A brand new tribe is emerging in Northern Wisconsin. Enrollment requirements for the Penokee tribe are stringent, according to Paul DeMain, co-founder of the Penokee Hills Harvest Camp—they require all members prove they are at least 70 percent water.
Water, the element that unifies all human life, is the binding force behind a surprising coalition of people and organizations near the Great Northern Divide in the Penokee Hills. Although many of these people have had opposing philosophies regarding economic development, they are united in their desire to ensure clean water. Public concern over the impact on the water and environment of a proposed 4.5 mile wide open-pit iron ore mine is creating a whole new tribe and new way to protest.
The fictitious, allegorical Penokee Tribe effectively includes all human beings since everyone needs water to survive. The Harvest Camp and inclusive nature of other groups protesting the mine underscores this binding fact. More than a simple protest by occupation, the residents and supporters of the camp demonstrate and include visitors in traditional plant gathering and preparation. The goal is to instill awareness of the natural resources of the area and how they would be affected by the mine.
Despite opposition from citizens, tribes and environmentalists, Wisconsin’s Republican-led legislature passed a mining bill in March that substantially changed the state’s mining regulations. The bill, which was created with major input from Gogebic Taconite lobbyists, streamlines the mining permit process and weakens environmental protections as well as the responsibilities of mining companies to surrounding communities for damages to infrastructures or property.
Gobegic Taconite (GTAC) is doing exploratory drilling in the Penokee Hills in order to get samples of iron ore to submit to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to gain permission to proceed with the mining process. If approved, GTAC can then proceed with “mini-mining,” a greater sampling process of about 10,000 tons of rock that would be extracted with explosives.
Recently, groups opposing the mine have taken a novel approach to building support and awareness of this issue. Instead of picketing, they began by educating county board members and talking neighbor-to-neighbor about the real human and community costs of such a mine.
Mining has been pitched in the state as job-creator for the economically strapped northern region of the state, notes citizen journalist Barbara With, a resident of Madeline Island. She and several tribal and citizen groups have worked together to steer the public discussion in another direction. “Instead of jobs, jobs, jobs, we’ve gotten people to begin talking about water, water, water,” she explains.
In June 2013, the Ashland County board, closest local governing authority to the proposed mine, voted to create county mining regulations that require mining companies to obtain special use permits and deposit copy00,000 in a county fund to address problems such as noise, dust, damage to public roads, etc. Further, the county requires mining companies to maintain the fund at $50,000, and make additional payments as needed. Formerly, Ashland County had been an ardent support of the mine.
According to With, the change in attitude by board members was the direct result of grassroots education efforts about the real economic, quality of life and environmental impact of the mine. She credits the more inclusive, educational efforts by tribes and advocates in the area with this change. For instance she noted that last year the Bad River Band of Ojibwe began inviting non-reservation residents to their monthly potlucks that are organized to educate and share information about the potential impact of the mine.
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