State and Tribal Relations Valued by DNR

Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 Ashland Daily Press

Gogebic Taconite’s proposal to mine iron in the Penokee Range will likely be impacted in some form by state and tribal relations. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and state tribes have a process for intertribal relations through the Voigt Intertribal Task Force. If the mining company submits a mine permit application, the state would begin consultation with the task force about the project and its potential impacts. The committee is composed of 10 members, including a task force chairperson.

“We have a continual relationship with the Voigt Intertribal Task Force on all kinds of different issues,” said Ann Coakley, director of the Waste and Materials Management Bureau with the Wisconsin DNR. “We definitely value and respect our state-to-state or state-to-tribe relationships.”

Both the DNR and the task force have a liaison to interact with one another on issues. Coakley said the lines of communication are open between tribes like the Bad River Band and the state agency concerning Gogebic Taconite’s intentions to construct an open pit iron mine in Ashland and Iron counties. The state’s liaison informs the tribe or task force of the work it’s conducting related to the mining company’s movement through Wisconsin’s permitting process. Coakley said there have been ongoing discussions between the DNR and the Bad River Band, citing unsolicited comments obtained on GTAC’s exploratory drilling plans. Mike Wiggins Jr. is the tribal chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Wiggins said to his knowledge the DNR did not formally ask the tribe for input about the exploratory drilling process. However, he noted that exploratory drilling doesn’t call for consultation between the tribes and state.

Wiggins said the relationship between the Voigt Intertribal Task Force and Wisconsin DNR has been an “incredible success story” thus far on joint management of natural resources.

“We’ve improved fisheries. We’ve rehabilitated lakes together. We’ve tracked mercury together. We’ve done fish stocking and assessments on all our inland lakes,” Wiggins said. “There’s an incredible push to try and improve the quality of life for people in northern Wisconsin.”

However, Wiggins feared that’s now changing with the arrival of Gogebic Taconite.

If the mining company were to submit a mine permit application, DNR Northern Regional Director John Gozdzialski would likely serve as a primary point of contact on consultation between the state and the Voigt Intertribal Task Force on what’s being proposed. Meanwhile, legislation on iron mining is still being developed by State Sen. Rich Zipperer, R-Pewaukee, and State Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee. Coakley said consultation between the state and task force would not change under any proposed legislation.

“We would want to do the consultation with the tribes. No state legislation can stop us from consulting with the tribes,” Coakley said.

Moreover, she said Gogebic Taconite still has a long way to go before it can submit a mine permit application. Coakley said it may be 18 months to 2 years before the company would be ready to take that step if it so chooses.

As far as Wiggins is concerned, he would like to see GTAC “cease and desist and leave the Penokee region alone.”

Wiggins asked for proof of a clean mining operation when asked whether he would support the proposed iron mine if it followed regulations under Wisconsin’s current mining law.

Furthermore, Wiggins said the Bad River Band will consider all legal options available to protect the land and water if the company continues to pursue an iron mine in the Penokee Range.

Jim Zorn is the executive administrator of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. The comission is an intertribal agency committed to implementing off-reservation treaty rights among its member tribes. Zorn said tribes have rights, roles and responsibilities under 1842 treaty rights relative to the area that Gogebic Taconite is proposing to mine for iron. The 22-mile stretch where the company has purchased an option to lease mineral rights lies within ceded territory. As a result, Zorn said the state can not directly or indirectly abrogate those rights.

Zorn said the tribes take the view that the state should engage them early and often in decisions or discussions that may affect their rights. He added that the commission was in communication with the state about the exploratory drilling and submitted comments on that process as part of its routine relationship. Yet, he said there was no formal solicitation of comments from the state agency to his knowledge. Furthermore, Zorn could not predict how changes in state administration or possible legislation may affect that existing relationship. He said legislative enactments could be challenged by the tribes if they appear to violate treaty rights.

“When there is the thought that the state might do something, the tribes greatly appreciate and believe that there’s a duty there of the state to inform the tribes of possible action and begin the process of engagement so the state doesn’t get too far down the road and then in essence proceeds in a risky situation,” Zorn said. “They presume certain things and then they come to find out that may not be the case, that they went too far and they then have to backtrack.”

In the case of the proposed Crandon mine, ceded territories outlined by the treaties of 1837 and 1842 guaranteed off-reservation rights for a number of tribes, including the Mole Lake Band which would have been directly downstream from the operation. Zorn said that experience brought to light similar questions about what tribal rights were at stake, the role of tribes weighing in on state decisions and the role of the federal government as a treaty signatory with the tribes.

“The correlary principle is that the United States guaranteed these rights and the tribes certainly take the view that it would absolutely be an empty guarantee if the rights continue to exist but there were no places left to exercise them or no natural resources left to harvest — or they were too polluted or poisoned to use in a way that the tribes use these resources,” Zorn said.

Zorn said the case with the Crandon mine proved that the devil is in the details with analyzing the impacts of a proposed mining operation. Even with the best intentions, he said mistakes in analysis were presented. That’s why it’s important for the state to take its time on permitting, according to Zorn. He questioned a proposal to institute a 300-day timeframe for approving a mine permit application once it’s considered complete.

“As soon as you presume you’ve got all the information you need to make a decision, there will be something else you need to know,” Zorn said.

Wiggins says the Bad River Band will remain involved, looking to be full participants in any process based in “applicable law and science.”

Wiggins noted the tribes have invited Gogebic Taconite and Chris Cline of the Cline Group to meet with the Voigt Intertribal Task Force on June 2. Wiggins said that invitation was declined due to scheduling conflicts.

“I don’t take it as a sign of anything other than there was an opportunity for dialogue on water, land, impacts to our tribal communities and they declined to join us,” Wiggins said.

However, he was uncertain whether that would be the last opportunity for dialogue between the company and the task force. He said prior contacts with Gogebic Taconite have been “a bit disheartening,” adding that company and tribal interactions have been mischaracterized in the press. He said media accounts have also put him in a precarious position with the tribal council over what discussions have or haven’t taken place with the mining company. Wiggins said there has been no foundation of trust established between the Bad River Band and the mining company.

Ultimately, Wiggins said the tribe is looking for a guarantee that their whole way of life won’t be irreparably damaged for short-term economic gain as the result of the proposed iron mine. He added that people who share in the natural resources of the area deserve better than fast-tracked legislation on iron mining.

“Mining individuals will say, ‘Did you drive a car here?’ as a rationale for this GTAC open-pit mine,” Wiggins said. “I always think to myself, ‘Do you drink water?’ Because if there is one thing that unites all of us, it’s the need for clean air and clean water.”

No bill on iron mining has yet been introduced to the Legislature. However, lawmakers Honadel and Zipperer, as well as GTAC President Bill Williams, have said that they would hope to see legislation addressing mining regulations passed by July 1.

“You alter the land. You alter the people. With that being said, it would seem to indicate that people would want to have time to process what’s taking place and what that all means,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins added that mining company officials told the community at a public forum in January that they would comply with the state’s environmental standards — around which time lawmakers first met with Gogebic Taconite and work on new legislation on iron mining commenced. He called draft legislation on iron mining “a complete erosion” of the state’s environmental standards.

Gogebic Taconite said that they are advocating for new legislation on iron mining to separate regulatory standards from sulfide mining and bring “clarity” and more specific timelines to the permitting process.

Danielle Kaeding can be reached at