September 17, 2014

Bill closing land around proposed mine site advances

Legislation that would allow a company to block public access to land around a proposed northern Wisconsin iron ore mine is moving closer to a vote in the state Senate. A legislative committee on Thursday voted to endorse the proposal on a 3-2 party line vote, less than a day after a long and contentious hearing on the bill.

The legislation would allow Gogebic Taconite to close about 3,500 acres of land in the Penokee Hills that’s currently enrolled under the state’s Managed Forest Law. The land is privately owned, but the owners currently grant public access to the land for hunting, hiking, and other outdoor activities in exchange for reduced tax payments.

State Senator Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst), who introduced the bill, says it’s the best solution to prevent future conflicts between those protesting the mine and workers doing exploratory work on the site. Gogebic wants to build a 4.5 mile long, open pit, iron ore mine in the region. In June, a crew doing exploratory drilling was confronted by a group of protesters in the woods. Video of the incident shows protesters yelling obscenities, climbing on equipment, and allegedly stealing a camera from a worker. Tiffany says the protesters vowed to be back and “we would be fools not to act on the statements of those violent protesters.”

Critics of the bill call it an overreaction to an isolated incident. State Senator Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) says it will keep honest members of the public from accessing the area and describes it as “an excessive, unjustified, proposal.”

Jauch notes that others opposed to the mine have not been a threat to crews. He’s pushing for a plan that would place distance restrictions between the public and mining crews, similar to existing protections for logging operations. However, Tiffany and others note that the densely wooded area would make enforcing those restrictions difficult.

Tiffany says the only other option Gogebic and the owner of the land have is to withdraw the property from the MFL, which would close it to the public permanently. Tiffany says his bill could allow the public to access the land when mining crews are not working in the area.

The full state Senate could take up the bill later this month.

AUDIO: Andrew Beckett reports (1:09)