Battle for the Hills

Photo by Azael Meza The way Mike Wiggins Jr. remembers it, the man who strode into his office without an appointment that day in fall 2010 didn’t wear a suit. There was a guy with him – maybe two. Wiggins isn’t sure anymore. But the first guy – “He seemed personable enough,” Wiggins says – did all the talking. His name was Matt Fifield, an officer with the Cline Group, a coal-mining company based in Florida. On this day, he was a long way from home, at the tribal headquarters of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians,…

Photo by Azael Meza

The way Mike Wiggins Jr. remembers it, the man who strode into his office without an appointment that day in fall 2010 didn’t wear a suit.

There was a guy with him – maybe two. Wiggins isn’t sure anymore. But the first guy – “He seemed personable enough,” Wiggins says – did all the talking.

His name was Matt Fifield, an officer with the Cline Group, a coal-mining company based in Florida. On this day, he was a long way from home, at the tribal headquarters of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, along Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shoreline.

Fifield’s business card carried the name of the Cline Group subsidiary Gogebic Taconite – G-Tac for short. He was there to tell Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Band’s tribal council, about his company’s plans to dig iron ore out of the Penokee Hills just south of the Bad River reservation.

“He seemed curious as to what I thought and how our community would view that,” Wiggins says. The tribal chairman had some questions of his own.

“I said, ‘So you’re from Florida? You ever watch that show “Swamp People” on satellite TV?’ He smiled and said, ‘Yes! Yes, I do.’”

“Good,” Wiggins told him. “Because up here in Bad River, up north, that’s what you’re dealing with. People just like that. Swamp people. We’re intricately connected to our waterways and our resources. So I’m going to have a hard time being supportive of anything you’re going to be doing. In fact, I have to say I’m going to be fairly oppositional.”

Wiggins takes a breath, reliving the conversation. “I go, ‘But at the same time, I consider myself kind of liberal up here. Folks get really anti-mining after me.’”

The meeting was over. Not more than 15 minutes had elapsed.

“I asked him to leave my office.”

It was so short, Wiggins says, that there wasn’t any real sales pitch.

“There wouldn’t have been much of a sales pitch to give. I don’t know what it would consist of – maybe notions of money? But that ain’t going to get no play in our rez.”

Bob Walesewicz was born in and grew up in Oconomowoc, but starting as far back as he can remember, he and his two brothers spent summers up north, in and around Iron County. They stayed with Walesewicz’s grandfather, John Sola Sr., a dairy farmer in the town of Kimball, just outside of Hurley. There, he and his brothers would help with chores – milking cows, guiding them from barn to pasture, pitching hay, cleaning the barn. “I learned to drive a tractor at a pretty young age,” he says.

But Bob was just 5 when he first made the trip. Too young then for farm work, he lived those first several summers with his great-grandfather, just over the state line in Ironwood, Mich., in a house built by the mining company that had employed his great-grandfather for 40 years.

Joseph Waliesewicz – the spelling of the last name was changed when Bob’s father was born – had come over from Poland in 1908 at the age of 21, with his wife and 14-month-old son in tow. He found work in local iron mines. Now, more than half a century later, young Bob would take long walks with his great-grandfather in the countryside around Ironwood, in a district called The Caves.

The Caves were not natural caverns but what remained after Joe and his co-workers had dug out the iron ore. The men would burrow deep into the side of a hill and affix explosives into the dirt and rock ceiling ahead of and above them. The fuse was set, and with a deafening roar, a rubble of rich ore would shower to the floor. It was called “stope mining,” and it could bring peril or prosperity. Often both.

“It was very dangerous,” Walesewicz says. “That style of mining claimed many lives. It was not easy work.

“But it was good work,” he continues. “For that era, it was some of the best-paying work for men that were not trained in other areas.”

Joe Waliesewicz liked working underground, where the weather was the same every day. The 55-degree temperature was a welcome respite from winter cold and summer heat – and a comfortable climate in which to swing a heavy pick for eight hours at a time. It was always busy, running three shifts around the clock. Through the older man’s tales, the boy shared his great-grandfather’s sense of awe.

“Iron ore is a raw material,” Walesewicz says. “He would often wonder what the end product of his handiwork would end up being.” Did that ’57 Chevy or that stretch of railroad track or the shiny steel of an ice skate’s blade carry in it some of the iron that Joe Waliesewicz had blasted and hacked out from underground? During World War II, he would assure himself that the iron ore they produced was going into the guns and bombs that the Allies used to liberate Europe and his own homeland of Poland.

By the time man and boy were roaming the area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of the area’s mines had been closed for a decade. The land above the caves had fallen in, but the vegetation kept growing. Many of the sunken hollows had filled with water – water, Bob Walesewicz insists, that’s as clean as any around.


Kelly Klein of the Iron County Development Zone was an early supporter of G-Tac’s mining ambitions. In trying to convince others to welcome the Florida company, he’s emphasized mining’s role in the region’s history. The industry’s methods may have changed, but its ultimate goal remains the same.
Photo by Derek Montgomery

The vein of iron ore once dug into by Joe Waliesewicz runs across Northern Wisconsin and into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. today, it’s

become the center of Wisconsin’s latest conflict. G-Tac is preparing plans to dig up part of the Penokee Hills for the ore. The state is implementing a law making such mining efforts much easier to carry out.

The battle over the Penokee Hills mine is a battle over many things. Whether old jobs can come back – or whether they’re a dangerous distraction from new ways to make a living. Whether mining is a boon that can enrich the region or a bane that will ravage the water and land. It’s a battle over which has been oversold: the risks of mining or its promises of prosperity. For supporters, the mine is the answer to cutting Iron County’s jobless rate, which was 13.6 percent in January. For critics, the mine is the biggest single threat to the purity of hundreds of miles of streams lacing the 700,000-acre Bad River Watershed.

But at its heart, the battle over the mine is a battle over culture. It pits the rights of landowners and industrialists against each other, a contest of world views between those who find humanity’s womb in nature and those for whom it’s a providential gift to be put to our use. It’s a battle that grows from the competing calls of ancestors – those who, for a half-century, made a good living from the earth’s riches, and those who, for generations going back before Columbus, were sustained by the simple treasures of northern Wisconsin’s land and waters – game, wild rice, fish.

It’s not simply a confrontation between two monolithic ethnic groups. Opposition to the mine encompasses a broad cross-section of people, whites and American Indians alike, who live, work and vacation in the state’s far north. And to label the pro-mining faction as faceless, greedy and distant industrialists is equally simplistic. Economic cultures, political cultures, fundamental ways of life – all are at stake. Like so many battles, it promises to be bitter and protracted, casting a shadow that may linger long after the battlefield is emptied and victory is declared.

There are some who theorize that the entire Penokee Hills mining proposal is merely some kind of political feint. Technical problems and declining commodities markets, this argument runs, make the project impractical regardless of regulations or lack thereof. In this view, the primary aim of the legislation is simply to soften up the state for a broader rollback of mining regulations and environmental rules.

Yet G-Tac’s legwork to date – establishing an office in Hurley, studying samples bored from the area back in the 1950s, and helping to shape the mining bills – would seem to represent a lot of energy expended for a decoy maneuver.

In March, the state Senate and Assembly swiftly passed legislation to make a Penokee Hills mine easier and more profitable for someone – whether G-Tac or some as-yet-unknown company. Just as swiftly, Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill into law. “This is going to be a job creator,” Walker told those who turned out for the March 11 signing at the Rhinelander warehouse of the Oldenburg Group, a mining equipment manufacturer. “It’s a generational job creator. It’s not going to all happen tomorrow. It’s going to happen day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. … It sends a powerful message that Wisconsin indeed is open for business.”

But as opponents to the mine are quick to point out – and even its supporters readily concede – signing the bill was just the starting point. The Penokee Hills project and the legislation intended to advance it seem likely to be tied up in the courts for months or years. The Bad River Band is already seeking donations to help fund a lawsuit blocking them. And whether the promise of 700 or more direct mine-industry jobs, and perhaps thousands of spinoff jobs, ever comes true is far from certain.


Bob Walesewicz stands in front of a headframe that marks a closed iron mine. Walesewicz’s great-grandfather worked as a miner for 40 years.
Photo by Derek Montgomery

Nearly four years ago, Kelly Klein took a call from the then-Wisconsin Department of Commerce in Madison. The department was planning a daylong session at Northland College in Ashland to discuss bringing mining back to the area. Would Klein – whose job it is to woo business to Wisconsin’s Iron County – prepare a talk on what impact a new mining industry might have on the local economy?

“This was before Gogebic Taconite was here – before all of that,” Klein says.

He knew that Hurley had its start as a mining town. The agency he works for, the Iron County Development Zone, had decades earlier taken on as its very first project the conversion of an old office building for the last mine in the community, the Cary Mine, which had closed in 1964.

But Klein knew little about modern mining. He searched for information about existing mining operations in Michigan and Minnesota. What he found said the pay was good and communities were prospering. He embraced the positive picture, thinking, “This is a model I could see happening.”

At the Jan. 21, 2010, conference, Klein spoke of Iron County’s need: how its population fell nearly 10 percent in the last decade as the state’s grew by more than 5 percent, how the county’s per-capita income of  just under $25,500 was 26 percent below Wisconsin’s – a difference of $9,000.

Other speakers that day had mixed opinions. Businesspeople and union reps were encouraging. Others were wary. Representatives of environmental and land-use groups raised fears about pollution. Tribal representatives, Klein says, “were not for it.”

Still, the talk was just that – talk. Later that same year, G-Tac came to town. “Then it really started to snowball,” Klein says.

Klein’s organization quickly lined up behind the company’s plan to dig for iron ore in the Penokee Hills. Klein ran off some signs at the office, and shopkeepers in Hurley slapped them up. In bright red and black ink, they proclaimed: “MINING Is our History. MINING Is our Culture. MINING Is our Future.”

Some of those signs hang behind the cash register at Sharon’s Coffee Company on the corner of Highway 51 and Silver Street in downtown Hurley. “This town wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for mining,” Klein says between bites of breakfast there one morning. “It’s the reason these communities were developed.”

In the months after G-Tac surfaced as a prospective mine developer, both those who wanted the mine and those who sought to keep it out gathered their forces. Walker’s election as governor on a promise to create a quarter-million jobs in his first term and an aggressive Republican majority in both houses of the state Legislature helped lift the project’s prospects. And although Walker appointed an avowedly pro-business secretary to run the state Department of Natural Resources, the mine’s proponents would leave nothing to chance. At the behest of G-Tac officials, Republican legislators crafted a bill to ease the state’s mining laws.

The old mines around Hurley and Ironwood were shaft mines to get high-grade iron ore and haul it out through tunnels deep in the ground. The newly proposed mine, like its counterparts in Minnesota and Michigan, would be an open-pit mine, the only economic way to reach the much lower-grade ore in the area. Besides making a big hole in the ground, the mine would have another key difference: the low-grade ore would be processed near the mining site to make pellets of higher-grade taconite.

Before the first bill was even unveiled, people who lived around Ashland and Bayfield organized meetings to publicize the hazards a mine in the Penokee Hills would bring. An early copy of the bill leaked in spring 2011, fueling the critics’ fears. As Wiggins had warned the G-Tac executive the previous fall, the Bad River Band opposed the plan. Mine supporters countered with signs along roadways around Hurley and Eagle River: “Stop the whining – start the mining!”

In December 2011, hundreds turned out for a daylong, contentious public hearing at Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis. Mine opponents protested that it was held hundreds of miles from where the people most affected lived. More hearings, equally fractious, followed in Hurley and Madison. At the end of January 2012, the Assembly rushed the bill through a closed-door vote, with critics accusing GOP leaders of violating the state’s open-government laws.

At the same time, a more immediate battle was roaring over Walker’s 2011 bill stripping most union rights from most public employees. In the first round of recall elections, Democrats turned two Republican senators out of office. Although they fell one senator shy of taking over the upper house of the Legislature, they whittled the GOP’s majority to a single vote – Sen.  Dale Schultz, a Republican from the Richland Center area who broke with his party over the union rights bill. When the mining bill first came to a vote in March of last year, Schultz joined the recall-strengthened Democrats and cast the winning vote to block it.

G-Tac officials said they would abandon their plan, and Republicans tried to use the loss to drive out Sen. Robert Jauch of Poplar, near Superior, an outspoken opponent of the bill and one of the Democrats targeted in the state’s second round of recall campaigns. Rivals hoped Jauch’s anti-mining vote could be used against him, but their petition campaign stalled and the recall was abandoned. The signatures were never even submitted to the state Government Accountability Board.

In June came the Walker recall election. Although the governor won, Democrats gained a temporary one-vote majority when Racine voters replaced a GOP senator with a Democrat. The victory was symbolic only; the Legislature held no meetings for the rest of 2012, and in November, Republicans kept the Assembly and retook the Senate with a stronger majority than before.

The stage was set for a renewed attempt to pass the mining bill – Senate Bill 1 of this year’s legislative session. The authors said they took into account concerns that helped block the 2012 legislation, streamlining the regulatory and permitting process for iron mining. Opponents warned the bill was just as bad as its predecessor and that it would gut crucial environmental protections.

All mineral mining previously fell under a single body of regulation. The new law separates iron mining and, in some respects, treats it differently.

For one thing, it eliminates the “contested case hearing” that was required as part of the permitting process for any mine. In the hearing, testimony can be taken under oath, and witnesses can be cross-examined, as though at a trial. The new law requires only informational public hearings for an iron mine.

Prior to its adoption, regulations required the state Department of Natural Resources to write rules on metallic mining and mine cleanup standards. Now, those standards are laid out in state statutes – and in some cases, as the state Legislative Reference Bureau notes in its summary of the bill – with less stringent terms than those the DNR enforces for other minerals.

For instance, the general mining regulations sharply restrict permits from being issued if the mineral being extracted is mixed with sulfide. The new iron-mining law has no such restriction. Instead, the bill asserts that “special concerns surrounding nonferrous metallic mining warrant more stringent regulatory measures” than iron mining requires. By “simplifying and shortening the permitting process” for iron mining, Wisconsin can “create jobs and generate resources for the state.”

General mining regulations require companies to show they’ll control water runoff to avoid soil erosion and flooding; damage to farmland, livestock and wildlife; pollution of ground and surface water; and damage to public health. For iron mining, the new law says mine operators must show site runoff will be handled “in compliance with any approval that regulates construction site erosion control or storm water management or discharge.”

The Penokee Hills are dotted with natural wetlands, home to fish and fowl, wetlands that environmental scientists say help to act as a natural filter to purify rainwater as it returns to the rivers and to the earth. Over the mine’s projected 35-year life, some of the streams and ponds in the immediate area will likely fill with rock removed to reach the ore and residue, called tailings, from the processing of taconite ore pellets.

Language in the law states iron mining will probably cause some wetland damage, and that if it does, the mining activity “that would have a significant adverse impact on wetlands is presumed to be necessary.” That’s in contrast to original regulations, which say harm to wetlands is “presumed to be unnecessary.”

When the Madison news website the Capital Times asked an author of this year’s bill, Sen. Tom Tiffany, about the wording change, the Hazelhurst Republican explained it was made to strengthen the state’s legal defense if it gets sued for issuing a mining permit that causes environmental damage.

“We are simply being honest,” Tiffany told the Cap Times. “There will be some impacts but they will be limited. Changing the word ‘unnecessary’ to ‘necessary’ lets the judge know it was the Legislature’s intent that there will be some adverse impacts.”

Instead of placing stringent restrictions on destroying wetlands, the bill requires that a mining company establish new wetlands to offset any that it destroys; environmentalists are skeptical of that remedy and argue it hasn’t worked elsewhere.

In public statements and state legislative testimony, G-Tac President Bill Williams has disputed the environmental concerns that project critics have raised. At the SB1 hearing in January, Williams told legislators G-Tac would be mining an iron oxide deposit and would not disturb sulfide-containing ore.

“Wisconsin’s new law requires much more testing, much more detailed testing, than the surrounding states, and much more rigorous testing than the previous mining law in Wisconsin,” says G-Tac lobbyist and spokesman Bob Seitz of Arrowhead Strategies in Madison. “So we will know exactly what the characteristics are of that rock – that includes sulfides, that includes metals, and anything else that is a component for that rock.”

Those tests would make or break the project. “If it’s determined everything in that rock can be handled safely, it moves forward,” Seitz says. “There’s either much more rigorous testing to make sure mining is done safely, or there is not a mine.”

Jim Minikel grew up in suburban Chicago, but he and his family spent their summers in Wisconsin’s north woods. When he married, he brought his bride, Maria, up to his old vacation land.

Maria was from St. Louis. “I had never seen a birch tree,” she says. Looking out into the woods at the straight, slender trunks with the papery white bark, she was amazed. “What are those trees?” she asked. “They looked at me like I was crazy.”

After medical school in Kentucky, Jim chose Wisconsin for his internship and residency. He became an orthopedic surgeon, and the couple built a life together in Wauwatosa and later Brookfield, raising three daughters. Summer vacations had two requirements: camping and water. They took expeditions out west, but northern Wisconsin always drew them back.

For years, the Minikels would summer at a resort near Hayward. In 1993, they bought an 80-year-old cabin on 160 acres near Mellen, south of Ashland. There was no electricity and no indoor toilet. At night, they could hear bears shuffling in the underbrush and wolves howling in the distance.

Over the years, they rigged up an assortment of improvised conveniences. They speak with genuine nostalgia about the gravity-fed shower and its 30-gallon water tank, one filled by hand and heated with propane for 45 minutes before bathing. “When you have five or six people taking turns, it’s a Navy shower,” Jim Minikel says. “But there was nothing that was more clean and refreshing than that shower.”

A leaking roof in 2001 told the couple it was time to replace their beloved cabin. They built a stately, solid log home on the site: four bedrooms, two bathrooms, an open living area and a modern kitchen.

Shortly after the Minikels moved in, John Franke walked over to introduce himself. Franke, then a lab technician for a chemical company in Port Edwards, has a hunting camp in the area, a legacy from his father who bought the land with co-workers from the Pabst Brewery in the 1940s. “I did all of my hunting and fishing as a youngster up here,” Franke says. Fourteen years ago, the couple built a home on West Twin Lake with retirement in mind. “It’s like coming home,” he says. “It’s the only place I ever wanted to live and retire.”

Critics of the proposed mine list many reasons to keep it out. “At best, the landscape will be permanently altered,” says an October 2011 report from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. “At worst, a variety of environmental damage and human health risks would result. Where a Penokee mine would fall along that spectrum is currently unknown.”

Some objections might be considered aesthetic. Minikel says he’s been told that a conveyor belt carrying the ore “will be delivering this stuff 24/7.”

He’s got the picture in his mind. “I can just see the lights on, the night sky’s gone,” he says. “The reason we’re up here is solitude. We’ve put a lot of effort and money into this place, and it’s just so frustrating to have it taken away.”

The assurance from mining supporters that, eventually, the pit will fill with water and create a new lake – as happened with another strip mine farther east – is of little comfort to those living in and around the woods that would be ripped up.

But the greater hazards, the critics contend, are to health and the environment. Geologists who have studied the site for American Indian tribes and groups like the Penokee Hills Education Project point to sulfur in the ground that, as it is dug up to extract the iron ore, might contaminate area waters with runoff that could create sulfuric acid. The ore itself would be processed on site into pellets before being shipped out. Minikel fears that would create a fine, powdery dust that could fill the air and bring with it the risk of lung diseases like silicosis.

The most persistent threat cited by opponents concerns the region’s waters. “This area is nothing more than veins and arteries that feed the heart, which is Lake Superior,” Franke says. “You contaminate Lake Superior, and we’re all in trouble.”

William Heart has lived in the region for decades. He owned a printing shop in Ashland for 24 years and got involved in opposing the mine through his leadership in Trout Unlimited. “Many of these streams are Class 1 and Class 2 trout streams,” Heart says. “This area is so, so rich in cold-water resources. It would be very difficult to mine up in this area without, No. 1, changing our current laws, but then, destroying the cold water resources in this area.”

The Minikels first saw news stories about the mining plans in 2011 while at home in Brookfield, and Maria went online to search for the exact location. She found nothing, so that July, while they were at their home in the woods, they found their way to the mining company’s office in Hurley.

G-Tac President Bill Williams showed the couple the mine location on a map. “Bill said, ‘We’ve talked to all the neighbors in this area, and everyone is fine with it,’” Maria Minikel says. She pointed out the location of their home, fewer than five miles from the planned open pit. Surely, she suggested, that made them neighbors – and no one had talked to them. “We didn’t know there was anybody there,” she remembers Williams saying.

“He told us how wonderful this would be for us because it would bring electricity to the area,” she continues. “Well, we brought our own electricity to the area when we built this place to the tune of quite a few bucks.”

Williams wasn’t deterred. “He said, ‘But we’ll bring cell phone service to you.’ I already have cell phone service – and it’s gotten better over the years.” She even teaches classes at Cardinal Stritch University over the Internet from their north woods home.

“He was selling a lot of good things that we didn’t need,” she says. “And what he wasn’t selling, but was coming along with everything else, was the destruction of why we came up here, destruction of the legacy we hoped to leave our kids and experiences we hope our grandkids can have for all their lives.”

Opposition to the mine – and, more specifically, to the legislation that makes it easier to open and operate the mine – is strongest in the far northwest. Bayfield Mayor Larry MacDonald and Ashland Mayor Bill Whalen say they aren’t opposed to mining in principle, but they insist that water protections in established mining laws not be weakened. MacDonald says hardly anyone in his community feels otherwise.

But the farther east you go, changes in attitude toward the project become more dramatic.

When Bob Walesewicz was 16, his great-grandfather died, but Bob never forgot those summer trips to grandfather John Sola Sr.’s farm and great-granddad’s stories of working in the iron mines. Upon graduating from Oconomowoc High School in 1980, Walesewicz learned the auto mechanic’s trade. It was a skill that he could put to use pretty much anywhere, and even then, he knew that someday he’d like to move up to the Hurley area and settle down.

In 1992, his grandfather’s only son, John Sola Jr., died suddenly from a heart attack. Walesewicz had been especially close to his uncle. “My wife and I thought the timing was right to come back,” he says, and the couple made the move up north. He was working as a sales representative for an automotive test equipment company, with a territory that stretched from parts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula across northern Wisconsin and into a sliver of northern Minnesota. Four years later, when his employer was bought out, Walesewicz went to work in an Ironwood auto parts store. In 2003, he built a convenience store on the outskirts of Hurley, opening it the next year. It was built on the site of the original Cary Mine.

Walesewicz named the store Cary Mine Convenience.

There was a practical reason for the name, he says. “Folks would be familiar with where it’s located.” But he had a more sentimental reason as well. “I thought it would be a nice tribute to my great-grandfather.”

Walesewicz got active in the Hurley Chamber of Commerce and entered local politics. Today, he’s chairman of the Town of Carey.

After the mines closed in the early 1960s, Walesewicz says his grandfather, the dairy farmer, worked tirelessly to recruit new industry to the area. Railroad tracks ran by his farmhouse, and when a train would go by, visitors would ask whether the noise annoyed him. “My grandfather’s response would be, ‘No, that’s the sound of men working.’”

A railroad spur that crossed John Sola Sr.’s property had once delivered iron ore cars to shipping docks in Ashland. In the 1970s, the tracks were ripped up. Sola Sr. was disappointed; he would tell people that once the rail line was gone, it would be that much more difficult to attract industry.

So when Walesewicz learned of G-Tac’s interest in bringing back mining, he says, “My immediate reaction was joy.”

Although eager for the prospect of a stronger local economy, Walesewicz sought to keep an open mind and decided to learn more about modern mining. “I was asking the question, ‘Is the industry right for our area?’”

Walesewicz and local business and political colleagues arranged visits to established mining sites elsewhere. They drove to Minnesota to meet with the director of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, which coordinates mining development in that state’s northeastern quadrant. Later, he and the other members of the new local mining impact committee traveled to Marquette, Mich., to see the open-pit Empire Mine and speak with the company and local officials about their experiences.

The mine, he says, looked like a vast construction site, so deep that the huge trucks traversing it looked like small toys.

“There was a constant in and out of supply trucks,” he says, bringing everything from gigantic tires and other spare parts to fuel. “It warmed my heart a bit to see all of these outside vendors coming in. What that meant, of course, was off-site jobs and off-site employment.”

He took note of the giant open pits that carve out large volumes of ground – “overburden” in mining lingo. And then he saw the technologically sophisticated equipment of the taconite plant where ore was processed into pellets, the equally sophisticated training needed to run those machines and the engineers on the site. Walesewicz immediately understood that today’s mining workforce includes many workers much more educated than men like his great-grandfather.

Conversations with industry and government officials left him largely satisfied that operations were safe and posed little danger to the environment. The history of mining in his own community also helped.

In Montreal, just west of Hurley, sat one of the deepest iron mines in the world, says Kelly Klein of the Iron County Development Zone. “People remember those days,” Klein says. “They remember the Friday and Saturday nights, the hustle and bustle. They remember the commerce, and they remember the mining company would take care of them.”

The old headframe from one of the area mines is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Other artifacts from those days, like core casings from the old mines, can be found around the structure.

And in the countryside, old piles of debris cast off from the mines remain, slowly growing over with vegetation.

Across the Montreal River in Hurley’s twin city of Ironwood, Mich., a mural adorns the side of a building. It depicts rank after rank of miners – men in jackets and overalls with their lunch buckets and helmets. The faces in the mural are the faces of real people – the grandparents, uncles and predecessors of community residents who made their livings in the mines, painted from photographs provided by their descendants.

“People who live here are going, ‘You know, why are we so worried?’” Klein says. “There’s stiff regulations now, and back then, there weren’t.”

Walesewicz can attest to the mindset. “We understand that there are very deep holes here and there are towering piles of debris. Yet our water remains clear,” he says. “We may not be as fearful of the industry, but that does not mean that we are not concerned about the environment we live in, or that we would support a ‘dirty mine.’”

And against that, he considers the promise of hundreds of good-paying jobs, and the countless spinoff jobs he believes would follow. The area’s 13.6 percent unemployment is nearly double the state’s rate of about 7.2 percent. And the economic struggle has taken its toll, not just in practical terms but on the community’s psyche.

The style of mining may be different, but he doesn’t believe the differences make the lessons of the mining past irrelevant.

“We’ve been here before.”


In downtown Ironwood, Mich., the “Miner’s Mural” stands as a reminder that mining once pervaded Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Northern Wisconsin.
Photo by Derek Montgomery

Edith Leoso is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Bad River Band. Born in Chicago, she moved to the reservation as a girl when her mother came home to care for her own mother, who was dying from cancer. In her job, Leoso ensures that historic property is not disturbed and sacred grounds, such as burial sites, are respected when excavations occur. She also makes sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

Although she says the new state iron mining law essentially ignores it, federal law and American Indian treaty rights give her and the Bad River Band a power that could become important as the mine permitting process plays out. Regardless of changes in state law, the Penokee Hills mine will require federal permits, and Leoso says that before those permits can be issued, how the project would affect historic properties – including tribal properties – will have to be addressed.

The Bad River Band and the neighboring Red Cliff Band, whose reservation is north of Bayfield, may also have avenues to thwart the project based on the potential pollution of water that feeds wild rice beds, and rivers and streams where tribal members fish for subsistence.

For Leoso, there is also a more personal edge to the controversy. She’s convinced her grandmother’s cancer was partly caused by exposure to industrial chemicals that were dumped across the bay. She blames other forms of rampant environmental disregard, such as unregulated toxic dumps around the region, for cancers plaguing her community. And the insecticide DDT was used widely on American Indian land before it was banned, she says.

So when she and fellow tribal leaders call the risks they perceive from a mine an act of genocide, they are not, from their perspective, being hyperbolic – only plain-spoken.

“We’re already dying,” she says, “and we’re trying to heal from everything that’s happened to us in the past.”

On a snowy February afternoon, Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. guides me as I drive through the woods of the reservation. The snow-covered beach and the waters of Lake Superior lie under the leaden sky. As we drive, the gap between the culture of the people who want to bring mining to the Penokee Hills and those who are fighting to keep it out has never been more clear. Yet the divide is not just about American Indians and whites. In Wiggins’ words, I hear the divide between two Wisconsins – one that has for generations been a model for conserving nature, and one that has decided that those old habits are too costly.

Wiggins talks of the fast-track nature by which the mining bill was passed, and the way that changes in the law will eliminate the contested case hearing from the permitting process, the only place, he says, “when citizens like you and I get to ask the company, ‘What do you plan to do?’”

By speeding up the deliberations, “There’s no dialogue around things that are truly important in the form of our natural resources and the role they play in our communities and our lives and in the economy,” he says.

Out of the car now, gazing at the lake, Wiggins takes a bag of tobacco from his pocket, still a sacred plant for many American Indians. He sprinkles some on the ground and closes his eyes in silence. It’s an opportunity, he says, to pray for the land and the water.

“We’re not above and separate from the things that are around us,” Wiggins says. “The things around us don’t need us. We need them. If human beings disappeared off the face of the earth, the only things that would die are human beings. Our ecosystems would go on around us.”

In that epiphany of humility before nature, he says, “You can send money on a journey far, far away from the consideration and discussion of what’s at stake. Then maybe we can get to a point where we can look through the lens of the naturally occurring lake sturgeon spawning in the Bad River Falls. What do they need in order to survive? What is their role in the ecosystem? What about the groundwater aquifers?”

Snow drifts down, but the questions hang in the air. Their answers will be long in coming.



Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.