The Current

Northwoods Mining Battle Royale: Things are Getting Militant

The battle over a major mining project in Wisconsin's Penokee Hills used to be based on environmental impacts, recreation access, and jobs. Now it's about heavily-armed militia groups brought in to protect mine workers from "eco-terrorist types."

    Photo: sababa66/Shutterstock

Back in March, I wrote about Mining Bill SB 1, which Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had recently signed into law. Gogebic Taconite, a subsidiary of the Cline Group owned by Florida billionaire Chris Cline, lobbied hard for the law, which is designed to make it easier to obtain permits to mine iron. Gogebic Taconite, or GTAC, did this with its eyes on a prize: 21,000 acres in the Penokee Hills, which it believes holds a valuable vein of ore. The company has begun some early stage surveying to collect samples.

As machines started rolling, local protests became louder and more vocal. It has now reached a crescendo of tension between the mining company and protestors, marked by the arrival of militia-like security forces and the release of a video showing a group of impassioned opponents who screamed obscenities and threats to mine workers.

That video was presumably shot in June and appears to include a 26-year-old woman named Katie M. Kloth (described on a Facebook page as "an activist, artist, forager, sustainable farmer, and biologist") from Stevens Point, WI, who was charged with damaging GTAC mining equipment and threatening mine workers. She was one of a small but very vocal group of protestors. The main core of protestors – many of them stationed at a camp erected on public lands in the Penokees by the local Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe tribe – have distanced themselves from Kloth and her cohorts, saying they are committed to peaceful protests.

The video surfaced on Facebook Wednesday evening – and spread like wildfire on far-right websites seeking to cast mine protestors as dangerous (one site even says it shows a domestic terror attack, seriously). But really, this was just a volley, because for most of Tuesday and Wednesday, protestors were broadcasting images of camouflaged, masked employees of Bulletproof Security, a militia-like Arizona-based private security firm GTAC hired to protect workers from what the security company's president Tom Parrella called "eco-terrorist types."

On Monday, Wisconsin State Senator Bob Jauch and State Rep Janet Bewley sent a letter to GTAC president Bill Williams, requesting that the company remove the security force, which they called a "confrontational and incendiary step." The letter asked: "While they have a constitutional right to open carry, they don’t have the legal authority to utilize their assault weapons to protect your property, so why are they carrying them? These weapons are used to kill. Is the company really going to argue that these camouflaged masked men really need this show of force to protect themselves from innocent citizens armed with bug spray who are hiking the forest to view the drill site?"

Despite this plea, Williams refused to remove the security detail … that is, until he learned that Bulletproof Security was not licensed to operate in Wisconsin.

There is a lot of hands slapping foreheads among the main protest groups over the fact that someone who says she opposes the mine (Andrea Ladenthin) would publicize the video of (presumably) Kloth and her mates, because, basically, they come off as rather unhinged. In a Facebook page comment thread some have even theorized that she may actually be a GTAC mole.

Whatever Ladenthin's motivation, the video certainly provides an unchecked look at the emotions that some opponents have over the prospect of potential large-scale watershed contamination and long-term environmental harm from this proposed mine.

GTAC has said it could not rely on the small local police because of the remote worksite locations. Fair enough. But the private security forces the company has chosen are only escalating tensions. For now, the land the security forces are protecting is still open to the public, because the land owners receive a tax benefit for making it accessible. But a Wisconsin business trade group is calling for the state legislature to close public access to the land.

That, in my opinion, would be making another bad move in a series of ill-advised decisions. 

The passage of Mining Bill SB 1 drained many of the statewide legal tools to fight the mine and reverses many of the state's efforts to prevent environmental damages from iron mining. So local lawmakers turned to the boards of Ashland and Iron Counties (the proposed mine would span both). Ashland County recently passed two ordinances that would, if nothing else, force GTAC to pay significant fines for operating the mine and provide some health and safety guidelines. Iron County is considering similar actions.

Both county boards appear dedicated to safeguarding the health and safety of their communities through any legal tools at their disposal. At the end of the day, residents of Northern Wisconsin live for the outdoors, and when that is threatened, they push back. But they're not normally facing a militia when they do.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story reported that a second security company called Watchmen of America replaced Bulletproof Security at the mine site but that appears to be false, according to a representative from Watchmen of America. We regret the error.

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