Northern Wisconsin and the western portion of Michigan's Upper Peninsula are rich in forests, rivers, and iron. In fact, iron mining is what gave birth to many towns in this region, before the industry fizzled out. It's been decades since the area hosted a working iron mine, and now the regional economies mostly subsist (or, in some cases, barely subsist) on tourism and agriculture—and, in the case of the area's Native American reservations, casinos.
Metallic mining in Wisconsin, after all, is tightly regulated to protect water resources and avoid environmental damages that tend to last longer than mining profits.
Rather, it was tightly regulated, say opponents of Mining Bill SB 1, which Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law on Monday. The law, which was written with help from Gogebic Taconite, a mining company that is considering a large open pit iron mine in Northern Wisconsin, is designed to make the process of attaining permits to mine iron in the state more expedient. In the process, opponents say the law also reverses many of the state's efforts to prevent environmental damages from iron mining.
The Gogebic Taconite mine would be located in the Penokee Hills, along a ridgeline roughly 50 miles south of Bayfield, a major destination for "silent sports" like sailing, paddling, fishing, hiking, and biking (not to mention hunting, snowmobiling, and various other sports). The hills (former mountains, geologically speaking) which have been referred to as the Alps of Wisconsin, contain stashes of singletrack on the Pines & Mines Trail, many hiking and cross-country ski trails, and trout streams.
The hills are a patchwork of public and private land, so if or when the mining operations begin, noise, dust, light, and visual pollution would very likely mar the experience of recreating in the area.
For Northern Wisconsin's tourism industry, an iron mine in the Penokees would have a huge impact, says Meg Turville-Heitz, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Wisconsin's life science and communication program, who is writing her dissertation on the development and passage of the new mining law. Proponents of the Penokee mine say it would bring hundreds of jobs to the region and, when considering the demand for mining equipment, hundreds more manufacturing jobs. But at what costs to existing jobs?
"A lot of people are concerned," says Turville-Heitz. "The amount of jobs that are being promised in connection to the proposed mine is around 2,000 statewide, but [the region] could lose more than it gains in the community of guides," outfitters, campgrounds, and other services connected to tourism and recreation. The Penokees contain Class I, II, and III trout rivers and streams, which have natural brook, brown and rainbow trout.
Specific concerns around the impact a mine in the Penokees—which, if it happens, could become the largest taconite mine in the world—are based on water quality, the water table, and the dewatering, as well as the possibility that sulfides could be present in mine tailings and lead to acid mine drainage. Runoff from the mine site travels south but then flows around the ridge and drains north, through the Bad River Reservation and into the Ramsar-rated wetlands of the Kakagon Slough, where the Bad River tribe maintains wild rice beds, and into Lake Superior.