Chippewa leader tells Legislature of disputes with state over mine; lawmaker walks out
Wisconsin also at odds with tribes over spearfishing, wolves
By Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel April 9, 2013
Madison - In a pointed speech, an Ojibwe tribal leader Tuesday challenged the full Legislature to overcome the mounting controversy with Wisconsin's American Indian tribes over mining legislation, spearfishing and the hunting of wolves, prompting a leading GOP lawmaker and tribal member to walk out.
Gordon Thayer, chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, spoke for nearly an hour in the annual state of the tribes address about what he called a "breakdown in communication" with state leaders. Over the past two years, the six bands of his fellow Ojibwe, or Chippewa, in northern Wisconsin and to a lesser extent other tribes have been at odds with GOP state officials on several natural resource issues, particularly a proposed $1.5 billion iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin that would be upstream from the reservation of another Ojibwe tribe.
"Make no mistake: the 11 tribes of Wisconsin oppose the proposed mine and its permitting process. And we stand unified with our relatives at Bad River in protecting their waters. . . . The beauty of our state isn't just about job creation," said Thayer, who received warm applause from Democrats and mixed applause from Republicans.
Though many parts of the speech criticized the state, Thayer also thanked state leaders for some advances and repeatedly emphasized that he believed that tribes and the Republican-controlled state government could overcome their differences. Despite the increased tension, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said after the speech that he also remained ready to speak with tribal officials.
"I'm glad that we are focused on collaboration with each other rather than our disagreements," he said.
But Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Kramer (R-Waukesha) was more focused on the disagreements. Kramer, who said he is an enrolled member of the Red Cliff band of Ojibwe, walked out of the Assembly chamber during Thayer's speech. He said walking out wasn't any more disrespectful to Thayer than the tribal leader's speech was to him.
"You're continually talking about collaboration but continually telling us everything we did wrong," Kramer said of the speech afterward.
Thayer said later that he wasn't "trying to sting anyone, just lay out the facts."
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said afterward that he hadn't walked out during Gov. Scott Walker's speeches even though he often disagreed with them and felt that it was inappropriate for Kramer to do so.
Last month, Walker signed legislation that sought to open the way for a mining company to come into Wisconsin, saying it would lead to jobs both at the open pit mine site and at manufacturers of mining equipment around the state.
But legal challenges to the legislation and the proposed mine might not be far off, with the chairman of the nearby Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa vowing in March to use "every avenue of resistance" to oppose them. In his speech, Thayer recognized Bad River Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr.
The site of the proposed mine is in the Bad River watershed and upstream from the reservation of the Bad River band, which has been given authority by federal officials to regulate the water quality of those upstream.
"We hope (the mining company) comes to their senses rather than spending all our tribal resources on court," Wiggins said. "But if it comes to it, we'll be ready."
The proposed mine would create about 29 million tons of waste rock and tailings a year, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Environmentalists are concerned that waste could contain sulfide minerals that could pollute wetlands, streams and groundwater. Sulfides can be a source of acid mine drainage when they interact with air and water.
Mine supporters have responded that federal records show the Bad River band is grappling with its own violations of water quality standards at the tribe's wastewater treatment system serving residents of Odanah in Ashland County. Those violations include excessive levels of E. coli and phosphorus, as well as periods when the tribe failed to report data.
Mine supporters also say that with one of the largest iron deposits in North America, Wisconsin officials should use those mineral resources to spur investment and employment in economically challenged northern counties.
Gogebic Taconite, a unit of Florida-based Cline Resource and Development, said the mine in Ashland and Iron counties would operate for at least 35 years and run for about 4 miles atop an iron-rich ridge. Gogebic says the mine would generate 700 jobs but would spin off far more than that in trucking, housing and other industries.
Part of Thayer's talk focused on the common bonds between tribal members and other citizens of the state and common goals such as creating jobs and curbing drug abuse.
"We're not your adversaries. We're part of the great state of Wisconsin," Thayer said at one point.
In another issue creating tension with the state, Wisconsin's Ojibwe bands announced plans last month to spear nearly 60,000 walleye across northern Wisconsin lakes this spring, about 5,300 more than last year. In turn, state officials had to reduce walleye limits for other fishermen to avoid hurting the walleye population, raising questions about whether it could wreck a fragile peace on the once explosive issue of spearfishing.
The Department of Natural Resources announced the sport bag limits would be reduced to one fish on 197 lakes, two fish on 331 lakes and three fish on seven lakes. The standard daily sport bag limit on Wisconsin waters is five walleyes.
Thayer, recalling threats he received during old conflicts over spearfishing, said that he'd been disturbed by what he described as "inflammatory" recent news stories about spearfishing.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said in a statement that the Ojibwe tribes are acting within their treaty rights and are not endangering the walleye fishery.
"However the declaration of 197 lakes at a level that will result in a one-walleye daily bag limit for (nonnative) anglers was a drastic increase," Stepp said. "As we have stated publicly, the reduced bag limit has the potential to drive down angler participation throughout the summer, decreasing tourism to the lakes of northern Wisconsin, and impacting local economies."