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Native Americans make stand against Wisconsin mining operations

By   /   July 23, 2013  /   News  /   6 Comments

Part 5 of 7 in the series Mining in Wisconsin

By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

HURLEY — Mel Gasper doesn’t sound worried.

Heavy trucks, geologists, engineers and armed guards have passed by the entrance of the Lac Courte Oreilles Harvest Camp in recent weeks, signalling the initial exploratory phase of a potential $1.5-billion iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.

But the tribal elder with the Lac Courtes Oreilles Band of Ojibwe says the Harvest Camp, established this past spring, marks the tribe’s line in the sand, and its opening salvo into a legal challenge to block the mine.

The camp’s entrance sits up a gravel road off Wisconsin Highway 77 near the border of Iron and Ashland County, just a few miles from the rundown mining towns of the past. which showcase large tailings from un-reclaimed mines on one side of the road and boarded up, abandoned houses on the other.

Farther up the gravel road is where Gogebic Taconite LLC, the company that pressed lawmakers to pass an overhaul of the state’s mining regulations, last week finished drilling exploration boreholes.

“This camp is our foothold,” Gasper said, sitting on one of the 20 or so chairs scattered about the camp. “I’m not only here representing our tribe. I’m representing the whole Ojibwe Nation. Without this camp, basically we’ve got no place to fight from.”

The tribe may have to find another place to fight.

Photo by Ryan Ekvall

TENT OFFENSIVE: Mel Gasper, tribal elder for The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, is the keeper of the Harvest Camp. Gasper says it’s an educational camp, but the tents are set up at the entrance of a proposed iron ore mine – a development the tribe is prepared to fight.

While Gasper says the tribe received an oral agreement from Iron County to set up camp on county forest land for a year, county officials insist a permit was discussed but never issued.

“It is clear activities currently occurring on the 5-acre parcel on the Iron County Forest commonly referred to as ‘Camp Plummer’ are in conflict with County Forest Law by infringing on the general public’s access and entitled multiple-use of that land for a minimum of an entire year without proper permits from Iron County,” the Wisconsin County Forest Association wrote in a letter, dated July 8, to Iron County District Attorney Marty Lipske.

Lipske did not return calls from Wisconsin Reporter.

Joe Vairus, Iron County forester, told Wisconsin Reporter that in mid-June, he informed Gasper the LCO harvest camp violated the law. The Iron County Forestry and Parks Committee will meet Tuesday with its lawyers to discuss the LCO’s long-term camping plans. The county board would have to vote on issuing a permit.

Gasper said the tribe is trying to expand the acreage of the camp from 5 acres to 30 acres and to extend its stay from one year to five years. He said the tribe is exercising its 1842 treaty rights of “harvesting and gathering.”

“We’ve been documenting all the plants, animals and fish – you know, we’re looking for endangered species that live here,” Gasper said, adding the LCO would set up a maple sugar bush camp with the expanded land.

The treaty rights, however, don’t allow tribal members to set up camp for more than two weeks, the same period permitted by the state Department of Natural Resources to anyone camping on county forest land.

The Lac Courte Oreilles would need a large-scale permit, which includes planning for sewage treatment, water runoff, site safety and an emergency response plan, among other considerations, for a longer stay.

Gasper says anyone is welcome to the camp, adding that at least 1,000 people have stopped by – some from as far away as England, Germany and California.

But it’s clear the tribe’s camp, at the potential entry point of the mine, serves as a symbol that the Lac Courte Oreilles will do all it can to stop an economic development project projected to create much-needed jobs in an economically struggling region.

“We do have a fight, and it’s going to be a long, hard one. This is going to be held up in court for a long time. But there is a place and time for all of that,” he said of the mining project.

Legal hurdles ahead

It seemed a safe bet that the contentious bill to reform the state’s mining regulations, signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Scott Walker, would wind up in court before development began.

Last October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa the authority to set its own water quality standards, allowing the tribe to control water pollution from off-reservation sources that would flow into their territory. EPA’s action gave the tribe a major legal tool to enforce its private property rights.

“If we get to the point where the mine will be considered, the tribe has quite a bit of authority with regards of those standards,” Glenn Stoddard, an attorney representing the Bad River Band, told Wisconsin Reporter.

He said the tribe can appeal to the EPA over any permit issued that might violate the Clean Water Act.

“The Bad River tribe has a relationship with federal government that’s entirely different than with the state government because of treaties and trust responsibilities that federal agencies have in issues dealing with tribes,” he said.

Stoddard pointed to the Crandon mine as a lesson that could prove relevant to the proposed mine.  The Mole Lake Ojibwe used its “treatment as a state” status to shut down that mining operation when the mining company thought the costs would become too high to meet the tribe’s stringent water quality standards. The fight started in 1996 and ended in 2002. Stoddard also litigated that case.

The Bad River Band’s reservation runs south of Lake Superior, the Bad River flowing into the lake. The potential mining project lies upstream from the reservation.

The tribe, environmentalists and mine critics in the region, particularly in Ashland County, worry that runoff from mining activity will damage water quality and threaten wildlife and tourism in the area. The tribe says it worries the project will kill its wild rice beds.

“I think the Bad River Tribe is in a good position to object to, and ultimately stop, this project,” Stoddard said. “It’s still unclear whether the project is going to be determined to be feasible by the company. They may decide to back down.”

Bill Williams, president of Gogebic Taconite LLC, previously said an on-site processing plant will recycle water, mitigating pollution. GTAC officials did not return multiple calls from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment.

In addition to legal battles with the tribe, Gogebic Taconite still has to clear permitting and regulatory hurdles at the local, state and federal level before any construction or drilling can begin.

Contact Ryan Ekvall at [email protected]

Part of 7 in the series Mining in Wisconsin


Ryan formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • NoThanks

    Well … Iron County Forestry FAILED to mention … Sheriff’s (more officials whom granted to save time, process and money) were witness to the permit agreement (in meetings) for non-tribal members to harvest. NOTE to SELF … exercising the rights of the treaties DO NOT require local, state or township permits.

    … may want to fix this (rundown mining towns of the past<>which showcase) and so MUCH more of the facts to the matters. But heck couldn’t expect anything less from Ryan Ekvall … In any case your journalism is well .. never mind …

  • I’d rather not share it

    “Much-needed jobs” – I know from personal connections that these jobs are already filled by outsiders. None of the jobs with any decent pay will go to locals already living in the area. They (the mining companies) list them as “newly-created” jobs to entice local officials into getting on their bandwagon, but the jobs go to mining company employees who move from project to project all over the world. They see people they’ve worked with in Indonesia, South Africa, and Nevada. There were actually some mining employees out in Nevada who were talking about the possibility of their coming to N. WI to work the GTAC mine…No locals – I repeat – NO locals will be considered for these positions. They’re already filled.

  • Rando

    The truth again is the biggest polluters in the Northwoods are not mining companies but are the Indian Tribes. Wake up readers the days of the indian chief with the tear in his eye because someone littered at the side of the road is over. We already know they they are the biggest water polluters in Northern WI. we also know that they they kill and poach wildlife way beyond their needs. They trash their land, crime is worse then any other cities in WI. Drug use is way worse then ave. Truth be told the real reason they might want to keep the mines out is to keep them from finding the tribes marijuana growing opperations.

  • Rando

    by the way can we stop calling them NATIVE AMERICANS they migrated here the same as the pilgrams. Anyone born here is a native american. Cut the PC BS. Indian tribes fought among themselves. They fought for land against other tribes. They owned slaves. They chased herds of buffalo of cliffs and did not use everything they killed. They killed, rapped, tortured other indians long before Columbus arrived. I’m sure there were some good people and good tribes but for crying out loud can we stop making them all out to be some type of gods that watch over the environment. Because the more you know about these tribes and the lands and where they live now… it is just the opposite.

  • sandcanyongal

    Jobs versus live of people. Is that f’ing mine going to pay the medical bill for the people who become mortally ill? There are no jobs because they’re all relocated to China, Indonesia, India and wherever else those greed companies can get slave labor. Fix the problem. NO, NO, NO! No jobs that kill people living in the state. Some of you are so stupid, the tainted water should be piped right into your homes for you and your own children to drink. I think this should quiet some of you if you have to live with the cancer. Just stupid people.

  • sandcanyongal

    Don’t think your right about Indians.They are prehistoric. http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/wisconsin-natural-history-society-archeological-s/the-wisconsin-archeologist-volume-44-46-hci/page-45-the-wisconsin-archeologist-volume-44-46-hci.shtml

    Must you trivalize their significance as an ancient people and somehow make yourself of greater value and worth than them?