MADISON, Wis. -- A bill that would close up to 4,000 acres of forest around a proposed mine site just south of Lake Superior is already stirring debate among lawmakers and the public, days before it is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate mining committee.
Some say the measure is necessary to protect workers at Gogebic Taconite, but others are calling it unjustified.
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Gogebic Taconite wants to dig a 4½-mile open-pit iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills, and the area around the site is part of the Department of Natural Resources' managed forest program, which ensures access for hiking, hunting, fishing, skiing and sightseeing.
The bill by Republican Sens. Glenn Grothman and Tom Tiffany would make the land exempt from the program, closing it to recreational use.
Environmentalists have said the mine would pollute water and ruin the wilderness used by hikers and vacationers.
Tensions have been rising since June, when protesters harassed workers at a test drilling site. That event was videotaped, prompting concerns because the group responsible "made it clear in that video that they would be back, and they would be back with more people," said Tiffany, of Hazelhurst.
Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, has been a skeptic of the mine and said the bill goes too far.
"The bottom line is that they are about to shut off thousands of acres of land that is not being mined any time in the near future," Jauch said. "You don't shut off an entire forest because one idiot got in the way."
The measure would apply only to iron mine companies and would allow a company to temporarily close the land anytime it wanted to do work there -- from the time it files a notice of intent until a decision is made on whether to grant a mining permit, Tiffany said.
Tiffany said he plans to move the bill through the Senate quickly, with a public hearing before the Senate mining committee on Wednesday and a committee vote on Thursday. Tiffany hopes for a floor vote in the Senate by the end of September.
Bob Seitz, speaking for Gogebic Taconite, said the company supports the bill and believes it would protect the public from injury as workers use explosives to take samples from the rock. He also said it would protect company employees from potential confrontations with protesters.
Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said the bill was "unjustified and unnecessary."
"The exclusion of the public from those areas impacts the tourism industry, the quality of life, and the ability of scientists and technical experts to gather the true data that's going to be needed to show the catastrophic harm that that proposed mining project is going to bring in that area," he said.