Beautiful waterways and tree-lined landscape surround declining northern Wisconsin towns that are recently seeing fewer jobs and increased conflict.
Northern citizens are split on a recent mining bill proposed earlier this year in the state legislature that would make the permitting process for interested mining companies easier to navigate. Some citizens have pledged unwavering support for the bill as a road to a rejuvenated economy, while others condemn it as a direct attack on the region’s pristine environment.
Republican legislators back the bill for the 700-plus jobs it could eventually create if a mine were built, but Democrats are wary, saying it would loosen environmental standards and allow mining companies to pollute northern Wisconsin without consequence.
The legislative debate follows a historical trend, according to David Canon, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor.
“The Republican Party is going to favor economic concerns over environmental concerns and Democrats would probably be slightly tilted in the other direction,” Canon said.
Two citizens directly involved in the contentious debate are Joe Pinardi, the mayor of Hurley, a northern town located near the proposed mine site, and Dylan Jennings, a UW-Madison student whose home is on the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indian Reservation.
Both represent sides to an argument that is increasingly being played up among northern citizens, making the debate truly about the people a mine could affect.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
Pinardi painted a bleak picture of northern living in his interview with The Daily Cardinal. He has lived in the area his whole life, and consequently has seen the boom-to-bust cycle of a mining town that lost its mine.
“Back in the days when I was a kid, we had mines like crazy up here,” Pinardi said. “Our population since the mines have closed is less than half of what it used to be.”
He said the number of grocery stores in town had decreased from six to one since he was a child. The same happened to barbershops and car dealerships, which were abundant when Pinardi was growing up, but are now nonexistent.
But the issue that hit Pinardi hardest was the number of people leaving town to pursue higher education and never coming back. Pinardi said it happens every year with each graduating high school class.
“This year’s graduating class was 55. Out of that 55, 40 of them have gone to college right now and will probably never come back here,” Pinardi said.
The introduction of a mine would fix these problems and “revitalize” the area, giving younger generations reason to stay, according to Pinardi. He added the mine would also cause a “trickle down” effect, because the mine would provide jobs in the area, allowing people to spend their extra income at commercial outlets in town.
“There are only 700 people that would be employed at the mine, but we’re talking 20 to 22 hundred people getting jobs because of it,” Pinardi said. “It’s all because of grocery stores, barber shops and car dealerships.”
Tied to the land
Dylan Jennings also grew up on northern Wisconsin soil, specifically the Bad River Indian Reservation, and he is quick to recognize the need for an economic boost in the area. But he also sees the land as too high a price to pay for job creation.
“The big bill pushers and the people who are really trying to get this passed through fail to recognize that when a mine is put into the earth … it affects everything in the surrounding [area],” Jennings said.
Jennings’s reservation sits downstream from the proposed mine site, which has led residents to express concern for their native wild rice that grows in water beds fed by the river. The rice, a food staple for the tribe, would be in danger if the water becomes contaminated, Jennings said.
“The processes of harvesting and processing that kind of rice are tradition among my people,” Jennings said. “There is no way a mine would not have any effect.”
Chippewa Natives and anti-mine citizens are also skeptical of the promise for jobs. The mine would lead to jobs in the short term, but Jennings said he thought the jobs would go to out-of-state engineers instead of northern citizens.
“You get your quick buck but … after that, you are left with the same kind of problems you were with,” Jennings said. “Then you have all of this land that was raped of its resources.”
Jennings has had a positive experience talking to students on campus about the issue, but he said many are unaware of the true impacts a mine could have or that an issue is even being debated.
He said he hopes people will continue to take notice and that he and his tribe will do all they could to oppose the bill.
“We would tie ourselves to our land and stand in front of bulldozers and do whatever we can to stop what they want to do,” Jennings said.