Wisconsin State Republican Senators presented a bill specifically allowing Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) to bar citizen access to the company’s mining site located on public land.
GTAC is working to create a 4.5-mile long open pit iron ore mine in Northern Wisconsin in the Penokee Hills. Tribes and opponents claim that the mine, which would be located on the Great Northern Divide, would cause significant environmental pollution and damage to the Bad River watershed. The watershed drains into the Bad River tribe’s traditional wild rice sloughs and into Lake Superior.
Senators Tom Tiffany and Glenn Grothman introduced the bill into the legislature on Friday, August 30. State Bill 278 would exempt iron ore mining companies from allowing public access to the forest that is part of Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Land. By participating in the program, land owners are exempt from paying property tax but must comply with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) rules allowing public access to lands for hunting, fishing, hiking, sight-seeing and cross-country skiing. The proposed mine is located on Managed Forest Land (MFL). The bill not only allows GTAC to pay lowered fees associated with MFL but would also allow the DNR and the mining company to enter into an agreement to allow public recreational activities on any or all of the land.
Sen. Tiffany told the Milwaukee State Journal that the bill is intended to discourage attacks on mining company employees. He was referring to a June 11 incident when a small group of protesters wearing black head coverings slashed tires and damaged GTAC equipment. Damage was estimated at about $2,000. Media reports and mining supporters referred to the incident as eco-terrorism. As a result, GTAC officials made the controversial decision to bring in an out of state security force whose employees wore camouflage gear and carried assault rifles. The company has since left the state but may return if GTAC gets permission to do additional sampling of mineral deposits at the site.
There have been no additional reported incidents since the attack in June.
Senator Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) said, ”The 11th hour announcement of an exclusive sweetheart deal to allow the company to restrict access to the citizen recreational use of 4, 000 acres of managed forest land is an insult to Wisconsin’s outdoor traditions and values.”
Tiffany and Grothman publicly announced the bill late Friday evening August 30 at the same time that a public hearing notice for the proposed legislation was also posted. Friday began the long Labor Day weekend. Jauch told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the timing of the meeting notice raised red flags.
“Sen. Tiffany doesn't have much interest in giving the public much notice,” he said.
Public comment on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday, September 4 in Madison at the Capital building from 11:00 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sen. Tiffany told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the bill would affect only GTAC. He plans to move the bill quickly to a floor vote in the Senate.
Mining opponents note that Senators Tiffany, Grothman and Alberta Darling, (R-River Hills) have all received substantial campaign donations from mining interests as reported by the citizen watch group the Democracy Campaign.
According to the report, special interests backing loosening mining regulations for GTAC have contributed $15.6 million Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature and Governor Scott Walker.
Darling, Grothman and Tiffany are among the five members of the Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining and Revenue. Committee members will be conducting the public hearing for the bill.
The bill would not have an effect on the Penokee Harvest Camp established by the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe tribe near the mine site. The Camp was created by tribal members and mining opponents to draw attention to the impact of mining on the environmental health of the region.
This is the latest in public access battles involving GTAC and the mining site.
On August 23, an attorney for GTAC sent a letter to Mike Wiggins Jr., chairman of the Bad River Ojibwe tribe informing him that it would be illegal for a tribal wetlands expert to enter the property.
According to a story in the Milwaukee State Journal Sentinel, the letter was written by attorney Scott W. Clark of Ashland and stated, “Entry on GTAC property for any other purpose (beside those permitted by law) will be deemed trespassing for which GTAC will prosecute under both criminal and civil law.”
Bad River tribal environmental specialist Cyrus Hester noted that the letter seemed heavy handed for a wetlands inventory. According to the Journal Sentinel story, the tribe wanted greater detail than that provided by GTAC’s wetlands inventory that is posted on the Wisconsin DNR website.
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