Gogebic site in northern Wisconsin draws concern after vandalism
By Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel June 17, 2013 3:42 p.m
GOP leaders rush to prep state budget plan for final vote
Republican lawmakers want to act quickly to restrict access to mine site
Madison — Republican lawmakers want to act quickly to limit public access to a proposed iron mine site in northern Wisconsin after the destruction of mining company property there by environmentalists last week.
Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee) said he will try to persuade fellow GOP lawmakers to slip the change into the state budget bill when it comes up for debate in the Assembly Tuesday, though he acknowledges that there's little time.
"I don't know if it's too late for the budget, but something's got to change. We just can't have these people running around on a work site," Honadel said in an interview. "We certainly don't need this when we're trying to get a good viable business going in the state."
The protest and vandalism at the mine site, and a separate incident at a Department of Natural Resources service center in Wausau last week, underscore the emotion surrounding the possible construction of an open pit mine.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) acknowledged the discussions on limiting public access to the mine site Monday, saying that they were in the early stages.
The public has access to the land where exploratory drilling is being carried out by Gogebic Taconite as the first stage in the possible siting of a $1.5 billion mine in a heavily wooded area of Iron and Ashland counties.
"They want to do something to limit the areas they can go," Fitzgerald said.
Gogebic has an option on the mineral rights of the land, which is regulated under the state's managed forest law. In exchange for sharply lower property taxes for the landholder, the managed forest law gives the public access to wooded lands for activities such as hiking, hunting and fishing.
Honadel said he wants to rewrite that law to prohibit the public from being in areas where mining work is happening. He said the public is already prohibited from being in areas where logging is going on. "It just makes common sense," Honadel said
Frank Koehn disagreed. Koehn is the president of the Penokee Hills Education Projection, a group opposed to the mine that organized a hike with about 50 people to the site of the mine on Saturday. There were no incidents, according to Koehn and Iron County authorities.
Koehn, who hadn't heard about the GOP plans, said it's crucial for people to see the mine site to learn about the impact of the proposal. "So far there hasn't been much coming out of the Legislature on mining or much else that makes sense of late," Koehn said.
When logging operations are under way on managed forest land, signs can be posted to keep the general public 300 feet away from the logging site, according to Kathy Nelson, who oversees the program for the DNR. Within a year, at least half of the logging that was to be done must have occurred for the public to continue to be excluded, Nelson said.
Gogebic spokesman Bob Seitz said last week the company is worried that a separate act of vandalism earlier last week could foretell more trouble. Seitz called it "eco-terrorism."
Iron County Sheriff Tony Furyk on Friday estimated damage at $2,000 after protesters with covered faces slashed tires, damaged equipment, destroyed a worker's camera and took away her cellphone.
Patrick Marley and Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.