Wisconsin GOP mulls new mine forest access restrictions
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Republican state senator has crafted a new compromise plan that would allow outdoor lovers to continue to explore the forest near a potential northwestern Wisconsin mine site and keep protesters away from mine workers.
About 3,500 acres around the site just south of Lake Superior are part of the state’s managed forest program, which grants landowners reduced fees in lieu of property taxes if they keep the land open for public recreation. Tensions have run high at the site since protesters walked up to mine workers this summer and began insulting them.
Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, introduced a bill in response to the incident that would close all 3,500 acres to the public. But the measure has garnered little support.
The new plan from Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, would create closed areas around mining equipment and roads on the site. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has said the chamber could vote on the proposal during a floor session Tuesday.
“I think we’ve come up with a pretty good compromise here, balancing the safety of the workers and the needs of the people who are recreating,” Cowles said Friday.
Tiffany said he’s on board with the proposal but still worries it won’t protect mine employees if they’re working away from equipment or roads.
“I believe we got most of the way there with (Cowles’ plan),” Tiffany said. “I would just be remiss not saying ... I think there is a bit of a hole here yet.”
Gogebic-Taconite wants to dig a 4½-mile-long open pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills east of Mellen. The company has promised the mine will create hundreds of jobs, but environmentalists fear it will pollute the pristine area. Opposition to the project has been intense.
Mine workers were performing exploratory ore sampling in June when a band of protesters emerged from the woods and began swearing at them. One protester was charged with stealing a geologist’s camera. The protesters have vowed to return to the site, prompting G-Tac to hire paramilitary guards.
Tiffany, who wrote a contentious bill easing the regulatory path for Gogebic Taconite, introduced a measure in August that would automatically close the land around the site to the public until the state Department of Natural Resources decides whether to grant a final mining permit and mining activity begins. The company would have to pay the state for closing the land, but could reach agreements with the DNR to open up parcels ahead of a final permit decision.
Democrats branded the bill an overreaction to an isolated incident and complained the measure would close off the woods to law-abiding hunters, hikers and anglers. Tiffany acknowledged in September he didn’t have enough Republican support to get the bill out of the Senate.
Cowles quietly introduced his own plan last week. His proposal would restrict public access within 600 feet of mining equipment and mining roads. The DNR could close additional land if the agency deems it necessary to protect the safety of the public or mine workers.
The closed areas would remain open for the November gun-deer hunt and for fishing year-round. The proposal also would increase the fees landowners LaPointe Iron Co. and RGGS Land & Mineral Ltd. would have to pay for closing the areas.
Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, called Cowles’ bill an improvement but said he’s uncomfortable with the provision that would allow the DNR to close additional land. He said the criteria is vaguely defined and could allow Gogebic-Taconite to persuade the DNR to close off huge swaths of land.
“Giving the DNR authority to close off an unlimited amount of acres has nothing to do with that (June) incident,” he said. “It’s about restricting public access.”
G-Tac spokesman Bob Seitz didn’t immediately return telephone and email messages Friday.