All week we’ve been talking about how the Great Lakes region can capitalize on its pristine environment. But across the Upper Midwest, mining companies are prospecting for iron, copper, nickel and rare earth metals. This new mining boom promises to jump-start stalled local economies. But because it also threatens the ecosystem, environmentalists and local Indian tribes are united in their opposition. For Front and Center, Joel Bleifuss traveled to Northern Wisconsin with producer Jennifer Brandel to explore how this modern day ore rush is forcing a debate over the true meaning of the region’s wealth.
“Backpacker” magazine describes this range located 20-miles south of Lake Superior as the “the Alps of Wisconsin.”
On the edge of the Chequamegon National Forest, the Penokee Mountains host hikers in the summer and hunters in the fall.
It’s also where a mining conglomerate wants to dig a four-and-a-half-mile-wide open-pit iron ore mine.
Just down the road from the proposed mine, is a picture postcard of a town called Mellen.
The town has seen better days, and many of the 845 residents consider the mine a salvation.
“We need jobs—bottom line,” says Jean Waddle.
Jean runs the Penokee Mountain Deli & Sausage Co., one of the town’s only remaining restaurants. “I've watched my business dwindle you know, and I'm not gonna make it like this,” she says.
And the current recession comes on top of a long-depressed regional economy.
That means hard times in the North Woods.
“What about young people?” I ask. “Do they have a future here?”
“No, no, they graduate and leave,” says Jean. “You think there’s going to be changes and there are changes—downhill—that’s the only changes I’ve seen. You either decide this is where you want to live and you have to live accordingly, or you leave. And most people leave.”
Jean speaks for a lot of the year round residents, like Joe Barabe.
“We’re hurting up here,” says Joe.
Joe has been the mayor of Mellen since 1987. His three kids have left Mellen for jobs in more prosperous areas of the country.
“We’ve been waiting for this mine, basically to happen for a long time, so were pretty excited you know,” says Joe. “You are talking about 700 hundred jobs at $50,000 a year. It will change the dynamics of everything. Our schools are all declining. We need the tax base. Whatever they have to bring in, we need it.”
The mining company has assured people up here the mine will operate in an environmentally responsible manner.
But many locals who live along Lake Superior’s shores see the mine as a threat to their livelihoods.
“I fished all my life really, since I was knee high to a grasshopper. My mom couldn’t get me off the dock,” says Wayne Lowe Jr. who is the head smoker at Bodin Fisheries in Bayfield Wisconsin.
He fearsmining willpollute the water and damage the fishery.
Wayne says you can’t put a price on Lake Superior.
“It’s the biggest freshwater lake in the world,” says Wayne. “If that goes, lots of jobs are gonna go. The lightbulb’s gotta turn on sometime, and say hey! We got to protect this stuff – for us, and our kids, really.”
Environmental groups throughout the region are keeping close tabs on the many mining companies prospecting the hills that ring the Upper Great Lakes.
The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Conservation in Wisconsin, Matt Dallman, says the mining company has not disclosed exact plans for the mine, but he’s concerned because the Bad River’s ecosystem is unique and mine runoff could contaminate waterways.
“It’s the drinking water source for the city of Ashland is Lake Superior and the Chaquamegon Bay,” says Dallman. “And this water that comes out of those hills eventually ends up in to that area. So it’s important for not only the plants and animals, but also the people who depend on that for a drinking water source and for the recreational benefits.”
Indian tribes are making their opposition heard too.
Ojibwe tribes recently gathered near ancestral burial grounds on Lake Superior’s Madeline Island.
“Our tribe has been here a thousand years,” says Mike Wiggins, the tribal chairman of the Bad River Indians. “We try to ensure that we're going to be around another thousand years. We don't have the luxury of as a people fleeing somewhere or having another mini state created. We are home and this is all we've got.”
Mike says the footprint of the proposed mine sits atop 23 creeks, streams and rivers that flow directly into the bad river reservation, specifically the Kakagon Slough. It’s a 16,000-acre marsh that includes 40 percent of Lake Superior’s wetlands.
The slough is also home to the last coastal wild rice beds anywhere in the Great Lakes. Mine runoff containing sulfides is toxic to wild rice.
“That wild rice is a sacred crop,” says Mike. “A staple and a symbol of who we are as a people, what our culture is about, what sustains us.”
All of the 11 Great Lakes Ojibwe tribes oppose the mine.
Len Moore, a 28-year-old carpenter, is a member of the Bad River Band.
His family has lived here for hundreds of years, and he says the mine operators don’t understand what’s at stake.
“I believe that they see it as an opportunity to make money,” he says. “But they don't see how much damage they'll do to the local environment and the people who are attached to it, who survive around or in the area or off the land. I'm a hunter myself and you know, if the river goes and becomes toxic and bleeds right into Lake Superior and everything will suffer down the chain.”
Tribal leaders have met with pro-mining Gov. Scott Walker to state their case. Moore says the Ojibwe people have sacrificed enough.
“We as a people have a little bit left of what our ways were. We try to preserve that as best we can. We don't ask for much other than to respect our future. We wish no ill-will towards any of the mining corporation or their personnel, or anything like that,” he says. “But we do need to defend and protect what we have, however that works out.”
How it works out could be made more complicated by the possible recall of Gov. Walker.
Regardless of what happens in the Penokees, one thing will not change. Vast mineral wealth lies beneath the forest covered hills of the Upper Great Lakes.
And with world demand for iron, cooper and other minerals on the rise, this debate over mining in the Great Lakes basin will not be resolved any time soon.