Bill would limit public access to part of Gogebic mining area: By Michael Phillis and Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel
Madison — A bill prompted by aggression from protesters in June could shut off public access to managed forest land within a proposed iron mine site in northern Wisconsin.
The bill calls for an exemption in the state's managed forest land law, which provides tax relief for land owners in exchange for managing land for forestry and allowing the public to take part in limited recreational activities such as hunting and hiking. The mine site is on privately owned land enrolled in a managed forestland program where mining company Gogebic Taconite has mining rights.
The bill would allow Gogebic to close the land and prevent public access until the permit was approved.
Details of the bill were made public Friday afternoon when a meeting notice on a hearing for the bill was released.
Gogebic is in the initial stages of testing whether to mine a four-mile stretch of land for iron. The company's plans have been met by anger from some environmental protesters. One incident caught on video in June showed a group of protesters yelling at workers on the site. During the altercation, one protester stole a camera from a worker — the group also hurled curses and insults at miners.
"When the (protesters) came in, they accosted the drilling crew and they just said you can't stop us from being here, we are just hikers," said the bill's author, Sen. Thomas Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst). "They really took advantage of the (managed forest land) open designation."
The timing of the meeting notice for scheduling a hearing on the bill raises red flags and shows "Sen. Tiffany doesn't have much interest in giving the public much notice," said Sen Bob Jauch (D-Poplar), who has been a strong skeptic of the mine proposed within his district.
Jauch said the bill goes too far by shutting off public access. He says it's unfair to other property owners who must allow public access under the managed forest law for activities such as fishing, hunting and hiking.
"The bottom line is that they are about to shut off thousands of acres of land that is not being mined any time in the near future," Jauch said.
Only the Gogebic site would be affected by the bill, Tiffany said. He plans on moving the bill quickly through the Senate. There are public hearings scheduled for Wednesday and a committee vote on Thursday. Tiffany hopes to have a floor vote in the Senate by the end of September.
Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), who supports the bill, reiterated that it was intended to prevent further cases like the angry protests that occurred in June.
Protester Katie Kloth of Stevens Point was charged with felony robbery after trying to steal the camera during that incident. In response, Gogebic hired armed security guards from a private firm.
"This is a bill that we reluctantly propose because of the inability of certain extremists to restrict their activities on the property for appropriate uses such as hiking, hunting and bird watching," Grothman said.
Bob Seitz, speaking for Gogebic Taconite, said the company supported the bill because it would protect the public from injury from explosives used in taking samples from the rock and because it would protect company employees from potential confrontations with environmental protesters.
"Because of the temporary closure, it has the least impact to people's outdoor activities," Seitz said of the bill.
Seitz said the proposal would allow the company to close off about 4,000 acres of the 21,000 acres for which it has mining rights. He said the company would try to compensate for that by allowing the public to use vehicles on logging roads in other areas on the property, something that is not required of private landowners under the managed forest law.
Jauch dismissed the argument that the land must be closed to protect Gogebic and its employees.
"There was has been one incident, on June 11," Jauch said. "You don't shut off an entire forest because one idiot got in the way."