About this report
Most Wisconsinites moved on quickly from the March collapse of a plan to lure mining back to northern Wisconsin. For residents of the cities of Ashland and Hurley and the towns of Mellen and Morse in Ashland and Iron counties, however, it was either a crushing blow or an unexpected victory.
Nearly everyone thinks this lull will lead to round two in the battle over iron ore mining. The emotion connected to mining hasn’t faded, even if statewide attention has.
Gannett Wisconsin Media reporter Kathleen Foody and photographer Sharon Cekada spent two days in late June in Ashland and Iron counties with people who are certain a mine will bring irrevocable changes, for better or worse, to their lives.
By Kathleen Foody
Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative team
Even vocabulary divides residents of Wisconsin’s Northwoods communities at the center of a statewide debate over mining.
The area of Ashland and Iron counties targeted for an iron ore mine is called the Penokee Hills, if you’re opposed. It’s the Gogebic Range, if you want mining to start yesterday.
The words are symbolically important in the debate over the mine — a battle that is still very much alive in this land adjacent to Lake Superior and in Madison, where the project came to an abrupt halt when Democrats and one Republican state senator blocked the company’s desired changes to Wisconsin’s permitting process.
There are no clear battle lines in this fight, no boundary where one passes from pro-mine to anti-mine sentiment. Yet almost everyone in Wisconsin’s northern counties has a personal stake in how strictly state lawmakers decide to regulate the mining industry.
Lifelong residents raised on mining lore want a fix for immediate problems of unemployment and population loss.
A father asks: “Will children who want to stay close to home be able to find work?”
A hardware store owner: “Will we ever see a new business open and become successful?”
A mother: “Will my kids have to go to school in the next county?”
Those who oppose a mine or want stricter rules are worried about damage to the state’s northern wetlands and forests, not satisfied with the mining industry’s assurances that new technology will protect the environment.
A retiree asks: “How can we be sure a mining company is honest?”
A trout fisherman: “What happens to the water or air that drew me to northern Wisconsin?”
A Chippewa leader: “Will my grandchildren, great grandchildren or great-great grandchildren be able to eat the local fish and wild rice?”
Most of these questions can’t be or haven’t been answered, even months after a simple purchase brought mining and northern Wisconsin’s residents to the forefront of state politics — and stoked the fire growing between Gov. Scott Walker and other Republican lawmakers who want changes to the state’s mine-permitting process and Democrats who argue that existing law is the best way to safeguard water and air quality.
Gogebic Taconite, an offshoot of the Florida-based Cline Group, opened an office in Hurley in January 2011, after years of research into the ore-rich land in the northern part of the state. Bill Williams, the company’s front man in Hurley, laid out an ambitious plan in small meetings with business owners, published reports and conversations with individual residents.
In a 90-year span, workers would extract iron ore from a 22-mile-long strip of land that runs west from the town of Upson in Iron County to the town of Marengo in Ashland County.
For mining supporters, the promise of 700 mining jobs during that period and potential for other industries to grow with the open pit seemed a godsend.
It dominated conversation at the community’s high school for weeks, Johnathan Walesewicz, a 2012 graduate, said.
“All of (the students), the teachers, the football coach, everybody was happy and talking about it,” Walesewicz, 18, said.
He swears only the Packers’ 2010 season Super Bowl win spurred so many one-topic conversations at the 317-student high school.
But Gogebic Taconite officials wanted something from Wisconsin lawmakers — changes to state law that would create a deadline for the Department of Natural Resources to issue or deny a mining permit.
A bill put forward by Republican lawmakers also weakened state rules on whether waste rock — the spoils of mining — could be stored in or near wetlands, lakes and streams.
When a Senate vote on the bill failed the afternoon of March 6, the company issued a terse statement: “Senate rejection of the mining reforms in Assembly Bill 426 sends a clear message that Wisconsin will not welcome iron mining. We get the message. GTac is ending plans to invest in a Wisconsin mine. We thank the many people who have supported our efforts.”
Hurley’s collective bubble popped. Mining history is inescapable in the city of 1,547, and its residents were left to wonder if the industry would remain a relic of the past.
Old photos of men in mining garb are featured on banners that decorate light poles lining downtown Hurley’s Silver Street. The businesses on each side call back to Hurley’s early 1900s glory — the Iron-Horse Saloon, Branding Iron Pub and the Iron Nugget.
Inside the Iron Nugget, semi-retired owner Gary Pelkola walks around the restaurant and bar, pointing to the mining photos, memorabilia and a map of the mines that sustained Hurley for decades decorating the walls.
Pelkola’s face lights up when he talks about Hurley’s history, even the portions that locals would prefer to downplay.
Standing in front of a framed photo of Silver Street, he points out car models, a historic hotel and a sign on another building advertising ‘Lovely Girls!’
“This was the infamous lower end of Hurley,” Pelkola, 69, said. “We feel very big about our entire heritage. The girls and the whatever, that’s what we were. We can’t change it.”
Returning to a table near the kitchen, Pelkola sits down across from Jack Giovanoni, another semi-retired business owner. The Giovanoni True Value hardware store is one of downtown Hurley’s biggest businesses, anchoring a tidy street that has more bars than banks.
Both Pelkola and Giovanoni were raised on mining and became outspoken supporters of GTac and the mining industry. They’re tired of watching children move away. They feel run over by the entire legislative process.
Even the boom-and-bust cycle that mining inevitably takes seems a small price to pay for a bit of recovery.
The last local mining operation closed the year after Pelkola graduated high school. The jobs, population boom and local economy that mining brought to Hurley slowly disappeared.
Iron County’s May unemployment rate is 11.1 percent, topping the state’s total of 6.8 percent. Population was down to 5,916 in 2010, from 6,861 in 2000.
Giovanoni never worked in mining, but has at least two generations of relatives who brought iron ore out of the ground.
He’s lived in Hurley for all of his 78 years, in homes within seven city blocks of each other.
He goes to sleep wondering if his bank loan will be called in, likely forcing the family-run hardware store out of business.
“Banks are more or less saying ‘The area’s going to hell, there’s no future, (property) evaluations are going down,'” Giovanoni said gruffly. “Existing businesses are getting choked, and I can’t even blame the banks. That’s the way it is.”
Big and small projects are on hold. People hesitate to invest much in their homes. The school district’s booster club is in “wait and see” mode, Pelkola said.
“Everything is ‘hang on’ because maybe we won’t have a school, the kids will be going to Ashland or Minocqua,” he said. “It seems to come up in every conversation.”
In the nearby town of Carey, where Johnathan Walesewicz grew up, his father, Bob, sits at a park near the family’s home.
Bob Walesewicz spent his childhood summers with his grandparents in Hurley. He came back as an adult for a job that eventually disappeared when the auto company he worked for was sold.
Now 49, he owns a successful convenience store and gas station, serves as chairman of the town of Carey and raises two children with his wife, always aware that the kids are better off moving away to find careers.
“Our greatest export is our youth,” Bob Walesewicz said. “We see these kids graduate and know they’ll probably never be back.”
Johnathan is preparing to start college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Bob is proud of that. But the accomplishment probably sets his oldest child on a path away from Hurley.
“As a parent, it’s tough,” Bob Walesewicz said, his voice thickening as he drummed his fingers on a wooden picnic table. “I’d want him to come back. But there’s nothing here.”
He looks out to the Gile Flowage, a manmade lake where his children still swim every chance they get.
Tailings piles, made of years of waste dust and rock left behind by the defunct Montreal mine, shoot up to the west of a beach where children splash in the water. The piles are yet another reminder of what Hurley used to be — a booming mining town with jobs to spare for men willing to work.
Bob Walesewicz never hesitated to let his kids swim in those waters, trusting that the flowage wouldn’t have been approved for construction if dangerous chemicals still lurked in the tailings piles.
“We’ve heard about the ‘anti-mining’ people,” Walesewicz said. “I find it interesting because I don’t know of anyone that can live without the resource of mining. They simply don’t want to mine here.”
For 30 years, Paul and Barbara Baldwin made a monthly trip from their home in New London to a 36-acre lot off Lake Galilee.
Each month, Paul got a four-day weekend from his job at a paper mill and the couple, their daughter and family dog traded in their house for a small trailer. The accommodations were “a little tight,” Barbara said, laughing, but the access to hunting, fishing, the lake and wildlife was worth sacrificing some personal space.
“We lived for that,” Barbara, 60, said. “The other three weeks, you worked, worked, worked, just to get one week up here.”
Since GTac began pursuing an iron ore mine, the Baldwins have worried that the place they now live year-round will be spoiled — and just after they fulfilled Paul’s lifelong dream and constructed a house on the quiet property just a few miles from the targeted mining area.
There’s certainly a “not in my backyard” element for the Baldwins and eight neighbors who gathered inside the three-room Mellen County Club on a morning in late June. Each woman or man present easily ticked off personal reasons that a mine shouldn’t go anywhere near their homes, feeding off each other until their voices mix into one.
They worry everything they love about this part of the state — the water, air, natural beauty — will become a casualty of iron mining. And trusting a mining company with those resources, even with an extensive review by state officials, makes them uneasy.
Pitting quality of life issues against unemployment isn’t an easy argument to make. As the neighbors defend their right to enjoy the natural beauty that drew them to northern Wisconsin, a tall man wearing a baseball cap interrupts.
“Can I say something?” Jim Vokolek asks, waving his hand with a smile. He’s worked as a groundskeeper at the 9-hole golf course for 22 years. Any other time, you can find him in the woods and wetlands around Caroline Lake, trapping beaver.
“I use that whole area down there,” Vokolek tells the table and asks if anyone knows what happens to the stream that cuts through the mining area then heads north to Lake Superior.
“I’m just a down-home boy, and out in the woods, that’s my whole life, my soul and my heart,” he said. “People come up here for jobs, they’re going to want to fish and hunt. Where are they going to go?”
Connie Franke, an Ashland native who lived in central Wisconsin for 30 years before moving back to a house on West Twin Lake, nodded as Vokolek talked. When he walked away, Franke said she hates to see families hurting because of job loss but wants to balance everyone’s interests.
She’s also not convinced that a mining company can deliver enough jobs to really help the area, especially if positions require an expertise that locals won’t have. The couple bought their property a few miles south of the mining area in 1991 and fear a mine will replace the trees and water with a “moonscape.”
“Our ties have always been to the North,” her husband John Franke, 62, said. “We vacationed here as a family, spent Christmas here with our kids.”
The Frankes have attended nearly every public hearing or forum on the mining issue and led senators and environmental groups around the area, hoping to slow or stop the mining push. He’s a retired lab technician who handled environmental controls at a chemical company and she still works as a teacher in Ashland, jobs that help the couple look beyond their own generation.
At times, they have felt like David against a mining Goliath.
“We’re stuck with what (a mine) does,” Connie Franke, 61, said, indignation in her quiet voice. “You just feel helpless that they have all this money and all these lawyers.”
People of the land
Perhaps the most outspoken opponent of the GTac proposal and any changes to Wisconsin’s mining law lives more than 20 miles north of the mining site.
His interest flows with the water in the lakes, streams and wetlands surrounding that iron-rich land, from the towns of Anderson and Morse into the Tyler Forks River, the Bad River and eventually the wetlands and sloughs on the reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Mike Wiggins is chairman of the Bad River council and unflinchingly describes the mining issues as “life or death” for the 1,800 people on the reservation. Guiding a boat through the Kakogan Slough that leads to Lake Superior, Wiggins points out the plants and wildlife that sustain the Bad River.
In the fall, his people climb into canoes, wooden poles in each hand to pull plants close and then knock grains into the boat. The wild rice that is both key to survival and a sacred plant for the tribe also is vulnerable to sulfate pollution, according to several state environmental agencies.
Walleye and other fish, including sturgeon that spawn in the area, are similar resources — both material and spiritual to the tribe. Deer, like the one that leaps from the shallows onto an island between sloughs when Wiggins’ boat approaches, also provide food.
Waterfowl hunting season — especially for ducks — bleeds into winter trapping. Spring brings cranberries, harvested from a bog and from plants overhanging the sloughs.
Wiggins slows the boat’s motor to a purr and looks around the sloughs that are the reservation’s equivalent of a backyard garden.
“I see everything that’s pretty and pristine, the water beautification and filtration that happens in these wetlands,” he said. “I also see the food side of things, how it takes care of our people.”
The boat passes a group of five men standing in the shallows, using scythes to cut out invasive cattails. Wiggins waves, makes a few jokes and then moves on,
The growing stack of cut cattails is one way the Bad River council gives back to the sloughs and Lake Superior, weeding invasive plants that can choke out others. They also raise and release fish each year, for their own fishing and for others who cruise motorboats from Lake Superior into the quiet water outside the curving sloughs.
Wiggins, who said he watches sediment from upstream wash into the Bad River and Lake Superior days after major rains to the south, fears the day pollutants come, too.
“Mining doesn’t happen under a glass dome,” he said.
For now, anyone with an opinion on mining is stuck in neutral. There’s no specific bill to fight for or against, no legislative committee to hear testimony, just tense conversations in local bars and restaurants and a sense that the fight over mining isn’t over.
Bruce Prentice, a retired biology teacher who lives in Ashland, said the entire area has taken a collective deep breath in the last few months. Prentice, 60, isn’t outright opposed to mining but wants to see it done responsibly and didn’t support the bill put forward this year.
“Most people are hoping and wishing for another round at this, with a little more political savvy and compromise,” Prentice said, sighing. “If this is going to happen, it should be done with common sense for all sides, all parties.”