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Wisconsin Senate approves mine forest bill

  • Article by: TODD RICHMOND
  • Associated Press
  • November 5, 2013 - 5:20 PM

MADISON, Wis. — The state Senate moved Tuesday to scale back public access to a potential northwestern Wisconsin iron mine site, passing a Republican bill that would create huge restricted zones in the surrounding forest.

The measure would create 600-foot perimeters around mining equipment and roads. The Department of Natural Resources would be allowed to close additional land if the agency deems it necessary. Republicans say the bill is designed to protect mine and DNR workers from protesters lurking in the woods. Democrats insist the measure is another sweetheart deal for iron mining company Gogebic Taconite.

"The intention is to prevent public access," said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar. "They want to close it all ... When does this privileged treatment for one company end?"

Republicans, though, maintained the bill strikes a balance between safety and access.

"I think we've got a good compromise here," the bill's author, Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said.

The Senate passed the measure on an 18-15 party-line vote. The bill goes next to the state Assembly. Republicans control that chamber, too, and Speaker Robin Vos supports the proposal.

The measure comes as Gogebic Taconite is considering digging a 4 ½-mile-long open pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills east of Mellen. The project has become one of the most contentious environmental issues the state has grappled with in years; the company has promised the mine will create hundreds of jobs but conservationists believe it will pollute the pristine area.

About 3,500 acres around the site 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 been running high at the site since June, when a band of protesters emerged from the woods and launched into profanity-laden tirade against Gogebic Taconite employees performing exploratory work. One protester was charged with stealing a geologist's camera during the confrontation.

The protesters have vowed to return to the site, prompting Gogebic Taconite to hire paramilitary guards.

Sen. Tom Tiffany, who wrote a polarizing law easing Wisconsin's mining regulations to help jump-start the mine, introduced a measure in August that would have automatically closed all 3,500 acres around the site to the public.

Democrats branded the bill an overreaction to an isolated incident, complaining it would seal off the forest to law-abiding hunters, hikers and anglers. Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, acknowledged in September he didn't have enough Republican support to pass the measure.

Gogebic Taconite spokesman Bob Seitz said the company supports Cowles' bill.

"It's better than what we got, which is nothing," he said.

Democrats called the proposal an improvement over Tiffany's plan but still spent nearly two hours criticizing it. They said the DNR, which is controlled by Republicans, is too partisan to be trusted. Gogebic Taconite will persuade DNR staff to close as much land as possible, they warned.

"I'm not comfortable with leaving it up to the DNR's political leadership, which has been very clear it wants to be pro-business rather than a protector of the environment," said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville.

Democrats always want majority Republicans to compromise, Tiffany said to a reporter after the vote. He said Cowles' bill is just such a compromise but Democrats such as Jauch still wouldn't have it.

"He wants it his way or it's nobody's way," Tiffany said.

© 2014 Star Tribune