Patty Loew: Ojibwe didn't protect wetlands for mine 03.02.13

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Jobs. It's all about jobs.

Like many Ojibwe, I've been frustrated by how the proposed mining bill has been framed by politicians and the mainstream media. The cultural and ecological significance of the wild rice — the natural resource most threatened by the relaxed environmental standards in the bill — has received little attention.

True, you won't see any stained glass or church spires in the Bad River or Kakagon Sloughs, but those wetlands are as holy to us as any temple or cathedral.

When 25,000 acres of wetlands within our original reservation, lost to us through skullduggery, came on the market a few years ago, we sacrificed everything to buy it back and protect the rice. Do you see water slides, go-kart tracks, or mini-golf on our shores? No.

Our houses are set back from the water. Our gaming facility and tribal offices have no lakefront views. We've acted in a deliberate and responsible way to protect the rice, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.

In a wetland environment, wild rice, a grass that sustains fish, waterfowl, and humans, is the canary in the coal mine. It's a fragile plant that reacts adversely to changes in water flow and water chemistry.

In the geology of the proposed mine site, the taconite deposit is tucked under and between layers of iron sulfide. The mining company will have to drill through those sulfide deposits to get to the taconite. In a massive four-mile-long, half-mile wide open pit mine, like the one proposed by the company, it means the sulfide will be exposed to wind and rain, creating dangerous contaminants that could threaten our ancient rice beds.

But this is really all about jobs, right? Lost in the political debates and news coverage is acknowledgement of the 500 jobs Bad River, the largest employer in Ashland County, already provides, many of them to non-Indians.

And will this mine really create jobs? Look at Australia, where some of the most profitable mining companies are headquartered, to see the future of mining. Who's planting the explosives, manning the drills and driving the trucks that carry the ore from the mines to the processing facilities?

It's not a "who." It's a "what." Robots are used for these jobs. The mining industry is becoming increasingly mechanized. Over the past five years, mining giant Rio Tinto has pumped $21 million into research at the Field Robotic Centre in Sydney University to support "autonomous mining."

If you don't believe me, visit the company's own website to read about the "Mine of the Future."

If legislators really want to generate jobs, the real growth in mineral extraction is in recovery. Look to places such as the Netherlands and Belgium, countries on the cutting edge of recycling ferrous metals. Here in the United States, last year alone, 74 million metric tons of ferrous metal were recycled. And that number is increasing every year.

The future of mining is re-mining. If the state is serious about job creation, that's where the opportunity lies.

Patty Loew, a member of the Bad River of Lake Superior Ojibwe, is a UW-Madison professor in the Department of Life Science Communication and a former producer for WHA-TV public television in Madison.

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