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home : opinions : opinions
February 21, 2019

6/12/2018 7:30:00 AM
A better idea: Investigation, not obstruction

At the outset of last week's Oneida County public hearing on a proposed metallic mining ordinance, the county's assistant corporation counsel, Michael Fugle, cautioned the crowd to stick to the ordinance language at hand, rather than address general beliefs about sulfide mining or other issues outside the hearing's scope, such as a possible mine in the town of Lynne.

Naturally, the crowd ignored that advice and immediately plunged into a broadside against mining in general. The mantra was: Ban all sulfide mining in Oneida County and especially on county forestlands.

We believe that to be a very bad idea, and we urge the county board to reject such a prohibition if the ordinance is amended by the zoning committee to include it. We urge that rejection because it is obstructionist, just like the anti-mining crowd that promotes it.

Instead, we urge the county board to appoint an independent commission to study sulfide mining comprehensively and to bring a report back to the board and to the public. Such a commission should include mining supporters, mining opponents, and a majority with an open mind.

We should direct this commission to investigate, not obstruct.

Not that those who question a mine in the town of Lynne don't have an argument in that specific case. Just the opposite. To be sure, a sulfide mine that close to the Willow Flowage is suspect from the get-go, and any mining company should be required to prove the operation would not pollute before such a site could open.

Nobody wants the pollution of the Willow Flowage on their conscience.

But that's not to say that because one location is unsuitable for mining - if that indeed turns out to be the case - all locations are unsuitable for mining.

A thriving residential neighborhood might not be suitable for a manufacturing plant, for example - such a factory would surely "pollute" the pristine resources we call family homes and neighborhoods - but that doesn't mean a sparsely populated residential district, and one likely to remain uninhabited, could not be rezoned for such a purpose.

And so it goes with forestry. Not all forestry land is created equal; not all of it is as pristine as the Willow, or can even be considered pristine at all.

That's why the call to automatically and forevermore ban mining on county forestlands, and to make it all but impossible elsewhere in the county, is obstructionist. This crowd wants to obstruct mining at all costs and no matter the environmental impact, even if no environmental impact exists.

They want to obstruct our very future and our very prosperity.

To do so would automatically forfeit what Sen. Tom Tiffany the other night called the Northwoods' comparative advantage. That is to say, unlike other areas of the state, in our region literally billions of dollars of assets are underground waiting to be mined, not just to help sustain worldwide consumer demand, not just to enrich mining companies, but to enrich our own communities.

Far from despoiling our land and our communities, responsible mining can help us avoid the socioeconomic pollution known as poverty. Why would anyone want to obstruct prosperity?

At the hearing last week, one speaker touted the region's growing tourism boom and declared that we didn't need mining to boost our economy. That seemed to suggest tourism is all we need.

The speaker was wrong. We are grateful for our strong tourism industry, and want to see it flourish even more, but tourism alone cannot sustain the Northwoods economy. While a strong tourism economy is vital for our small business owners, its prosperity eludes other sectors of the population when there is no other industry to provide family-supporting jobs.

Indeed, some of our recent tourism growth is merely a rebound from the recession retrenchment, but, even without factoring that in, true growth in our tourism industry has never kept the Northwoods from being one of the poorest regions of the state.

The truth is, any region that puts all its economic eggs in one basket, whether it is tourism, or paper mills, or pocket calculators, is courting disaster. Think of all the mill towns that for decades were prosperous because of timber and paper but are now dying on the vine because they refused to invest in and grow other sectors when they had the chance.

Those towns aren't very far from here; drive around and take a look.

Ironically, the obstructionists like to warn of the economic consequences of surrendering a local economy to mining: What happens, they ask, if the mine closes?

They summon up images of ghost towns, yet they fall for the same siren song when it comes to tourism.

Not only that, but diversification itself is necessary to ultimately grow the tourism economy. Study after study shows tourism is stronger in places that have adequate ancillary services such as the Internet and telecom connectivity, and expansive and accessible transportation infrastructure, not to mention an adequate supply of well trained service workers.

Diversification is a necessary if not sufficient condition to make all those things happen.

So Sen. Tiffany and those who want to diversify and grow our economy are absolutely right when they say such diversification is essential to that prosperity. Forestry is one way to diversify. Light manufacturing and technology are another. And mining is another.

Rather than unilaterally foreclosing our comparative advantage, we have a better idea. Rather than banning mining altogether, we urge Oneida County to appoint that commission to find out for itself the truth about sulfide mining.

Rather than listen to the fearmongering of overheated obstructionists, or to mining companies with vested interests, the commission should study the issue, travel to mine locations, and find out the truth for itself.

Again, we suggest a diverse commission. Appoint two pro-mining individuals and, yes, two obstructionists, and up to five more independent citizens with open minds.

Send them to find out. Pay for their travel. A budget of $10,000 would give them a nice start and it shouldn't be too much to ask, given that we have already spent far more than that on some pretty sketchy mining legal advice, and given that we squander way more than that every year paying the hopelessly deadwood corporation counsel that we have.

Go find out the truth about the mining industry's technology and safety claims. Find out the truth about the White Pine copper mine.

Find out the truth about the Flambeau mine. A federal court of appeals declared that mine safe and compliant; environmental groups contest the finding. Who is telling the truth?

One truth is, the obstructionists don't know; we don't know; and neither do county supervisors. Go find out.

As experts on both sides of the issue pointed out last week, we have the time for this work. Because Oneida County owns the land where any viable mining project would take place, the county is not beholden to any July 1 deadline.

So roll up the sleeves and get to work. Appoint a commission and investigate. Now is the time.

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