Mining bill on access would save landowners nearly $900,000
The owners of land that could become the site of a massive iron ore mine could avoid paying the state nearly $900,000 if legislators pass a bill that would allow the mine's developers to restrict public access to the property.
In an email to legislative staff members, the state Department of Natural Resources has estimated that it would cost $891,871 in taxes and penalties for the owners to withdraw from the state's managed forest program, giving them the ability to keep the public off the land.
Instead, a bill that could come before the state Senate on Tuesday — and was specifically written for the mining company — would allow the owners to pay far less and still impose heavy limits on public access.
In its email on Thursday, the DNR said the tax treatment under the legislation calls for an annual property tax bill of $7,604 for the 3,520 acres. A similar memo spelling out the details also was sent to legislators by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau the same day.
Sen. Robert Jauch (D-Poplar), a critic of the bill and the $1.5 billion mine, said the measure gives Gogebic Taconite the best of both worlds — a highly favorable property tax bill and the ability to keep the public off its land.
"It creates exclusive control over what has been considered land for public access," Jauch wrote fellow senators in a letter on Friday.
But a mining company spokesman says the bill would protect its employees from some protesters who have threatened violence in the past.
Under current law, property owners in the managed forest program can close only 160 acres of their property and must keep the rest of the land open for public uses, such as fishing, hunting and hiking.
The Senate bill, which passed a committee earlier this month on a party-line 3-2 vote, would extend the 160-acre exemption to the entire 3,520 acres where the iron ore mine would be constructed.
The land is owned by two companies — LaPointe Iron Co., and RGGS Land & Minerals Ltd. — that had worked for years to attract parties to mine deposits on the land. Gogebic has purchased an option on the mineral rights and will exercise that option if it gets a mining permit from the DNR and federal regulators.
The bill follows legislation earlier this year, also written at the behest of Gogebic, that rewrote state iron mining regulations. Supporters said that measure gave the company greater certainty over a complex regulatory process. Gogebic is owned by Cline Resource and Development Group, a coal mining concern.
Proponents of the bill say the changes were needed because the state has been hostile to past mining projects.
But opponents said the new mining law weakens environmental protections and, if a mine is built, raises a greater threat to a watershed that flows through land of the Bad River band of Lake Superior Chippewa and into Lake Superior.
The measure has moved quickly in the Senate in the past two weeks as Republicans have looked for ways to prevent aggressive public protests, such as an incident in June, when activists threatened workers, damaged property and stole one worker's camera.
In the incident, one of the protesters was charged in Iron County with felony robbery by force and three misdemeanors.
Bob Seitz, a spokesman for Gogebic, said that legislation is needed to protect workers. In addition to the June incident, Seitz said that security personnel have found protesters walking through the woods at 2 a.m. and camping on the property.
"We see someone walk in the woods wearing a mask and a carrying a sledgehammer and saying they are out for a hike, (but) we can't do anything until they swing the sledgehammer at our stuff," Seitz said, "That's a fundamental issue for us."
Also, he said, if the land is pulled out of the managed forest law and the mine is never built, the land might go back into the law, which requires not only public access, but sustainable harvest practices.
Jauch doubted that would happen. "They're going to harvest the land when it gets the greatest value," Jauch said.
The Senate bill also includes language that may allow Gogebic and the DNR to enter an agreement to open some of the land for public use. Seitz said the company expects that the land will be open for deer hunting. It's also willing to allow anglers access to rivers and streams.
But Jauch said that access would not be required.
"The truth is the company is getting push-back and that's why they are talking about opening some of the land," Jauch said.