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Harvest time in the Kakagon Slough, the only surviving wild rice wetland in the Great Lakes Basin. (Image courtesy of T. Corcoran Bauer)

Gold Diggers and Indians

Republicans want to have their way with Wisconsin’s buried gold, but the Anishinaabe aren’t having it.

BY Joel Bleifuss

Extracting Wisconsin's gold will entail processing sulfur-rich ore, a byproduct of which is acid waste that pollutes the environment. For that reason, in 1997 the Wisconsin legislature instituted a moratorium on metallic sulfide mines. But Democrats were in control then.

President Barack Obama carried Wisconsin by 52 to 46 percent—winning the state by more than 200,000 votes. Yet, curiously, the Wisconsin Republican Party solidified its control of both the Wisconsin state assembly and senate. It is now certain that Gov. Scott Walker (R) is in a position to turn his state’s natural resources over to the corporate bag men who helped make that victory possible.

Today, in the Northwoods of the Upper Midwest the mining industry is busy prospecting. Like Africa’s Congo River Basin, this area of the Great Lakes Basin is rich in valuable minerals. Unlike the Congo, it is peaceful.

At least for now.

The gold rush is on, the natives are restless.

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Aquila Resources has its sights set on gold deposits at five sites in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. According to the company’s website, “the Great Lakes region [offers] a politically stable and increasingly attractive investment opportunity.” For example, the company boasts that its Reef Gold Project in Marathon County, Wis., “is potentially amendable to low cost, open pit mining.”

The problem for Aquila Resources is that extracting this gold will entail processing sulfur-rich ore, a byproduct of which is acid waste that pollutes the environment. For that reason, in 1997 the Wisconsin legislature instituted a moratorium on metallic sulfide mines. But Democrats were in control then.

Days after the November 6 election, lobbyists for the mining industry asked the Republican-controlled legislature to repeal the state’s sulfide mining moratorium. Ron Kuehn, a lobbyist for Aquila Resources, told the Wisconsin State Journal: “If the moratorium went away, that would be a very significant signal to mining companies.” In other words, the gold rush could commence.

The Wisconsin Mining Association (WMA) puts it this way: “Today, some of the richest mineral deposits in our country lie buried under Wisconsin and thousands of good jobs are buried there with them.”

The WMA backs Assembly Bill 426. Republican members on the Jobs, Economy and Small Business Committee wrote this legislation in 2011 to bypass environmental regulations, and to eliminate local input and control of the mining industry. The GOP legislators who wrote that bill were members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—a secretive association of corporate representatives, right-wing think tanks and state legislators that promotes “model legislation.” The bill passed the assembly on Nov. 26, 2012, and will soon fly through the state senate.

Assembly Bill 426 was expressly crafted for the Cline Group, a Florida-based mining conglomerate that claims to want to establish an open pit taconite iron ore mine in the Penokee Mountains—a natural wonder that Backpacker magazine calls “the Alps of Wisconsin.”

By the shores of Gitche Gumee

The proposed 4.5-mile-long, 1.5-mile-wide open-pit mine would sit about 30 miles south of Lake Superior, in the headwaters of the Bad River.

The Bad River flows toward Lake Superior over the majestic Copper Falls and into the Kakagon Slough, a 16,000-acre wetland known as the Everglades of the North. The Kakagon is located in the Bad River Reservation, home to the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa [Anishinaabe] Indians. This slough is also home to the only surviving costal wild rice wetland in the Great Lakes Basin. Wild rice, or manoomin, is a sacred crop to the 11 Anishinaabe tribes that make their home around the Great Lakes. Consequently, Indian nations across the Upper Midwest are united in opposition to the Cline Group’s iron mine, and the toxic runoff that is sure to ensue. (Full disclosure: I am not a disinterested party. For the past 50 years, I have spent part of every summer on Madeline Island—Moningwunkauning—in Lake Superior, living a few hundred yards from Bad River Reservation land.)

Mike Wiggins, the Bad River tribal chairman, helped organize opposition to the proposed mine by the region’s various Indian nations. “Our tribe has been here 1,000 years,” he says. “We don’t have the luxury as a people of fleeing somewhere or having another mini-state created. We are home, and this is all we’ve got. That wild rice is a sacred crop, a staple and a symbol of who we are as a people—what our culture is about, what sustains us.”

In 2011, during the height of the debate about the proposed mine in the Penokees, I attended the biennial pow-wow of the Anishinaabe on Madeline (the island is their historic stronghold) while reporting a story for Chicago’s NPR affiliate, WBEZ. I spoke with environmentalist and Anishinaabe activist Winona La Duke—who is from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.

La Duke is adamantly opposed to the expansion of mining in Wisconsin. “We’ve moved into an economy that’s a staples-extractive economy that destroys land and water for future generations. And it turns out that that’s not sustainable,” La Duke said. “The jobs that they’re going to get out of these mines are short-term jobs. What we should be doing, if we want to figure out how to live here for another 1,000 years, is re-localize, and make some peace up here with our land.”

A pot of fool’s gold

The Indians are not the not only ones questioning the wisdom of the proposed mine. Dick Thiede of Mercer, Wis., writes the Woodsperson blog. He is a 72-year-old engineer who sold his company that built automated machinery and then retired to the Northwoods, Thiede has steeped himself in the proposals for the Penokee mine for the past 20 months.

“Every road I have gone down indicates that there is something really fishy going on,” he says. “I have talked to hundreds of people—people at the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Forest Service, geologists of all kinds. I am not sure what Gogebic Taconite [the Cline Group mining subsidiary that says it wants to build the mine] is up to, but I don’t think it is mining iron ore.”

Thiede maintains that the geological location of the Penokee’s iron deposits makes open pit iron ore mining financially unfeasible.

So what’s going on? He has several ideas, including the following two:

First, and least probable, the Cline Group hopes to dig an open pit mine to extract not iron, but gold, silver or copper. Yet the Cline Group understands it could only do so if a Republican-controlled legislature got rid of the moratorium on sulfide mining. So, it got the ball rolling by beginning the permitting process for a less-polluting open pit taconite iron ore mine, and then, surreptitiously, worked to change the makeup of the legislature. (In the last election cycle, Cline Group principals were big donors to the campaigns of Walker and key pro-mining Republican state senate candidates.)

Second, the proposal for the Penokee mine is a straw horse, invented to divide the citizens of the economically depressed Northwoods into two warring camps: those anxious for living-wage mining jobs and those concerned about protecting the environment. Indeed, the Tea Party in Wisconsin has used the divisive issues of mining and hunting to great effect in recent Northwoods elections. For example, the state’s 7th congressional district includes both the Penokees and Kakagon Slough. For years it was represented by the super-liberal Rep. David Obey (D). But when he retired, his seat was won by Tea Partier Sean Duffy, a down-home attorney and self-styled lumberjack, who hates wolves and loves mines. Under Tea Party leadership, Wisconsin opened its first wolf season in October 2012.

The next Indian war?

The Anishinaabe are a radical lot. In the late 1980s, they defended their right to fish outside of reservation boundaries, as was originally agreed upon under federal treaties in 1837 and 1842. After what became known as the Wisconsin Walleye Wars, their fishing rights were upheld by a federal judge.

And while La Duke (she was Ralph Nader’s Green Party running mate in the ill-fated 2000 election) and Wiggins speak in the measured language of public figures, Anishinaabe youth are dead set in opposing the mine.

“Without the wild rice our way of life will disappear,” says Len Moore, a young Bad River man with long black hair and silver bear-paw earrings that mark his membership in the tribe’s Bear Clan.

“If the Bad River goes and becomes toxic and bleeds right into Lake Superior, everything will suffer down the chain. We, as a people, have a little bit left of what our ways were, and we try to preserve them as best we can.

“We wish no ill will towards any of the mining corporations or their personnel. But we do need to defend and protect what we have—however that works out.”

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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