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Bill would allow northern Wisconsin mine to deny access to public

Bill would allow northern Wisconsin mine to deny access to public

Tyler Forks

The Tyler Forks waterway in the Penokee Hills flows near the Lac Courte Oreilles harvest camp and the proposed Gogebic Taconite iron ore mine. Iron County officials are trying to evict the harvest camp. Residents of Ashland and Iron counties in northern Wisconsin are divided over the economic benefits and potential environmental hazards of a proposed, 4 1/2-mile-long open pit mine project.

An effort to put some distance between the site of a proposed iron ore mine and the growing mass of protesters who oppose it is moving from the north woods to the Capitol.

After a tense and at times confrontational summer that led mining company Gogebic Taconite (G-Tac) to hire armed guards to protect its workers and equipment, a bill is quickly making its way through the legislature to dictate who can be on the mining site and when.

Senate Bill 278 was introduced by Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, on Friday. The Senate Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining and Revenue Committee that Tiffany chairs will hold a public hearing beginning at 11 a.m., Wednesday, in Room 300 SE of the Capitol. The committee will vote on the measure Thursday.

The 4.5-mile-long mining site is in a program administered by the state Department of Natural Resources known as Managed Forest Land.

The owners of land in a managed forest area are allowed to make an annual acreage share payment that is lower than and in lieu of property taxes on the land they own.

In exchange, the landowners agree to keep their land open for the public to hunt, fish, hike, sight-see or cross-country ski, for example.

But because of the physical encounters between masked protesters and mining employees and the construction of a tribal heritage camp on G-Tac property that now includes some 25 wigwams, a special exemption to state law could be made just for companies that notify the DNR they intend to file an application for a mining permit.

In short, the bill would allow the DNR and the mining company to close the land to the public year round, if that’s what they wanted to do, in exchange for the mining company to begin paying a fee on the land.

Tiffany is also the lead author of the bill that rewrote the state’s mining laws, giving G-Tac the green light it was seeking to begin the permitting process for an iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills in Iron and Ashland counties.

The mine is located in a pristine area of the state and upstream from tribal territory. Mining in the area is strongly opposed by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe for the threat it poses to sacred rice beds, wetlands, rivers and Lake Superior.

Tiffany did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment.

“It’s another corporate give-away to Gogebic Taconite,” said Alex Brower, 25, of Milwaukee, of the attempt to limit access to the mining property. “Regular small businesses aren't getting this level of attention from the legislature.”

Brower is walking from Milwaukee to Madison to deliver a petition to the DNR that asks the agency to deny G-Tac a mining permit.

In an interview Tuesday, before he left Milwaukee, Brower said he was making the trip to raise awareness about the mine.

“The environment is near and dear to my heart,” said Brower, who works for his father’s remodeling-construction company. “I feel it is such a blatant attack on the environment and a complete corporate give-away. It makes me livid.”

Brower started his walk Tuesday afternoon. He plans to arrive at UW-Madison’s Union Terrace at 6 p.m. Monday. He will deliver the petition to Gov. Scott Walker’s office on Tuesday.

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