Penokee Mountains are “Unmineable” says Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr.

 First published on WIvoices.org

Mike Wiggins Jr.,Tribal Chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, has frequently been in the news over the last couple of years for comment on the contentious mining issue in Wisconsin. Gogebic Taconite Mining (GTac) proposed creating $1.5 billion open pit mine in the Penokee Mountains, a scant 6 miles upstream from the northern reservation on which he lives with his family. Not only is this land protected by federal treaties, but it has also been internationally recognized with both Ramsar and Blue Gold awards. Wiggins has spoken to numerous media sources and committees (in fact he received two other calls from media while we were with him); but the spin and snippets that have made it to the general public have not been reflective of his entire point of view. He was also given limited time and interrupted by a buzzer as he testified before the state’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC). Currently, new legislation is being considered which would seek to replace the failed mining bill which prompted GTac to leave the state in March 2012. Wiggins explains the comprehensive issues with mining in the Penokees from many perspectives including: scientific, water, tourism and tribal views. As Wiggins emphasized, ” we’ve been trying to relay our story, relay our voice…”

Here’s his story.

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On Feb 17, 2012 you testified before the JFC about AB 426/SB 488 about problems with metallic mining. The bill was defeated shortly after that in a 17-16 vote, so why is there still concern?

“Well the concern is that we are seeing maneuvering coming out of Madison that is centering around the same outcomes that we saw legislative initiatives looking to do this past year. And that outcome is essentially the reformation of mining law here in WI. The mining law that was defeated this past year is still sitting on the shelf, and one of the concerns that I have is the fact that Tim Sullivan is leading a kinder, gentler, more inclusive round table effort to roll it out again…this is a concern in and of itself. Why? Because when it is all sifted away, the geologic composition [of the proposed mining site] and the negative environmental impact that would come with mountain top removal would be on the doorstep of our reservation.

That legislation was defeated, but yet to watch it in it’s infancy to start manifesting itself all over again…it’s been difficult.

What has also been very difficult is that over this past year we’ve been trying to relay our story, relay our voice and relay our need for science to accompany the type of decision-making points that the Madison legislators had to consider. All of that was a very emotional journey, because it was us trying to defend ourselves…us trying to protect ourselves from a land perspective and from a water perspective for our future generations…so.”

 

At the beginning of testimony before the JFC, you asked that your voices “not be minimized and discounted”. Has that been your experience?

“Well, I think fundamentally speaking…the way I look at this is through a filter of environmental justice. We are a small sovereign nation that is 6 miles down wind and down stream from this mining project, so we will be directly impacted in our home. With that being said, it is very simplistic logic. I think of it as neighbors.

If the types of activities in my yard have the potential of causing physical landscape changes to you and your yard – that’s going to be something that I’m going to think through. But more than that, if the types of activities that I am going to be doing in my yard have the potential of causing negative health impacts to you and your children…then we have to visit the wisdom of those types of activities…because my activities would be harming you and others. Wouldn’t you see that as simplistic logic?

I’ve seen this issue with WI in the same way. Not only did we see a disregard for our small indigenous nation here, but we saw legislative initiatives that essentially gave extractive industries, and in this case – GTac, a free pass on environmental degradation. There may not have technically been a weakening of a lot of environmental regulations, but there was a component where extractive industries would not have to be held accountable to the laws. So it was a clever way of taking a circuitous route around (the laws). Then, when mining initiative confronted environmental law – mining interests would always win.”

 

Video highlights from Wiggins: “Another thing to consider was the absence of science this past year as the legislators debated the mining bill.”

“So in the spirit of transparency, I encourage the mining company to open those core samples up and let’s have some science drive the dialogue, Wisconsin deserves that.”

What has been your relationship with the mining companies and the elected officials?

“Our relationship with the mining company has been nil to non-existent. As a sovereign nation, we are not dealing with a corporation. As a sovereign nation we are looking at the state to do the right thing and we are also looking to the federal government to intervene in this situation.

Essentially, the northern part of Wisconsin is set up as ceded territory and is a recognized area of land where hunting and fishing and gathering rights and subsistence living is reserved through our treaties with the United States. Lake Superior Chippewa have harvesting rights, which were reserved. The court did indicate that if we were not able to provide oversight and monitor our own harvesting activities, that the WI DNR would do it for us. As a result, the tribes have created the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Commission, GLIFWC. We have our own enforcement realm and the Voight Model Code which is harvesting rules and regulations… from fishing to berry picking to firewood gathering, you name it. We have a brother or sister partnership with the DNR. The last 25 years there has been tremendous efforts through the Voight task force, a subsidiary board of tribal representatives, as part of GLIFWC, to work with the DNR advancing natural resource issues related to harvesting… like elk hunting and the current issue of recreational wolf hunting…For 25 years we’ve had government-to-government meetings and a co-management of natural resources.”

 

What can you tell me about the effectiveness of resource management by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission?

“There’s 11 Ojibwe tribes vested under the treaties set forth in the ceded territories. So, I view GLIFWC as a baby of sorts, that has 11 parents. It is our thing, you know. The track record has been exemplary. Every fish that is harvested through our spear fishing is counted, measured, delineated as male or female…the data base that we have collected in ceded territory is incredible.

In addition, there is a tremendous effort in terms of population assessments. From a science-based perspective, GLIFWC has been exemplary, and the state has benefited immensely from the GLIFWC efforts. When it comes to resource management and a harvesting perspective, the DNR really has no data of the non-tribal capture, yet here we are counting every fish that is taken through the tribal spearing season. And believe me, if we go over even one fish beyond our quota, there are tremendous hoops to jump through with the state. Meanwhile, we watch lakes get pummeled [by non-tribal members] and there really is no mechanism that kicks in to counter that, besides winter.

Also, in our case, Bad River still has a robust fish hatchery. We put back 380,000 fingerlings and over a million walleye fry into our systems, and ultimately, into Lake Superior. So, we do our best to sustain the fisheries for the benefit of everyone, not just tribal people.

What we’ve seen over the past couple years with mining legislation is a statewide initiative to redefine the landscape of a lot of pristine wilderness and waterways.”

(photo by Wiggins)

“The essence of our concerns are centered in water, and when we look at water as a consideration there are a couple of things to talk about. First and foremost, the USGS study has shown that The Penokee Mountains here are actually the recharge station for the underground water aquifers that are underneath our reservation and are ultimately Lake Superior. The mountain top removal, a 1,000 foot pit, has the potential to contaminate ground water.

There was a legislative initiative that actually indicated that a mining company would not have to be accountable for contamination at depths deeper than 1,000 feet. My thought is, ‘what is that even doing being in law?’ I know the answer, but (shrugs)…

The water that our people are drinking in Odanah and on our reservation is on a 50-year recharge cycle starting in the Penokee Mountains. And from a ground water perspective, that is non-negotiable.”

Video highlights from Wiggins: “We are in the stronghold of fresh water for the nation, maybe for the world. The notion that we’d go someplace else to get water? (shaking head) unbelievable.”

“…why was there legislative points in the failed mining law that stripped land owners of their rights to recourse against mining companies if their wells went dry?”

Have you been invited to the table in order to discuss these issues?

“There was no table. The mining legislation had no table. It was a fast track that seemed to be written for the mining companies.

This mountain has sulfide minerals in it. When exposed to air and water, sulfide minerals turn into sulfuric acid. Estimates from geologists indicate millions of gallons of sulfuric acid creation over the life of the mining project. The sulfide minerals that are in this body (pointing to Penokee Mountains on map) are essentially sealed and capped. Open pit mining will not only expose those dangerous minerals…but everything around the iron ore will be crushed to talcum powder will exponentially increase the sulferic acid producing surface area that will interact with air and water.

Now, apply that again to the legislation that just failed in Wisconsin. The mining companies, through that legislation, were going to be given the ability to store that waste product in wetlands, waterways, streams, creeks, lakes, you name it. Sen. Dale Schultz was essentially the person who broke the tie and voted against the mining legislation. He took the time to come up north and talk to Wisconsinites. He took the time to get his hands in the water and to breathe the air and look at the footprint of the mining site and saw how it trickled and flowed downward from the Penokee Mountains through our reservation and through the wetland complex [40% of all the wetlands of lake superior] and ultimately to Lake superior. So he (Sen. Schultz) saw the whole watershed and that was a powerful experience.”

 

GTac claims that they would’ve brought jobs to this area with the proposed mine. In this poor economic environment in Wisconsin, that seems like a great deal to a lot of people. What is your response to that?

Well, I heard Matt Fifield talk about GTAC’s labor prognosis. He was here in Ashland about a year ago and he talked about that in a public forum at the Great Lakes Visitors Center. Ultimately, he envisioned the creation of 700 jobs over the course of a 35-year project. The first year he talked about bringing in 30 of their own company workers and see how that went. Then, they were going to pair them up with about 30 people from the local area. Then, over the course of 35 years they were going to look to increase their labor pool to employ about 700 people [over the life of the project]. What I find amazing is that those numbers have now morphed into an inaccurate portrayal of thousands of prospective jobs [not what we were initially told].”

 

Could they justify those job numbers?

With speed with which that legislative initiative was going, there was no need for them to justify anything. Um, I’m just telling you what GTac said to us.

The thing that we have to look at is that the ore prices are very volatile and extractive industry in general is boom and bust. It is why there are so many abandoned mines right now. The Flambeau mine that operated down in Ladysmith operated, what…7 years? There were many more years of proposed economic gain from that mine in Flambeau [than actually occurred, and they are left with] the potential of 2,000 years of negative environmental impacts.

I think it was Oliver Leopold once said, ‘You alter the landscape, you alter the people.’ ”

Video highlights from Wiggins: “Let’s factor in the rest of the tourism based economy that exists up here from a fishing perspective, silent sports perspective, from people who just want to see a pristine area.”

“Wisconsin has to have objective economic information that takes the big picture, the wide-lens view of what this truly means…”

“Wisconsin…deserves more than an answer that says, ‘all your concerns about water? Sorry that’s proprietary.’ “

 

“At the end of the day what’s in that mountain – transcends the various players here. They transcend my tribal council, they transcend Governor Walker, they transcend whatever legislators…all of us because that is what is essentially going to dictate what the Bad River Tribe is going to have to deal with in the future. And our perspective is, ‘yeah, we are protecting ourselves.’ But bigger than that…when I think of all Wisconsinites and I think of people by Lake Superior in general, there is so much to consider, and so much to protect right now that transcends our hope to try and just stay alive in a sustainable way into the future.”

A picture from that day in our web photo GALLERY

 

(photo by Wiggins)

“What you’ll notice is essentially what our ancestors saw when they looked down the shoreline. You don’t see condos, casinos, hotels, anything. That’s important to us and our value system, and it trumps economic development…it allows future generations to have what we have. And there are places to go if our tribal members want to be corporate CEOs or if they want to live their lives on concrete. But we have to think ahead 7 generations and remember that it really manifests itself in our environmental stewardship…it is a sacred place here. We take that stuff very seriously.

Water and air are fundamental human rights issues, and it is the context and fabric for our opposition to this particular mining project.”

Video highlights from Wiggins: “We never gave up our right to clean water within our reservation boundaries. We never gave up our right to clean air…The land is occupied by people who are all in pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“The fact that our reservation is situated next to a bunch of metal in the ground should not inherently doom my people to negative consequences in our homeland.”

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Wisconsinites are practical people. We make decisions based upon the facts available to us at the time. However, this practicality is jeopardized when data is withheld or decisions are rushed before the important task of educating citizens has been achieved. Such is the case with fast-tracking anything that has the potential of widespread and long lasting harm by calling it “proprietary” or business as usual. Wiggins articulates crucial perspectives in terms of science, tourism, water, and shared culture – not only for the Bad River people, but “for all Wisconsinites”.

 

More information? WIvoices.org’s Reference Page

 

“Thank-you John Gostovich for funding this interview”

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One Response to Penokee Mountains are “Unmineable” says Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr.

  1. Jani Techel says:

    I am with you, your people and ideas about Penokee 100% … I would like to be in contact with groups that are interested in protecting the Penokee…we did attend an evening at UW-Stevens Point that was very informative…wild rice dinner, etc…put on by students..let us all work towards stopping this project before its too late…..something like Pebble Beach in Alaska…IS NOTHING SACRED ANYMORE???????

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