As the proposed Gogebic Taconite open-pit iron mine in northwest Wisconsin moves closer and closer to reality — it passed the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Monday, which sends it to the state Senate for a vote today, and to the Assembly next week — we reiterate our position that approval for such massive operations should give consideration to the need for jobs and protection of the environment. Not one or the other.
Waste material from a 4 1/2-mile-long open-pit iron mine would cover up to 40 percent of a 3,300-acre site in the Penokee Range near Mellen that is now home to wetlands and trout streams, a Gogebic Taconite official said last week.
Changes to Wisconsin’s wetland regulations would allow mining companies such as Gogebic to destroy some waterways and wetlands — even certain high-quality wetlands — if they build replacement wetlands elsewhere. Research, however, shows restoring wetlands in another location, a practice called mitigation, has proved only marginally successful and does not compensate for the flood- and pollution-control functions performed by wetlands at a specific site.
“It’s like if I told you that I’m going to take your house away from you but I promise to decorate your garage. You lose both area and function,” said Joy Zedler, a UW-Madison professor of botany and director of research at the UW Arboretum.
Zedler doesn’t have to look far for an example of wetlands removal done wrong.
The Class of 1918 Marsh, on the UW-Madison campus, is a tiny remnant of a large wetland that formerly covered all of the area now occupied by playing fields, parking lots and the Nielsen Tennis Stadium built in the 1960s, according to the UW Lakeshore Nature Preserve website. An early-1970s environmental studies class persuaded the university administration to preserve what remained of the marsh as a wildlife refuge and teaching and research area. But over the past quarter-century, little has been done to maintain the marsh. It suffers from runoff from nearby construction sites, parking lots and fertilized playing fields. In addition, a field at the marsh is used by plowing crews to store snow (with its accompanying salt and debris) in winter.
Native plant diversity is low in the Class of 1918 Marsh, according to Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve website. A few, very dominant species have taken over much of the area. Animal diversity has decreased as plant diversity has decreased.
In contrast are the recent developments in northeast Wisconsin. The sporting-goods chain Cabela’s is engaged in new construction in Suamico, near Green Bay, and that construction is causing some acreage at Barkhausen Waterfowl Preserve to be removed.
The Green Bay Packers, who have leased land near Lambeau Field to Cabela’s to improve the business district near the stadium, have donated $75,000 to the wetland conservation effort in Suamico, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported last month.
The team entered into partnership with Ducks Unlimited to ensure proper treatment of wildlife, said Packers Executive Committee member John Bergstrom. “Perception was somehow or another we weren’t as respectful to the wetlands as we wanted to be,” Bergstrom said. “Ducks Unlimited came to our rescue, and were our partners as we went through different hoops. We never, ever wanted to damage the wetlands.”
With regard to the Penokee Range, Gogebic Taconite acknowledges that the mine cannot be built without some loss of wetlands. Critics, however, said the loss of wetlands in the leased land could be in the hundreds of acres. And, they add, the loss is made more significant because the land is a headwaters, which heightens the importance of the ecological function of the area’s cumulative wetland acreage.
Erin O’Brien of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association told the Wisconsin State Journal recently that if you remove too many acres of the wetlands, you reduce the ability of the landscape to slowly release snow and floodwaters and increase the chances that silt and pollutants will run off the site.
“You alter the force of streams,” O’Brien said. “And all of this is flowing into Lake Superior.”
While there is overwhelming support statewide for the mine among small business owners — 81.9 percent in favor, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses after a survey of its 11,000 state member businesses — a Feb. 9 public forum in Ashland showed that anti-mine sentiment was just as strong. The key distinction being the people at the Ashland forum are much more likely to actually live in the area where the mine would be built.
Gogebic Taconite has said the mine would create 700 jobs over 35 years, which would be an obvious economic benefit to northwest Wisconsin. The mine should go forward, but at the same time careful consideration must be given to the way in which the mine goes forward.