They came by the scores and the scores Wednesday evening, and one by one they delivered to the Oneida County Planning and Development Committee an overwhelming but pretty simple message: Don't allow sulfide mining in Oneida County, and, more specifically, don't allow any mining on county forestland.
The scene was Rhinelander High School, the stage a public hearing on a proposed nonferrous metallic mining ordinance. The county rewrite was sparked by a recent law that repealed the state's mining moratorium and generally requires counties to have a new mining ordinance in place by July 1.
A handful of people supported the county's proposed ordinance, and still others offered specific assessments about potential legal pitfalls in the proposal as it is currently drafted, but all that was so much white noise in the background of a loud broadside against sulfide mining, and in particular against mining a significant mineral ore deposit of zinc, copper, lead, and silver on county forestland in the town of Lynne.
Though the ordinance is designed to cover all potential sulfide mining projects in the county, the Lynne site is likely the only site economically viable enough to be mined.
At the end of the night, the zoning committee postponed deliberation on the proposed ordinance until Monday, June 11, after deadline. Those deliberations will continue next Tuesday and Wednesday, if needed.
Oneida County resident Karl Fate summed up much of the public sentiment and commentary early on when he called for an outright ban on mining on the county forest to thwart outside mining interests, which the county can do as the owner of the forestland.
Fate also underscored the sensitive environmental nature of the Lynne deposit, which sits amid wetlands near the Willow River, and he singled out state Sen. Tom Tiffany, as others did, as the lawmaker responsible for opening Wisconsin back up to metallic mining. Tiffany authored the repeal of the state's mining moratorium law.
"The taxpayers of Oneida County are sick and tired of having our tax dollars used to weaken the protection of our lakes and other water resources because of threats coming from sources outside our county," Fate said. " ... The ultimate responsibility for creating this threatening atmosphere in our county and across the state lies squarely in the lap of Sen. Tom Tiffany, who has no problem spending public resources catering to corporate special interests. The only way for Oneida County to put an end to these threats is to keep our county forestlands closed to metallic mining and to formally spell that out in its ordinance."
The Lynne site is a horrible place for a mine, Fate said.
"It's saturated with water and surrounded by wetlands," he said. "There are many such areas on our county forest. The sulfide deposits are found in the bedrock. They are not deposits of gravel. The depth to bedrock on the vast majority of the county forest is over 100 feet, and the depth to water table on our county forest is zero to 50 feet. The mineral deposits are underneath all of this. There aren't suitable spots for a massive sulfide mine on our county forests. Keep it closed."
Too tilted toward mining?
Oneida County resident Tom Jerow called for a tougher ordinance than the one presented. While he said he realized the county could not legally prohibit all sulfide mining outright, he said changes could be made that would protect the Northwoods' environment, particularly by modifying provisions that seem to favor mining interests.
Specifically, Jerow said, the proposed language requires only a majority vote of the county board to approve a mining permit - which would also sign the county off as a party to a required local agreement - but a three-quarters vote to re-open the local agreement if it needs to be reconsidered.
"Requiring a simple majority to approve the permit but a supermajority to re-open the agreement clearly gives the negotiating advantage to the mining company," Jerow said. "It's easy to add a public library or a park to the agreement to garner the votes necessary to get it on the county board, while it makes it very difficult to re-open the agreement."
Requiring either a three-fourths vote, which is in the existing ordinance, or a two-thirds vote to approve the agreement would give the citizens of Oneida County the assurance that the agreement would address important environmental protections, Jerow said.
"While I prefer a three-fourths majority to approve a local agreement, a compromise might be to require a two-thirds vote to approve the agreement and a two-thirds vote to re-open the agreement," he said. "This would assure the citizens that they would have a strong local agreement that protects the environment and also assures the mining company that the agreement would not be re-opened on a whim."
Joseph Wildcat, Sr., president of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, said the tribe opposed all mining in Oneida County, which is part of the ceded territories, and would use all available resources at its disposal to fight any mining at the Lynne site.
"The Oneida County Planning and Development Committee should reject these amendments as broad and harmful to the county and instead develop ordinance amendments that make mining prohibited in the county," Wildcat said. " ... Despite any promises made otherwise, these environmental impacts will negatively affect the Lac du Flambeau tribe, its tribal citizens, and the entire population that lives and works in Oneida County."
Having a safe and pollution-free environment was not only critical in raising healthy children and protecting elders, Wildcat said, but it was essential to maintaining hundreds of jobs created and sustained by the county's pristine lakes and rivers and forests.
"The Oneida County Planning and Development Committee should consider all of the effects that expanded mining could have on the county's natural resources in the coming centuries, not just the temporary benefits of a handful of short-term jobs," he said.
A mine would kill tourism in a region devastated by the sprawling and industrial impacts of mining, Wildcat said, and young people would not want to move back to an area that posed a risk to their health.
"The economy and integrity of this area depends on this board upholding strict environmental standards," he said.
Oneida County resident Eileen Lonsdorf said sulfide mining in Oneida County wetlands would be a dangerous and thoughtless use of Northwoods' forests, wetlands, lakes, and rivers.
"Sulfide mining is one of the most toxic industries in the United States," Lonsdorf said. "Sulfide mining has never been proven to not pollute the environment, especially water ecosystems."
Oneida County has the highest percentage of wetlands in the state, Lonsdorf said, as well as the highest percentage of county lands mapped as wetlands. And, she said, there are 428 named lakes and 701 unnamed lakes - 68,447 acres of surface area taken together, with the Willow Flowage occupying 6,306 acres.
"As our elected representatives you should not be inviting or encouraging any sulfide mining to contaminate our Oneida County water ecosystems for hundreds of years," she said. "You should not be taking it upon yourselves to open up county forestlands to this sort of misuse. I feel the planning and development committee is using this ordinance to change the permitted use language in (the code) that currently prohibits metallic mining in all forestry zones."
That change, Lonsdorf said, would allow mining in Forestry 1-A, on both public and private lands.
Lonsdorf said the Northwoods economy does not need sulfide mining.
"We are a water-based, recreational area and our tourism economy is based on fishing, camping, resorts, summer camps, and hundreds of miles of forested trails," she said, observing that visitors spent $221.8 million in the county in 2016, an increase of 2.74 percent over 2015.
"So we do not need sulfide mining to boost our economy," she said.
Alone in the forest
Not everyone was opposed to mining; a couple of speakers said they were boosters, including Dr. George Karling, who said he is just wrapping up his 29th year as superintendent of the Three Lakes School District.
"I am very familiar with all the school districts in northern Wisconsin, and all these school districts have experienced significant declining enrollment over the past several years," Karling said. "The Three Lakes school district has lost nearly half of their student population. The Florence district has lost more than half of their enrollment, and other districts have experienced similar declines."
Karling said he supported mining in northern Wisconsin because he believes it can be done responsibly with no damage to the environment.
"I am concerned that we are going to experience further enrollment declines if we do not do more for good-paying jobs in the Northwoods, especially with the economic development taking place in the southeast part of the state," he said.
Karling said the White Pine copper mine in Michigan had operated from 1953 to 1995 - he worked there himself - and he said he was not aware of any damage to the environment from that mine or from any of the many iron ore mines that populated the region during those years.
"I believe mining today is much safer than it was when many of these mines were in operation, and that the majority of the people in the northern peninsula would not favor re-opening some of these mines if that was not the case," he said. "The best way to keep our young people and families in the Northwoods is to develop these resources appropriately."
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.