Monday, August 19, 2013

Ojibwe Defend Treaty Rights Against Penokee Mine

In early July, Gogebic Taconite hired armed security guards to patrol the site of what the company hopes will be the first phase of an open–pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills near Hurley, Wisconsin.

The guards dressed in camouflage and toted assault rifles. State Senator Bob Jauch (D–Poplar) and Representative Janet Bewley (D–Ashland) sent a letter to Gogebic Taconite on July 8, demanding the removal of these "masked commando security forces."

After the state Department of Safety and Professional Services discovered the security firm was operating in Wisconsin without a proper license, new guards were hired who wear plain clothes and do not carry weapons. Bulletproof Securities of Scottsdale, Arizona, is under investigation and could be fined and barred from operating in Wisconsin for a year.

Gogebic Taconite (pronounced "go–GIH–bick" and called "G–Tac") is proposing a 22–mile series of pit mines, the first of which would be four–and–a–half miles long and 1,000 feet deep. The waste rock would be stored on 3,300 acres owned by Iron County.

The plans have drawn concern from environmentalists and local Ojibwe tribes. Pyrite (a sulfide mineral), heavy metals, and phosphate in the iron deposit could lead to polluted runoff. The site is near the headwaters of the Bad River and several of its tributaries.

The river flows through the Bad River Reservation and empties into Lake Superior at the Bad–Kakagon Sloughs, the largest wetlands bordering the lake and a major source of wild rice for the Bad River Ojibwe. Wild rice is sensitive to sulfate pollution from mining.

In May, the Lac Court Orielles (LCO) Band of Ojibwe set up a "Harvest and Education Camp" on the County forest land where mine waste would be stored, next to the proposed mine site.
The camp has hosted over 1,500 visitors, including tribal dignitaries, state legislators, media, scientists, mine workers, protestors, and curious locals, according to the camp’s host, Melvin Gasper.

Anyone is welcome to visit and stay at the camp, regardless of their opinions about the mine. "The Harvest Camp was set up for us to utilize our 1842 treaty rights of harvesting and gathering…to show the people exactly what they’ve got and what they’re going to lose" if the mine is built.

An LCO tribal elder, Gasper got involved in the camp because he wants the resources of the "last mountainous range in Wisconsin" to be passed on to future generations.

The mine lies within territory ceded by the Ojibwe in the 1842 Treaty of La Pointe, in which the tribes retain the right to hunt, fish, and gather off–reservation. Those rights were upheld by the federal courts in the 1980s after Lac Court Orielles members began spearfishing without state licenses and then sued the state over their arrests.

But camping without a permit isn’t among those rights, says Iron County Forester Joe Vairus.
On May 14, the County’s Forestry Committee voted unanimously in favor of granting a land use permit "for Lac Courte Oreilles members and their guests for camping, harvesting, and educational purposes."

But on July 23, the committee reversed itself, voting unanimously to recommend that "the County Board authorize pursuit of criminal and civil action" against the camp for failing to obtain a permit.
"I’ve been told by the DNR [Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources] that the state does not recognize camping as a treaty right," says Vairus. "I don’t see it as a treaty rights issue at all…We’re just living within the laws and regulations that we have."

Vairus says the DNR told him the initial agreement would violate county ordinances and possibly state law, by allowing camping beyond the 14–day limit written into the County’s forest management plan.

He also received letters expressing concern from the Wisconsin County Forestry Association and State Senator Tom Tiffany (R–Hazelhurst), who has been an outspoken supporter of the G–Tac mine.

The county’s lawyer sent a letter to LCO’s then–Secretary/Treasurer Michael Isham on May 29, outlining the application process for a large public gathering permit, which requires more detailed information than a land use permit.

Vairus says the County never heard back from the Tribe, but he spoke with Gasper in person on July 12 and Gasper assured him the letter had been received and Vairus would hear back from the Tribe shortly.

Gasper says Vairus never spoke to him about the letter or the permit requirements.

The miscommunication may have been due to a turnover in tribal government. Isham was elected as LCO Chairman on June 15. The letter was sent in between the Tribe’s primary and general elections.

DNR attorney Quinn Williams says that, while the camp should be required to obtain a public gathering permit, it was never the DNR’s position that the County could not allow the camp and should evict it.

"Our approach has always been stepped enforcement," he says. A slow response by the Tribe was understandable, given the circumstances, and the DNR sees no need for intervention as long as the County is working with the Tribe to obtain a permit.

On July 30, the Iron County Board voted to table the Forestry Committee’s motion, directing them to negotiate with LCO’s attorney. About 100 people attended the meeting to oppose the camp’s eviction.

Aileen Potter, who lives just west of Hurley in Montreal, was among those who testified. She teared up while describing her transformative experiences at the Harvest Camp. "I was told to duck as a child, as we drove through the Bad River Reservation, so I wouldn’t get hit by bows and arrows, and I was afraid…It took a lot of courage for me to make my first stop at the Harvest Camp alone, but I did it…I’ve been back there many times since."

Potter was concerned about wasting tax money on litigation. "We’re worried about what a handful of the Native people on this land are doing to the environment and the forest—people that are trying to save the water and the forest for all of our future generations. You roll out the red carpet for others who are going to blow it all up for money to line pockets. Your priorities are a little messed up."

The owners of O’Dovero Farm, five miles down the road from the Harvest Camp, say it has changed a lot of local residents’ minds about the G–Tac project, describing the camp as "a very eye–opening experience" and "by far the most educational."

O’Dovero Farm is concerned the mine will be deeper than their wells, destroying the farm’s groundwater supply. Blasting could also cause asbestos–like air pollution that would contaminate their cows’ milk.

"I hear this ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ this mine is going to create," says O’Dovero co–owner Monica Vipek. "I want to know how many jobs this mine is going to take away from the area." Lumber mills in Mellen could be jeopardized if their water supply runs dry.

O’Dovero Farm donates well water and meat they produce to the camp, as well as offering access to phone and Internet for those staying there. They say the camp has become a part of the local community.

Gasper says the camp isn’t just about treaty rights, but promotes a sustainable economy over extractive industry. He contends it has already contributed to the local economy by bringing visitors to the area who spend money on gas and groceries.

"You have tourism. You have hunters, fishermen. You have gatherers. You have one of the largest maple sugar bushes in all the country. There’s medicinal plants that have become very high profile right now as far as treating cancer, treating diabetes, treating other illnesses. There are so many things out here to utilize that they could make money year after year and they would have jobs for everybody."

When visitors come to the camp, they are given a tour and invited to walk to the Tyler Forks River or relax and take in their surroundings. "We just want people to feel as comfortable as they can here. We have plenty of food. We have living arrangements for up to probably 50 people."
The Bad River Tribe is in the process of establishing a second camp on private land nearby that will focus more on Native spirituality and ceremony.

"The Harvest Camp is helping to facilitate a paradigm shift," says Bad River Chairman Mike Wiggins, "into a thought process that sees this as a valuable resource, as a foundation to build on."

But not everyone is pleased. On July 4, the Iron County Sheriff was notified that the camp’s tribal flags were stolen. Last week, a threatening sign was tacked to a tree along the road next to the camp.

Gary Glonek, a Forestry Department employee, has been criticized by mine opponents for posting cartoons on social media that depict the camp as two talking wigwams, prompting accusations of racism.

Vairus says he hasn’t seen any evidence of employees engaging in political activity while on the clock and he won’t try to control what they say on their own time. He denies that politics played into the Forestry Committee’s attempt to evict the camp.

However, former Iron County District Attorney Tony Stella alleges that three members of the Board–appointed Mining Impact Committee, which is responsible for negotiations between local government and G–Tac, have ties to the company.

Committee Chair Leslie Kolesar is a member of the Wisconsin Mining Association, which promotes mining and has been featured in pro–mining videos. Ross Peterson, another committee member, owns a construction company in Hurley and has performed contract work at the G–Tac site. Committee member Mitch Koski is the mayor of Montreal and has also done contract work at the site.

Between early June and late July, G–Tac conducted exploratory drilling at eight locations along the forested ridge within the mine site. During drilling, the Harvest Camp was used as a base by opponents for observing and documenting the activity.

On June 11, about 15 masked protestors surrounded workers and attempted to block the drilling. Katie Kloth, a former UW–Stevens Point student body president, was charged with three misdemeanors and felony theft for allegedly tussling with the workers and throwing a cell phone and camera into the woods.

G–Tac claims the protestors caused $2,400 worth of damage to mining equipment. Company spokesperson Bob Seitz called the group’s actions "eco–terrorism" and cited them as justification for the presence of the Bulletproof guards. Governor Scott Walker issued a statement labeling the protestors "extremists" and calling for their prosecution "to the fullest extent of the law."
Kloth defended the group’s actions in an online statement that reads, in part:

Those who fight against the destruction of the water, land, plants, and human and non–human animals of the Penokee Hills and Bad River Watershed are not "terrorists." The only terrorists are those who plot to blow up the hills with ammonium nitrate and use the power of the state’s policing apparatus to repress and send fear and division through the communities that oppose them.

Other mine opponents quickly distanced themselves, cooperating with law enforcement and evicting from the Harvest Camp those who had engaged in such tactics. No other incidents of vandalism or violence by mine opponents have been reported.

Exploratory drilling ended in mid–July and G–Tac has now applied to perform bulk sampling—small–scale surface mining to characterize the ore deposit.

The company’s 119–page permit application, submitted July 28, states that they will gather 4,000 tons of rock samples from four locations where previous sampling took place. A public hearing on the permit is scheduled for August 15 in Hurley.

A previous 17–page bulk sampling application was submitted to the DNR on June 17. It called for clearing vegetation and topsoil and blasting out 10,000 tons of rock from five sites, but claimed "there are no known adverse environmental impacts that are likely to be caused by the bulk sampling activity."

The DNR responded on July 2 with a request for more information, stating the company needs to apply for stormwater and possibly air pollution permits. The letter highlights the potential presence of asbestos–like fibers in the rock, which could pose a health hazard.

G–Tac’s new application disputes the presence of these fibers, but says the company will avoid blasting if they can retrieve enough loose rock leftover from the previous bulk sampling, which took place in 1960. Commercial mining would start at least a year after the completion of bulk sampling.

An overhaul of the state law that governs iron mining was passed in March, after two years of controversy and a failure by one vote in 2012. The new law loosened environmental restrictions, reduced the number of public hearings, and set forth a strict timeline for permit approval.

Republican lawmakers who supported the bill refused to reveal who wrote it, but emails released in July showed that the bill was crafted by Tom Pyper, a G–Tac lobbyist, and Jason Culotta, a former policy advisor for Governor Walker who now works for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s chamber of commerce.

Just before the new law passed, a statewide poll conducted by the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters found 29 percent of the public supported the bill and 62 percent opposed it.

Gasper says the Harvest Camp is one step in building the momentum needed to carry out what appears to be the will of the public. "We’ve been getting support from neighbors and local people. We’ve been getting support from all over the nation. Internationally, we’ve been getting support. So this has turned into a great cause, stopping this mining."

> The article above was written by Carl Sack, and is reprinted from the Aug. 6, 2013 edition of the Zenith City Weekly.

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