Wis. Republican: Must close mine forest for safety

  • Article by: TODD RICHMOND
  • Associated Press
  • September 4, 2013 - 7:45 PM

MADISON, Wis. — A Republican bill that would close down thousands of acres of forest around a northern Wisconsin mine site would help keep miners and environmental regulators safe from shadowy protesters lurking in the woods, the proposal's supporters said Wednesday.

Sen. Tom Tiffany's bill would automatically close about 3,500 acres around the site to recreational use. Tiffany kicked off a public hearing before the Senate mining committee by playing a video of an incident this summer where masked protesters emerged from the woods and accosted mine workers.

"I hope you understand how despicable that act was," Tiffany said.

The bill's opponents ripped the idea as overkill, warning it would infuriate hunters and do little to stop anyone from breaking the law.

"Why are we using this big sledgehammer?" said Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine.

Gogebic Taconite has been working for years to open a 4½-mile-long iron mine in the Penokee Hills. The company has promised the project will create thousands of jobs; opponents contend it will pollute the region's pristine water and wilderness. Gogebic Taconite began taking exploratory samples this summer, drawing bands of protesters to the area.

Things escalated in June when protesters appeared at the site and hurled obscenities at mine workers. One protester has been charged with stealing a geologist's camera during the incident. Gogebic Taconite responded by hiring paramilitary guards from a firm called Bulletproof Securities to protect the site.

The woods around the site are part of the state's managed forest program, which allows owners to pay reduced fees in lieu of property taxes if they allow public recreation.

Under Tiffany's bill, the forest would be closed automatically until the state Department of Natural Resources decides whether to grant Gogebic Taconite a final permit and mining activity began. The land would then be withdrawn from the program. The company would have to pay the state a penalty for closing the land and for withdrawing it from the program, if it comes to that. If the DNR doesn't grant a permit, all the land would be open again.

Gogebic Taconite and the DNR could reach an agreement on whether to open portions of the land for different activities at different times before a final permitting decision comes down.

Gogebic Taconite spokesman Bob Seitz told the committee that protesters continue to try to get at the company's equipment during the night and Bulletproof guards have discovered a number of protester camps in the forest. He acknowledged Gogebic Taconite hasn't filed any police reports to document the incidents, however, saying the company doesn't want to burden local law enforcement.

Mine workers as well as state and federal environmental regulators will be moving around the site in coming months, ending up in remote locations with no cell or radio coverage, and the company doesn't want them to run into protesters, Seitz said.

Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, complained the law could leave hunters who frequent the Penokee Hills in the lurch during the height of deer season. George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, echoed her, saying closing the land would only fuel more mine opposition.

Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, suggested creating smaller perimeters around workers as they move around the site. He questioned how the bill would stop trespassers.

Seitz said the company is committed to leaving as much land open for recreation as possible. But setting smaller perimeters wouldn't work because it would signal to protesters where workers are located, he said. Closing the land would enable the company to order people to leave, he said.

"What we want is simple separation," Seitz said.

The committee is expected to vote on the bill Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, plans to bring the proposal up for a vote in front of the full body this month, a spokesman said.

The bill has no Assembly co-sponsors. Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, generally supports the proposal but is still reviewing the details, his spokeswoman said in an email. Republican Gov. Scott Walker's spokesman said the governor wants to keep workers safe but would have to evaluate the bill if it reaches his desk.

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