  I don’t. But I’ve come to understand that there’s other ways to die too. Rotting in a prison cell is another form of death. At the same time, to stand by and watch my river die … “

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All photos by Tom Boswell©2015. All rights reserved.

Hurley and Mercer: A tale of two towns

This is the seventh 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.


I’m sitting in the public library in Mercer, Wisconsin perusing a history of Iron County. I’m thinking about Jill Hartlev’s comment about Hurley and its “strip bars.” Although living most of my adult life in the southern part of the state, I’d heard rumors about Hurley and its unsavory reputation. The book I’ve found has a map of Hurley’s downtown “business district” in 1900, 15 years after the beginning of the iron boom.

The map shows Silver Street from 1st to 5th Street. I count 40 saloons, as well as barbers, dentists, drugstores, grocers, jewelers, a post office and shops for shoemakers, cigar-makers and dressmakers. The text says there were actually over 50 saloons in Hurley then, “catering to boisterous lumberjacks and miners.” Taverns accounted for a large share of the city’s tax base, each paying $50 a year for a license.

Hurley, the county seat, is tucked on the north end of Iron County, shoulder to shoulder with Ironwood, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The town’s well-earned image of a wild and lawless place began early on. “Gambling, girls and good times” lured adventure-seekers here as much as did the promise of wealth to be made in the mines. “There are lots of chances here to make money, and you would not have to hunt very long to find places to lose it either,” an unidentified newspaper boasted in 1886.

A newspaper notice from October, 1916 reads: “It has been brought to our attention that women of lascivious behavior … have become inmates of places in the village of Hurley. Resolved by the Town of Vaughn to take such steps as necessary to cause all such women and keepers of places harboring them or permitting their resorting to be prosecuted.”

Apparently, the steps taken were not sufficient. In 1942, state tax agents and the FBI swooped down on Silver Street and cleaned up the “bright light” district, jailing 17 men and 34 women. In 1955, the state took action to close seven Hurley taverns on charges that the businesses were nuisances and “a menace to the morals of the community.” In 1964, state agents and the FBI again raided vice operations in Hurley, alleging that 25 exotic dancers were imported to the city to solicit drinks and prostitution during the deer-hunting season. The Iron County Miner newspaper charged: “The time is long overdue for the decent people of Hurley … to demand that the last remnants of vice and indecency be chased out of our city. We are trying to get industry. No business is going to come to Hurley when we get yellow journalism … by allowing what is down the street to give us a bad name. City officials can no longer look at it as a necessary economic evil.”

Still, in 1989, the Hurley City Council approved nudity in taverns. A resident was quoted as saying: “Hurley without a strip joint is like Rome without a pope.”

I continue to skim through the highlights of 150 years of Hurley history. The account is peppered with reports of fires: at the mine sites, in the lumber mills and in the downtown district. In the summer of 1887, a fire destroys all the buildings on one block of Silver Street; another starts in a theater and quickly spreads to burn down most of the business center; a third fire takes out most of the commercial district of neighboring Ironwood.

In 1906 and 1911, Finnish workers organize socialist union locals in the range. (I wonder if Governor Scott Walker and the Koch brothers have considered that a resurgence of mining in the Northwoods might precipitate a resurgence of good-old Wisconsin socialism?) A 1917 newspaper report proclaims: Miners Strike Across Range! “The workers themselves know that it is the best time to break the iron chain that binds us to the ground.” Their demands include $6 dollars of pay per day for six hours of work, and abolition of the contract system and blacklisting of miners.

In 1939, the Iron County Forest records its first stumpage revenue of $678.78.

In 1946, due to increased traffic and congestion, Hurley city officials erect a four-way stop sign at Silver Street and 2nd Avenue. As far as I can ascertain, there is still no actual stoplight anywhere in Iron County, a county of 574,000 acres or 792 square miles.

The population of Iron County peaked in 1920 at about 10,260 and has been declining steadily ever since. The estimated population for 2014 was 5,916. Hurley’s population is about 1,524. Although Mercer is technically just a town, its population of about 1,430 nearly matches that of Hurley.

Dick Thiede, Iron County mining blogger

Dick Thiede, Iron County resident

Dick Thiede, the blogger and mine opponent, noted that Hurley has been recognized by national media as one of the “kinkiest” cities in the country. He diplomatically characterizes the government of Iron County as “free-form.”

“I don’t want to imply any kind of graft or corruption because there isn’t enough money here to do much,” he explained. “But there is ego and power involved.”

Mercer, in contrast to Hurley, resembles a typical northern Wisconsin tourist town, with an economy and culture centered on lakes and fishing. The one coffee shop in town doubles as a tackle and bait store. There are 300 lakes in Iron County and most of them are located in the southern portion of the county.

Vic Ouimette, Iron Co. Board Member & President, Mercer Chamber of Commerce

Vic Ouimette

Vic Ouimette, the Mercer Chamber leader, told me the average value of a house in Hurley is $40,000, compared to about $220,000 for a house in Mercer. The wealth of lakes has enabled southern Iron County to develop a more healthy economy, Ouimette said. “With the tourist economy, you also bring along second-home owners, and that’s why average value of a home down here is high.”

The area around Hurley lacks the lakefront property, he added “That old mining mentality is there: if we just get the mines back, it will be like it was in the old days, and so they’re still living in the old days. Whereas, down here we didn’t have that, so we’re not looking at going back; we’re looking at going forward.”

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All photos by Tom Boswell©2015. All rights reserved.

Next and Last: The Social License: Will the people issue a permit?

Jobs and Economics:

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.”

Russell Buccanero at Ground Zero-1090

Russell Buccanero on his land in the Penokees that abuts the would-be mine site

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.

Jill Hartlev close-up

Jill Hartlev of the Bad River Tribe

“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.

Jeff Wilson, Mercer, WI

Jeff Wilson, Iron County resident

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.

Vic Ouimette, Iron Co. Board Member & President, Mercer Chamber of Commerce

Vic Ouimette of Mercer

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

All photos by Tom Boswell©2015. All rights reserved.

Changing the Rules of the Game:

This is the fifth 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.

Money Doesn’t Talk, It Swears

I didn’t say that. Bob Dylan said that. You know, that guy from Hibbing, Minnesota, home of the world’s largest taconite mine. Maybe he discovered before he left the Midwest what people in Wisconsin are just learning now: money talks with a loud and sometimes nasty voice when it comes to mining.

Some people aren’t convinced that billionaire Chris Cline and his little company by Lake Superior ever intended to build their iron mine in the Penokees. They suspect that the intent was to grease the skids for something more substantial than low-grade iron ore. They point to the interest of international companies in mining copper, gold, zinc and other minerals known to exist in the region.

Dick Thiede, a retired engineer and scientist living in southern Iron County, maintains that the game all along for Cline and his company was to increase the monetary value of the land and build a prospectus. Thiede says that a friend of his, a mining executive, told him early on that “most money made in mining is not done by mining.”

Dick Thiede, Iron County mining blogger

Dick Thiede, Iron County resident and mining blogger

Activist and scholar Al Gedicks expanded on this notion: Cline and Gogebic Taconite (GTac) are what the industry refers to as “junior partners,” he said. “They have no experience in iron mining. They have experience operating coal mines with massive environmental violations … and putting their major investment into buying legislators and legislation.

“What GTac has invested in is essentially creating a permittable mine without having any expertise or, for that matter, any financial resources to go ahead with the full project. That’s what junior mining companies do.”

John and Connie Franke are the nearest full-time residents to what would have been the site of the GTac mine. They are a retired couple who met at UW-Stevens Point, where John studied water science. They purchased property in the Penokees in 1991 and built their home in 1999. For most of his life, John’s family has had a hunting cabin in these same hills.

John and Connie Franke-0880

John and Connie Franke, residents of the Penokees

John told me his parents had been approached way back in the early 1960s by people wanting to sample for minerals under their hunting land in Iron County. “The thing that always stuck in my mind was: the iron quality was poor, and it didn’t make any sense why they’d want to build an open-pit mine because of the difficulty of getting the ore body out. It just didn’t make any sense when you’re talking 70 to 80 percent of the material that would be removed is waste.

“Then, when the laws got changed to benefit GTac,” he said, “it started to make more sense to me that they’re not here for the iron ore. They’re here for what’s in the waste product. Now they’ve got the ability to remove this iron ore and extract whatever’s in that waste, whether it be gold, copper, silver or whatever.”

Wisconsin, once known for its staunch environmental standards, has now become a testing ground for new rules and regulations regarding mining. USA Today has reported that international mining corporations, policy-makers and scholars are all looking to Wisconsin to see how low environmental standards will go for open-pit mining. For those looking to loosen regulations, it didn’t hurt that Wisconsin now had a governor, Scott Walker, who took office proclaiming that the state was “open for business,” a governor with presidential ambitions eager to display his conservative credentials.

Early in 2011, Gogebic Taconite officials promised the people of northern Wisconsin that they would not seek to change the state’s mining laws. A few months later, they proceeded to do just that. The first bill they circulated met with a public outcry and was withdrawn, only to be followed by a very similar bill at the end of the year.

AB 426 met with strong opposition but was passed along party lines by the Republican-dominated State Assembly. But when the bill moved to the State Senate, it was narrowly defeated, with Senator Dale Schultz the only Republican voting against it. GTac left the state shortly thereafter.

It was acknowledged that GTac and mining industry interests played a large role in drafting this first bill. In early 2013, another bill was introduced and passed in the legislature. This time, it became apparent that the fingerprints of GTac and various other special interests were all over it.

Act 1 significantly changed the rules of the game in terms of mining regulation and the permitting process. The new law expedites the permitting process and limits the role of citizens and the DNR. It baldly states “that attracting and aiding new mining enterprises and expanding the mining industry in Wisconsin is part of Wisconsin’s public policy.” A particularly egregious section reads: “the use of wetlands for bulk sampling and mining activities, including the disposal or storage of mining wastes or materials, or the use of other lands for mining activities that would have a significant adverse impact on wetlands, is presumed to be necessary.” [Emphasis added.]

“It was not a law drafted with science in mind,” commented Kim Wright of Midwest Environmental Advocates. “It was drafted to allow them to create a mine where it makes no sense, economic, environmentally or otherwise. It’s incredibly dishonest and against Wisconsin’s way of doing law.”

One of the main accomplishments of Act 1 was to circumvent Wisconsin’s Mining Moratorium Law, passed in 1998 by an overwhelming majority in both houses of the legislature and signed into law by Republican governor Tommy Thompson. The law requires that before the state can issue a permit for mining of sulfide ore bodies, prospective miners must first provide an example of a metallic sulfide mine in the U.S. or Canada that has not polluted surface or groundwater during or after mining.

Act 1 attempts to distinguish between ferrous and non-ferrous mining in order to skirt the mining moratorium. “The premise of the legislation is that iron mining is different from sulfide mining,” explained Gedicks. “The existing regulatory framework for sulfide mining, which includes the Mining Moratorium Law, still applies to the iron formation in Iron and Ashland counties because it is mixed with sulfide, both in the ore body itself and in the waste materials, and there’s no geologic dispute about this.” USGS, GLIFWC and various scientists “have confirmed that the distinction between iron oxide and iron sulfide is meaningless because both are present in the ore body,” Gedicks said. “To base an entire regulatory framework on a false scientific premise that this is exclusively an iron oxide deposit has no scientific basis whatsoever.”

Shortly before Act 1 was enacted, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan government watchdog group based in Madison, released a report indicating that special interests favoring mining deregulation had contributed $15.6 million to Governor Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature between 2010 and early 2012. They outspent environmental groups by a ratio of $610 to $1. The pro-mining groups making campaign contributions included manufacturing, construction, banking and transportation concerns.

Walker received over $11 million during this period including $67,068 from Chris Cline, his employees and other mining industry executives. Republican Senator Alberta Darling of suburban Milwaukee accepted $467,293 in contributions from pro-mining interests. She spent a record $1.23 million during the 2011 recall elections to retain her seat. Tom Tiffany, a rabid pro-mining and anti-environment legislator, received nearly $75,000.

Although this was not exactly “chump change,” it only became apparent two years after the 2012 elections that it took a lot more to change lawmakers and laws. It took “dark money” too.

The dark money that helped elect pro-mining legislators, re-elect Governor Walker and pave the way for pro-mining legislation was disclosed by accident. A Chicago Appeals Court hearing litigation regarding a John Doe probe into Walker’s campaign, the Wisconsin Club for Growth and other conservative groups inadvertently released a 24-page document for a few hours. The document revealed that Gogebic Taconite had secretly donated $700,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth, a pro-business advocacy group led by Walker’s campaign advisor. An email contained in the court document, sent by a Walker campaign consultant to a Walker advisor and the Club for Growth, said: “Wisconsin Club for Growth can accept corporate and personal donations without limitations and no donor disclosure.”

The Wisconsin Club for Growth later donated nearly $3 million to the Issues Mobilization Council of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business lobby. Together, the Club for Growth and WMC attacked Democratic State Senator Bob Jauch, who had worked for alternative mining legislation, and Dale Schultz, the lone Republican senator who had voted against the first mining bill.

When the dark money came to light in August, 2014, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel quoted Jauch as saying: “It is Louisiana-sleaze politics in which big money thinks it can spend enough to get the government it wants.” Schultz commented: “They have obviously tried to channel their money in places where the public won’t see it.”

Mike McCabe, the former director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said: “This is pay-to-play, and perhaps that’s become politics as usual. It’s not the way politics used to work in Wisconsin, but maybe it’s the new normal.”

In September, 2014 I heard Tim Cullen, a former Democratic state senator, speak in Janesville about the Penokee mine issue and the “new normal” in Wisconsin politics. It was about a month after revelation of the $700,000 donation and Cullen was addressing a group called the Rock County Progressives. He had represented Janesville and Rock County in the Senate and, with Jauch and Schultz, formed a triumvirate that attempted, unsuccessfully, to reach compromise and pass an alternative mining bill. He was sometimes perceived by his Democratic colleagues as being too moderate.

Cullen served in the Senate during the 1970s and 80s, including three years as Senate Majority Leader. After a hiatus of more than 20 years, he was re-elected in 2010. He also served as Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services under Republican Governor Thompson.

“We now know from the emails that the Club for Growth dumped $2.5 million dollars, $700,000 at least which was from GTac, into the Issues Mobilization fund,” Cullen informed the group in Janesville. “Their lobbyist told me, in front of a reporter, that they dumped $2 million dollars of that $2.5 million into the 18th Senate seat election in the last 60 days.”

The 18th Senate District seat, held by first-term senator Jessica King, had been determined by Republicans to be the most vulnerable. “That was the most crucial election of 2012,” explained Cullen, “because it would give the Republicans what they called a ‘Schultz-proof State Senate’. They spent over $5 million dollars to beat Jessica King. Remarkably, she raised a million dollars. She was outspent five to one, lost by about 600 votes out of about 84,000. And they got the Schultz-proof Senate. That’s how this bill, this awful law we have now, came to be.”

Cullen went on to talk about the mine, GTac, and how the new law had changed the rules of the game. He said that 70 to 80 percent of what would be extracted from the mine would be waste, and that this amounted to 30 million tons a year, a billion tons over the projected 35-year life of the project.

Tyler Forks

Tyler Forks in the Penokees

“The problem GTac had was how to profitably mine there if they had to haul all that waste out by truck or train. They had to change all the environmental laws. They couldn’t mine profitably there if they couldn’t dump the waste in the water.

“What they did with the water was three things,” Cullen continued. “First, they said there’s just puddles up there in the Penokees, so they ought to be able to dump the waste in the puddles. Well, when we saw the bill, which is now law, a puddle turns out to be anything less than two acres, which is two football fields. That’s hardly what I think of as a puddle.

“Then they said, there’s these tiny streams and rivers up there, and they’re not a problem. As if this water doesn’t all come together and flow downhill together. So they said, any little stream or river less than two miles long you ought to be able to dump waste in. We actually looked at all the rivers and streams up there less than two miles long. If you put them end to end, there’s 108 miles of rivers and streams less than two miles long that now, with the law, they can dump waste in.

“Third, the old law said, when it comes to mining, there was a presumption it was unnecessary to dump mining waste in a wetland. Well, they fixed that pretty easily. They got rid of the letters un. Now the law says it is presumed necessary for a mining company to dump the waste into a wetland.”

Cullen pointed out that the taxation structure arrived at by Republicans was also controversial. “The bill I developed, patterned after Minnesota, said there would be a tonnage tax. You take a ton of iron ore out of the ground and you pay a tonnage tax that goes back to the local area. Instead, they put a net proceeds tax in the law. A net proceeds tax allows a company, a multi-national company, to shift costs from Wisconsin and never show a profit. No profit, no taxes.”

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All photos by Tom Boswell©2015. All rights reserved.

Next: Jobs and Economics: Not your grandfather’s mine anymore

The Geology of the Penokees:

What’s In Those Rocks Anyway?

This is the fourth 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.

Well, first of all there are rocks, and out of rocks come minerals. (I think.) I must confess I never took a geology class in school and never missed it. But in August, 2014 I took a weekend class on the geology of the Penokees with Tom Fitz, a geology professor at Northland College. Fitz loves rocks and figuring out what they’re made of, and he has become rather notorious in Wisconsin for what he’s found in those rocks in the Penokees. (More on that later.)

There were about two dozen of us in that class. We spent the first day in a room at the college and the second out in the field, scouring the Penokees with Fitz, looking at rocks. After the first half-day of class, I felt like my head was spinning, as if it had just been hit by a meteor. A meteor did in fact hit, near what is now Lake Superior, but that was about 1.85 billion years ago, according to Fitz.

The impact of the meteor was such a shock that it caused massive tsunamis, the oceans  swayed and shook, and the chemistry of seawater was altered irrevocably. One upshot of this geologic Judgement Day was that it marked the end of iron formation.

Ironwood Formation in Penokees-0875

Iron-rich rock in the Penokees

A long strip of iron-rich rock called the Ironwood Formation forms the backbone of the Penokee Range. It is sandwiched between the wider Tyler Formation on the north and the Palms Formation to the south. The main minerals in the Ironwood Formation are quartz and magnetite, an iron oxide. It is this second mineral that interests the mining companies.

When we went out in the Penokees, we found that a compass would sometimes go haywire because of the high level of ferrous iron in the magnetite. The needle of the compass would point toward the rock rather than true north. Geology professor J.A. Latham from the University of Wisconsin walked this same range in 1858 and reported the presence of iron ore. A trapper discovered the first commercial iron ore body in 1879. The first boom began in 1885 and went bust two years later. Between about 1885 and 1964, miners extracted over 325 million tons of ore from the eastern end of the range. This was a softer, high-grade ore, containing 60 percent or more magnetite. Miners used narrow shafts and tunnels to dig it out, and then it was shipped directly to the blast furnaces. Mining died out in the Penokees when this high-grade ore grew scarce.

What remains today is taconite, a low-grade rock that can still be mined profitably provided it is rich enough in magnetite. It needs to be at least 20 percent iron by weight, according to Fitz, and he says the taconite ore found in the Penokees is 25 to 30 percent iron. New technology and the magnetic property of the taconite make it relatively easy to crush and extract the ore using large magnets. The deposit in the Ironwood Formation is said to contain about 3.7 billion tons of ore that could be profitably extracted, making it one of the largest iron reserves remaining in North America.

But there are problems. Al Gedicks, a sociology professor at UW-La Crosse and an anti-mining activist who has been working with Wisconsin’s Indian tribes for several decades, argues that modern mining is inherently problematic due to the nature of the remaining resource.

“There’s no such thing as small projects anymore,” Gedicks contends, “because the reality is that all the rich deposits have already been exhausted.

“The remaining deposits are low-grade, which means, in order to make a profit, you have to increase the volume, which means, for the most part, open-pit mining, which means moving vast amounts of material, over 90 percent of which ends up as waste.”

A major obstacle would be the fact that the Ironwood Formation is tilted to the north at about a 65 degree angle, due to tectonic forces dating back over a billion years. This would make it more cumbersome to reach the ore.  Since the ore is sandwiched between two other formations, miners would need to dig through the slate and quartz of the aforementioned Tyler Formation to access it. This waste rock, called overburden, would have to be stored on site, along with the tailings, which is the quartz that remains when the taconite is crushed down into small particles.

A report prepared by GLIFWC in 2011 estimated that a mine producing 8 million tons of taconite pellets per year would also produce 24 million tons of ore, ten million tons of waste rock and 16 million tons of tailings.

“The deeper you go, and the steeper the slopes, the greater the possibility of the entire structure collapsing of its own weight,” Gedicks told me when I met with him in La Crosse in early 2014. “This is clearly a major challenge to what is proposed in the Penokee Hills.” The year before, he said, the slopes collapsed at the largest open-pit copper mine in the world, in Salt Lake City, causing major damage.

GTac was first planning a 4.5-mile-long mine, to eventually be stretched to 22 miles in length. They later proposed reducing the width of the mine from a mile and a half down to a half-mile wide. The narrow base could be a problem, Gedicks suggested. “The steeper the slopes and deeper you go, the larger the base you need to create stability.”

If the GTac mine was a half-mile wide, it would be slightly smaller than the largest open-pit iron mine in the world, which is at Hibbing, MN on the Mesabi Iron Range. If the proposed mine in the Penokees was a mile and a half wide, it would exceed the largest open-pit taconite mine.

Early mines in the Penokees “were principally local, underground mines that targeted high-grade ores in the upper Ironwood Formation, yet the Tyler Formation was consistently avoided in excavating mine shafts, presumably because of its low strength,” wrote Marcia Bjornerud in a study for GLIFWC. Bjornerud is a geology professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. “This suggests that the walls of a deep open-pit mine in the Tyler Formation may be difficult to stabilize without extensive engineering,” she continued, seeming to concur with Gedick’s assessment.

Another major concern that her research revealed was the potential for acid mine drainage. Bjornerud found pyrite (iron sulfide) and other sulfide minerals prevalent throughout the Tyler Formation and in one section of the Ironwood. When pyrite and other sulfides are pulverized and come in contact with oxygen and water at the earth’s surface, they can undergo chemical reactions that create sulfuric acid. The acid can leach harmful metals and compounds that end up in ground and surface water.

“The presence of disseminated sulfide minerals at all levels within the overlying Tyler Formation makes the potential for acid drainage from an open-pit mine a serious concern,” Bjornerud concluded. “The very fine grain size and disseminated nature of the sulfides in the Tyler Formation could act to exacerbate the production of acidic solutions,” she continued. “Moreover, because rock from the Ironwood Formation would be crushed onsite as part of the magnetic separation process, this material would be left as especially fine-grained waste rock with very high acid generation potential unless it was carefully identified and isolated on a continuous basis as the mine excavation progressed.”

Tom Fitz - Northland College-0869

Tom Fitz of Northland College lecturing about the Ironwood Formation in the Penokees.

Perhaps the concern about the Penokee rocks that has attracted the most attention is the presence of asbestos. Actually, what Fitz and other geologists have found in the Penokees is not asbestos, which is a commercial term, but grunerite, one of a group of minerals called amphiboles. The amphiboles are composed of elements like silica, iron, magnesium and calcium. They are dangerous when they break down into long, skinny fibers that look like worms when viewed under a microscope.

Mining opponents like Dave Blouin of the Sierra Club’s Madison chapter point to a University of Minnesota study that linked exposure to grunerite among taconite miners in Minnesota to mesothelioma, a rare but lethal form of lung cancer.

Fitz says the grunerite was initially discovered by DNR scientists, who then invited him to go out in the field and look at it. Fitz went out several more times with a woman from the Bad River tribe in the fall of 2013. “We found it in a lot more places in Ashland County, and it started to get a lot more press. It wasn’t long after that that the legislature passed that bill that says you can’t go on the land anymore.”

Fitz was attacked by GTac on various blogs; the company claimed he didn’t know what he was talking about. “None of this really affected me that much because I’m just doing the science,” Fitz told me. “I honestly don’t care that they’re attacking me.”

Ironically, since GTac has left the state, the president of the La Pointe Iron Company has invited United States Geological Survey (USGS) scientists in to study the extent of amphibole minerals in the Penokee Range. USGS will also be researching the regional impact of that meteor, supposedly the second largest ever recorded.

When I met Fitz for dinner in Ashland after our day of prowling around in the Penokee Hills, I asked him what was really important, in the big scheme of things, when you are working in a science that uses millions of years as the base unit. I was a little surprised by his answer.

“In terms of the earth, I don’t care,” he said, “but I care a lot about people and that people have good lives, and that means that we have a clean environment to live in. It also means protecting culture, like the Native American culture and their heritage here.”

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All photos by Tom Boswell©2015. All rights reserved.

Next: Changing the Rules of the Game: Money Doesn’t Talk, It Swears

Treaty Rights: This Land is Whose Land?

Grassroots Battle by the Gichigami: — Part 3

This is the third 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 weekly.


One of those artesian wells Joan Elias mentioned sits on the homestead of Joe Rose and he is mighty proud of it. The outlet of the well is just a stone’s throw from the Lake Superior shore. He offered me a taste when I met him at his place. It was good. I filled my water bottle to the brim.

Rose is a Bad River tribal elder and was the director and associate professor of Native American Studies at Northland College, where he taught for nearly 40 years. (He still maintains an office at the college.) On April 1, 2014, about three months before my visit, he was elected to the Ashland County Board, running on an anti-mining platform. (He won 106-2 on the Bad River reservation.)

His homestead stretches along the Big Lake. Besides the well, there are several houses, cabins, outbuildings and a roundhouse. Inside the roundhouse, Rose shows me maps of the watershed and gives me pamphlets detailing the history of Ojibwe treaty rights. In native culture, the roundhouse is a place for ceremonial and spiritual activity. It is a sacred space. It was here that three Wisconsin state senators met with tribal elders one night and, as one later put it, “we sat for three hours and just listened to the elders and tribal leaders talk about Mother Earth.”

The property is often used as an outdoor laboratory for students from the college and a place for Bad River youth to camp and learn about nature and native traditions. Rose has been harvesting wild rice since he was nine years old.

“Wild rice is just an example of what would happen with a mining discharge,” he told me. “It would impact the whole food chain. I don’t think there’s any way they can control that during flood stage. There are about two dozen streams just north of the Penokee Ridge, most of them Outstanding Resource Water (ORW). Most of them support brook trout, which is an indicator species of a pristine, cold-water environment, and these streams all empty into several different rivers.”

Joe Rose, Tribal Elder

Joe Rose, Bad River Tribal Elder

Rose said the water quality where the Bad River flows into Lake Superior has already been negatively impacted, primarily through sedimentation. “I would fish there with my grandfather for lake trout when I was young,” he recalled. “We took a tin cup with. You didn’t have to take water along because the water was good to drink then.”

“A mining project of that size and nature is going to take a tremendous amount of water,” Rose pointed out.   Some people estimate it would have required from 1.5 million to three million gallons of water a day, plus massive quantities of energy, contributing  greenhouse gases and mercury to the atmosphere.

Rose mentioned that much of the land GTac intended to use for the mine infrastructure and for dumping waste was not private land but public land. Much of it the company was leasing from Iron County. The northern third of the state, he noted, was ceded territory, and the Penokee mine site fell well within the ceded territory. “We have treaty-reserved rights to hunt, fish and gather in the ceded territories in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. If those rights to hunt, fish and gather are interfered with by pollution, we have legal recourse.”

“It’s so unethical, immoral, unconscionable that the State would agree to this taconite mine in our ceded territory where we have these treaty rights,” Patty Loew asserted. “We should be at the table when any decisions about our resources to hunt, fish and gather are coming up, but we haven’t been.”

In a 2014 article in Lake Superior Magazine, Winona LaDuke detailed how her people dominated the Great Lakes with trade, agriculture and fishing for hundreds of years, with Madeline Island (Mooningwanekaaningminis) serving as the heart of their sprawling home. “French fur traders sought our favor and ultimately our culture, as the Voyageurs would marry into our fine Ojibwe families,” she wrote.

But, by the early to mid-1800s, the new nation’s lust for material wealth in the form of minerals and lumber led it to sign treaty after treaty with the Ojibwe people. “It was cheaper in money and lives for the fledgling U.S. nation to treaty for land than to fight wars,” LaDuke noted. An Indian agent at La Pointe on Madeline Island had supposedly calculated that the nations there had sold 11 million acres in the 1837 treaty for less than eight cents an acre. The 1842 copper treaty paid the Northwest Territory Chippewa seven cents an acre for 12 million acres. But this treaty also stipulated (Article VI) that “the Indians residing on the Mineral district shall be subject to removal therefrom at the pleasure of the President of the United States.”

Many of the treaties included a clause such as this one from the 1842 treaty: “Whereas the Indians have expressed a strong desire to have some provision made for their half breed relatives, therefore it is agreed that fifteen thousand (15,000) dollars shall be paid to said Indians, next year, as a present, to be disposed of as they, together with their agent, shall determine in council.”

Larry Nesper, a professor of Anthropology and American Indian Studies at UW-Madison has been researching the period between the 1854 and 1855 treaties and the year 1860, when a number of mining operations were chartered as corporations and obtained land via the treaties. The intent of the U.S. government at the time, Nesper says, was to “cut up the big, commonly-held tribal estates” and give responsibility for the land to individual heads of family “for purposes of integrating these people into this wonderful agricultural, lumbering and mineral economy that we have.”

George W. Manypenny, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, wrote in his report to the Department of Interior in November, 1854 that “There are … a few small bands of the Chippewa of Lake Superior who still occupy their former locations on lands ceded by the treaties of 1837 and 1842. It has not, thus far, been found necessary or practicable to remove them. They are very unwilling to relinquish their present residencies, as are all the other bands of the same Indians; and it may be necessary to permit them all to remain, in order to acquire a cession of the large tract of country they still own east of the Mississippi, which, on account of its great mineral resources, it is an object of material importance to obtain.”

Three months later, in the treaty of 1855, Manypenny stipulated that not just Indians, (heads of family or single person over 21 years of age), but “mixed bloods” also “shall have granted to them, in fee, eighty acres of land, to include their respective improvements.”

“So, the provision of the treaty says, if you’re a mixed blood, and at the time they came up with a list of 278 of them, you could identify an 80-acre parcel of land and get a patent for that land,” Nesper told me.

“What would happen is that a number of businessmen would get to these mixed bloods, get power-of-attorney over them, and tell them ‘I’m going to pay you money down the road, but for right now what I want you to do is allow me to name a particular parcel of land for you.’ And the land happened to be in the Penokees, because those businessmen, trader types, were familiar with the recent geological surveys that were done in the late 1840s and the 1850s.”

Nesper explained to me that most of the so-called mixed bloods were probably bi-lingual, speaking French and Ojibwe, and the people who got the land parcels had French names. “So here’s a mixed blood family, they’ve been living within sight of Lake Superior for generations. Their orientation is toward the fur trade. The fur trade is on the decline, certainly on the wane by the 1850s … and the tribes are amenable to the treaties, in part because they can’t get the goods they want from the sale of furs anymore. They’ve got to sell something else, so selling land is what they’re doing.”

“Back to businessmen who are sitting these mixed bloods down, getting them to put their X on pieces of paper that basically capitalize or turn their treaty rights into something,” Nesper continued. “Ultimately it’s going to be $100, because that land is worth, at the time, according to the federal government, no less than $1.25 an acre. So all you have to do is put your X here and soon I’ll give you $100. As far as we know, that promise was lived up to. One hundred dollars in 1857 or 1858 is a lot of money.

“Some of these mixed bloods did, in fact, redeem their right to an 80-acre parcel of land … and in a sense were acquiescing to federal policy of the time, because the policy said to settle these people on private plots of land and let’s franchise them in this agricultural economy that we’re trying to build. Some mixed bloods wanted to do that, as far as we can tell. Others monetized their treaty right.

“What did the federal officials think was their responsibility towards these mixed bloods? That’s what I’m interested in.  And how is it that the federal officials effectively talked themselves out of their trust responsibility toward the mixed bloods? Because the mixed bloods were not citizens of the United States, they were subjects of the U.S.

“It’s in the federal government’s interest to protect Indian people from the rapacious business interests that could look at a treaty right and immediately see how much that was worth in terms of something else, its exchange value. So why didn’t it do that in 1854? Unless they just didn’t anticipate that this would happen,” said Nesper.

So, as Joe Rose had mentioned to me, much of the land that Iron County now chose to lease to GTac was public land that had been Bad River tribal allotments. “People were swindled out of those allotments at a very early time,” he said.

Indian people were considered incompetent to handle their own affairs, Rose added, so it was handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). When the lumber and mining companies began to covet the land, they issued Certificates of Competency to get hold of the land. “Most people did not speak the English language,” said Rose. “Even when I was a kid growing up on the reservation, there were people here who didn’t speak English yet, and the ones who did, it was only functional, not fluent. And for somebody to understand words like power-of-attorney, they wouldn’t know what the hell that was.”

In 1856, the Wisconsin and Lake Superior Mining and Smelting Company made the first serious attempt to exploit the iron ore deposits in the Penokees, and the La Pointe Iron Company followed in 1859. La Pointe still owns about a third of the iron-bearing minerals in the Penokee Range and had leased the land to GTac. La Pointe claims to be the oldest corporation in the state.

Nesper alleges that La Pointe was entirely capitalized with land purchased from mixed blood people. In the case of Wisconsin and Lake Superior Mining, Nesper says the company capitalized almost half its land from mixed blood people who were living near Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi. These people were actually part of a 500,000-acre mixed blood reservation that was established through an 1830 treaty with the Sioux. The Sioux gave certificates to the Ojibwe to redeem for 640-acre parcels in the Penokees. It was these certificates that the Wisconsin and Lake Superior Mining Company acquired for its mineral holdings. But the company and the planned settlements it started to develop were short-lived; they fizzled out with the financial panic of 1857.

“A treaty land cession is a dramatic moment for a landscape,” Nesper explains. “It transforms the legal status of the land overnight or in a very short period, and makes all kinds of things possible that never were possible before.

“We had 278 people entitled to 80-acre parcels of land, and within four years many of those parcels are in the possession of these newly created mining companies. So Gogebic Taconite has an option to lease from a company that came into existence capitalized by mixed bloods. I don’t know if that is actionable from a legal perspective, but I do find it interesting, to wonder how this was made possible, and wonder what sort of ethical light that sheds on an extractive undertaking.”

In 1887 came the Dawes or General Allotment Act, which took the remaining communal tribal lands of most of the Indian nations and divided them into 160-acre parcels, to be allotted to individual Indian families. Sponsored by U.S. Senator Henry Dawes, the act was considered a liberal reform to benefit the Indians. Dawes himself explained it best, stating: “They [the Indians] have got as far as they can go, because they own their land in common. There is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbor’s. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.”

In his book, In the Absence of the Sacred, Jerry Mander described how successful the “reforms” were, noting that Indians lost more than 60 percent of their tribal land base, as well as most of the individually held allotted lands, due to fraud by white buyers. Adding Indian lands leased to white economic interests, the estimated total loss of Indian land was about 90 percent.

“The Allotment Act may have been the greatest single blow to Indian sovereignty ever,” Mander wrote, “since it struck at the heart of the fundamental collectivism of Indian economic and political life.”

Not all Indian people were properly reformed, of course. Many flunked the class on “selfishness.” Patty Loew was apparently one of these. “We’re not capitalists,” she told me. “We’re a tribe, and there’s an obligation to the group. We’re an Indian nation that has this foundational principle of tribalism. It’s oppositional and contradictory to capitalism. That makes a lot of people nervous.”

Patty Loew at Kakagon Sloughs-0794

Patty Loew, UW Professor and member of Bad River Band


Loew said the Allotment Act came late to the Bad River reservation. Indian agents used it to arrange “really sweet deals” for the lumber companies. The money from timber sales was supposed to be deposited in interest-bearing accounts for the Indians. But instead the agent would deposit it in his own account and make no-interest loans to the Stearns Lumber Company.

“Upwards of $136 billion was lost or swindled from these individual Indian money accounts,” said Loew. “Stearns Lumber Company owned everything and Indian agents were in cahoots.” Justin Smith Stearns started the lumber company in Odanah in 1894, and went on to form a dozen more companies in Michigan, Kentucky, Florida and elsewhere. The Indian trust funds were mismanaged for 150 years, Loew said, but eventually her grandfather got Senator Robert (Fighting Bob) La Follette to come and hold hearings on the reservation and the Indian agent lost his job.

Fast forward to the turn of this past century. Large timber corporations like Georgia Pacific and Plum Creek still owned a generous portion of Wisconsin’s north woods, including land that had once belonged to the Bad River tribe, land lost through the allotment process. But some of these companies were looking to unload their holdings.

In 1997, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) purchased Caroline Lake and some surrounding land, about 1,000 acres in all, from Georgia Pacific for $575,000. Caroline is a tranquil and pristine lake situated south of the Penokee ridge. It is also the headwaters of the Bad River.

About five years later, TNC purchased an option on several large parcels within the reservation boundaries from the paper companies, and then transferred ownership to the Bad River tribe. (They also did the same with land in the sloughs.)

Loew recalls those days: “We literally took out a mortgage to buy the land. It was a world of hurt for us. We had to close the tribal newspaper; there were a whole lot of social service needs that went unmet. We’re one of the poorest tribes in the state, but people were willing to do that. I don’t think there was anyone opposed to it.”


Caroline Lake and a beaver dam where the Bad River begins.

Matt Dalman, who works for TNC out of their office in Minocqua, characterized all these preservation efforts as “piecemeal.” About two-thirds of the watershed was still owned by mining interests. So TNC next called U.S. Steel and asked if they were interested in selling their land in the watershed. They also contacted owners of the LaPointe Iron Company, who told TNC “If U.S. Steel sells to you, that’s probably the way we’ll go.” At the time, LaPointe owned about 6,000 acres in Iron County and 9,000 in neighboring Ashland County.

“In the middle of our negotiations [with U.S. Steel],” Dalman recollected, “Russell Gordy came in and slapped on a non-compete agreement because he bought some ungodly amount of acres, like one point some million acres, of sub-surface rights and 300,000 acres of surface lands. And he bought it all at once.

“So U.S. Steel said, ‘Look, we can’t negotiate on this deal when we’ve got a one-stop shop. The guy wants the whole thing.’ So they end up selling it to Russell Gordy.” Next TNC approached Gordy, who said he would entertain a proposal, but then a Chinese firm entered the picture, saying they were interested in developing a mine. The Chinese took a couple years examining data from U.S. Steel’s core samples, and then they lost interest.

Another year or two passed, TNC didn’t get back in touch with Gordy, and then Chris Cline came along with his proposal to mine the Penokees.

Back in 2003, when TNC was negotiating with U.S. Steel to purchase a 16,000-acre conservation easement, it applied for funds from the Forest Legacy Program. Other conservation funds were to be used to help the U.S. Forest Service buy another 6,000 acres, which would have meant 22,000 acres along the Penokee Range reserved for recreation and timber production.

Congress created the Forest Legacy Program to identify and protect environmentally important private forest land threatened with conversion to non-forest uses. The state DNR works with USDA’s Forest Service to purchase conservation easements from willing sellers to keep land in forest. Congress actually appropriated $3,450,000 in the 2003 Fiscal Year for what was called the Bad River Headwaters project. This was before Russell Gordy stepped in.

Gordy, through his Texas corporation, RGGS Land and Minerals, owns nearly two-thirds of the mineral rights in the range today, and LaPointe Iron Company, based in Minnesota, owns most of the remainder.

A number of people I spoke with questioned why anyone would want to mine this part of the Penokees when one of the largest steel companies in the world had studied the land and then walked away from it. What did U.S. Steel know that Chris Cline and others either did not know or chose to ignore?

“Given what we know today, we have 112 years of iron resources available that don’t need to be explored,” noted Dalman. “So given that fact, there’s no reason anybody would peel the earth open for this sub-par, non-economic deposit.”

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Next: The Geology of the Penokees: What’s in those rocks anyway?

Wild Rice: The food that grows on water

Grassroots Battle by the Gichigami: — Part 2

This is the second 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.


In the earliest Anishinaabeg stories and prophecies, wild rice or manoomin was known as “the food that grows upon the water.” It was over 1,500 years ago that the Anishinaabeg migrated here from the east, stopping when they found the place where wild rice was growing on the lakes and marshes. The Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs is home to one of the largest wild rice beds in the world.

Winona LaDuke, a leader of the White Earth reservation in Minnesota and the Green Party candidate for vice president in 2000, wrote in Yes! magazine in that year that manoomin was a gift from the Creator, Gichi Manidoo. The food is central to her people’s nutrition, sustenance and economy, LaDuke explained, and the wild rice harvest is a tradition that ties the community together and joins it to past generations.

“Wild rice is the center of our universe,” Patty Loew told me. “It embodies the covenant we have with our Creator.”

“We know that wild rice is a very fragile plant, that it’s exceptionally susceptible to sulfates in the water. We know that because the taconite mine at Hibbing (MN.) has killed 50 to 100 miles of wild rice down river. We know how important the plant is in terms of acting as a filter for water quality and the foundation for this whole wetland ecosystem,” she said.

“Everybody’s dependent on this wild rice. So the thought of an open-pit taconite mine spewing poison into the water, and how that might affect our rice, is frightening.”

Patty Loew at Kakagon Sloughs-0794

Patty Loew at the Kakagon Sloughs

State scientists and tribes in Minnesota have been studying the impact of mining and industrial discharges on wild rice for a number of years. Sulfate is a mineral salt that can harm rice stands when it converts to sulfide at the root level and becomes toxic to the plant. Ironically, if sufficient iron is present in the water, it binds to the sulfide and makes it non-toxic to the wild rice.

A factor that is as much a concern as sulfate to the fate of wild rice is the fluctuation of water levels in the sloughs. Jim Meeker, who died suddenly in December, 2014, had studied wild rice and its habitat in the sloughs for over two decades. He worked for the tribe and was the first botanist for GLIFWC. He wrote his dissertation for his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the Kakagon Slough’s wild rice.

“It so happens that if you take away the water fluctuations in places like the Kakagon, it usually signals the death knell of the wetlands,” Meeker said that evening over the dinner table. It seems that wild rice requires a habitat with some regular fluctuation in water depth, but not too much.

Meeker and Elias-

Joan Elias and Jim Meeker

“One thing the mine could do is eliminate those natural fluctuations that the wild rice has evolved over three to four thousand years,” Meeker said.

His wife, Joan Elias, added that the water from some of the artesian wells along Lake Superior is 9,000 years old, or even older.

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Next: Treaty Rights: This Land is Whose Land?


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?”

Tom Podlesny-0701

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