Members of the Iron County board are urging criminal and civil penalties against a tribal encampment on public land near a controversial proposed iron mine.
The county board’s forestry committee voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend that the full board authorize such charges, prompting the local prosecutor to question whether any serious offenses are being committed and the leader of a second tribe to say he’ll soon establish another camp in the area.
The effort to remove the camp is the latest flashpoint in the polarizing mine project, which in recent weeks has seen complaints lodged against a heavily armed but unlicensed security detail hired by the mine company and criminal charges against a protester.
The camp was established in April to draw attention to the natural resources of the Penokee Hills by members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Tribal elder Melvin Gasper couldn’t be reached for comment.
About 25 to 30 wigwams and tents and a portable toilet have been set up a short hike from the mine site, said county forester Joe Vairus. Estimates of the number of permanent campers vary from two or three to a dozen. On weekends, larger groups sometimes arrive for educational programs and hikes through the woods to destinations that have included sites for test drilling that ended last week.
Vairus said camping isn’t allowed for more than 14 days on county forest land, but law enforcement officials have declined to enforce the county ordinance.
“It’s not a native issue, it’s not a mine issue,” Vairus said. “It’s people living in the county forest, which they are not allowed to do. These guys are not cooperating, so they’ve got to go.”
On May 14, the forestry committee granted a tribal representative permission for the camp for one year, pending a review of ordinances, said Michael Pope, the county’s corporation counsel. Pope said he sent a letter on May 29 telling the representative about the two-week limit and suggesting the group could obtain a “large group gathering permit” for an indefinite time period if it worked with officials on how the camp was set up. The representative never responded, Pope said.
“There may be health and sanitation issues,” Pope said. “I assume the health department has some regulations.”
The group has permits for gathering firewood and gathering other items such as birch poles, Vairus said.
Tony Stella, a former county district attorney and critic of the planned Gogebic Taconite mine, said an eviction of the camp would backfire.
“If you have video images of Indians being muscled into police cars, you’re going to bring in thousands of protesters from all over the country,” Stella said. “There are still a lot of fence sitters (in northern Wisconsin) and every time you have something like this it pushes more people into the mine opponents’ camp.”
Vairus said he has urged County District Attorney Marty Lipske to take action. Lipske said he would look into the matter if directed by the board, but he remains skeptical.
Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said he will soon establish a second encampment. The “harvest camps” are legal under tribal rights to use ceded lands, Wiggins said.
“There hasn’t been any detriment to the land there,” Wiggins said of the existing camp. “There’s some gardening and there’s some shelters and there’s a lot of good things happening there by way of harvesting and cooking and people coming together. I think it’s something to build on and Iron County would benefit from encouraging it as opposed to exploding the whole area so that a corporation can profit on the waters and the land.”
Mine opponents believe the 4 1/2-mile long project through the Penokee Hills will create air pollution and irreparable harm to the water flowing out of the forested highlands.
Bob Seitz, a spokesman for Gogebic Taconite, said the company hasn’t requested removal of the harvest camp, although its presence complicates security for the site because a group that harassed workers on June 11 apparently had been in the camp. Gasper turned one over to deputies, and she has been charged with four crimes.
“We always separate the peaceful protesters from the violent ones,” Seitz said.
The county board will consider the forestry panel recommendation at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Pope said.