The Fight for Wisconsin’s Soul

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A tributary of the Bad River, whose headwaters in Wisconsin are in the footprint of a proposed iron ore mine. Credit: Azael Meza

But now, after the recent passage of a bill that would allow for the construction of what could be the world’s largest open-pit iron ore mine, Wisconsin’s admirable history of environmental stewardship is under attack.

The mine, to be built by Gogebic Taconite (GTac), owned by the coal magnate Chris Cline, would be in the Penokee Hills, in the state’s far north — part of a vast, water-rich ecosystem that President John F. Kennedy described in 1963, in a speech he delivered in the area, as “a central and significant portion of the freshwater assets of this country.”

The $1.5 billion mine would initially be close to four miles long, up to a half-mile wide and nearly 1,000 feet deep, but it could be extended as long as 21 miles. In its footprint lie the headwaters of the Bad River, which flows into Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world and by far the cleanest of the Great Lakes. Six miles downstream from the site is the reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose livelihood is threatened by the mine.

To facilitate the construction of the mine and the company’s promise of 700 long-term jobs, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation last year granting GTac astonishing latitude. The new law allows the company to fill in pristine streams and ponds with mine waste. It eliminates a public hearing that had been mandated before the issuing of a permit, which required the company to testify, under oath, that the project had complied with all environmental standards. It allows GTac to pay taxes solely on profit, not on the amount of ore removed, raising the possibility that the communities affected by the mine’s impact on the area’s roads and schools would receive only token compensation.

The legislation has generated fierce opposition since it was first introduced in 2011. The following year, the bill was actually defeated in the State Senate, 17 to 16, owing to the defection of one Republican, Dale Schultz. After the vote, the Republican majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, told me that “the corporation and their attorneys drafted a bill that may have been acceptable in other states,” with the implication being that the company had perhaps gone too far for Wisconsin.

Since then, however, Democrats have lost three Senate seats and an even more industry-friendly version of the bill was revived and passed. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a campaign-finance watchdog, GTac executives and other mine supporters have donated a total of $15 million to Governor Walker and Republican legislators, outspending the mine’s opponents by more than 600 to 1.

Most distressing to many native Wisconsinites, including me, was the way the bill violated a bipartisan, reform-minded civic tradition called the Wisconsin Idea. For more than a century, the Wisconsin Idea had encouraged the use of scientific expertise to inform public policy, but the mining bill dangerously ignores geological reality.

Equally troubling was the more recent discovery by Tom Fitz, a geology professor at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., of a highly carcinogenic asbestos-form mineral at one of GTac’s sampling sites. The fibers of the mineral, which would be dispersed in blasting, are like tiny, breathable needles.

Last September, several hundred people gathered outside John F. Kennedy Memorial Airport in Ashland, a few miles from GTac’s mining site, to commemorate Kennedy’s 1963 speech, which called for legislation to protect the area’s natural resources and promoted its economic potential as a scenic region for recreation. One of the last to speak at the event was Mike Wiggins Jr., the chairman of the Bad River tribe and the mine’s most formidable opponent.

The Bad River fear the contamination of the fish they depend on for food and the destruction of sensitive wild rice beds that they harvest on the coast of Lake Superior. Mr. Wiggins has voiced his opposition to the mining legislation in private meetings with Mr. Walker, led Wisconsin’s tribes in demonstrations at the State Capitol in Madison and allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars of the Bad River tribe’s scant resources to legal fees to fight the mine.

The Bad River and several other tribes assert that the state has no right to permit the enormous mine without their agreement since the site lies in “ceded territory,” an area covering a large portion of Northern Wisconsin where tribal members maintain special hunting, fishing and harvesting rights enshrined in federal treaties. Last June, one of the tribes established an educational camp near the mining site to draw attention to how the mine would violate its treaty rights, as well as to highlight sustainable alternatives to mining. GTac responded to a minor altercation with protesters unconnected to the camp by hiring an Arizona-based private-security firm, which sent guards armed with semiautomatic weapons to patrol the mine site. (The guards have since been withdrawn; the camp is still there.)

In the Chippewa tradition, a decision is made based on how it will affect people seven generations forward. By contrast, the company’s optimistic estimate for the life span of the first phase of the mine is 35 years. Last summer Mr. Wiggins played Governor Walker a recording of Kennedy’s speech. Mr. Wiggins said that the governor appeared indifferent to Kennedy’s words; Mr. Walker has never wavered in his support of the mine.

Mr. Wiggins and five other tribal leaders have already begun seeking redress from the federal government. Last August, they sent President Obama a letter asking him to direct the Interior Department to prevent the construction of GTac’s mine, citing their claims that the mine would infringe on their treaty rights.

Though the letter did not mention it, five years ago Mr. Obama told nearly 400 Native American tribal leaders, “We have a lot to learn from your nations in order to create the kind of sustainability in our environment that we so desperately need.” The president said that the tribes “deserve to have a voice” and “will not be forgotten as long as I’m in this White House.” Last week, Mr. Wiggins said that although he has gotten preliminary responses from two federal agencies, he is still awaiting an answer from the president.

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