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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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