By Ruth Conniff
On Tuesday morning the Iron County Forest Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the Iron County Board pursue criminal and civil charges against the Lac Courte Oreilles Treaty Harvest and Education camp for violating county ordinances and provisions of state County Forest Law. The vote took place with no discussion after the committee emerged from closed session with their corporate counsel.
The decision comes two months after the same committee voted unanimously to approve a request by the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa for a waiver to the county's 14-day camping ordinance to allow the camp to remain established on Moore Park Road for one year.
On May 8, 2013 the Iron County Forestry department granted LCO Treaty Harvest and Education Camp host Melvin Gasper a Native American Gathering permit to gather plant materials and tap trees for syrup, and a firewood permit to collect down trees on Iron County forest lands. Both permits are valid through December 31, 2013.
According to the official minutes of the May 14 meeting, the committee voted unanimously, "authorizing Joe (Iron County Forester) to work with Corporate Counsel, Michael Pope, to write a land use permit for Lac Courte Oreilles members and their guests for camping, harvesting and educational purposes. The permit will also address sanitation issues and be one year in length."
An official statement by camp organizers says the camp was established, "to make a presence in the Penokee Hills and do research in the region... To host LCO tribal members and other guests who are doing an inventory of resources, trail blazing, archaeology work and harvesting." Over one thousand people have signed the visitors' book at the camp since it opened last spring.
Flags at the entrance of the LCO Treaty Harvest and Education Camp. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
The Penokee Hills hold cultural, historical and ecological importance for Ojibwe tribes in the region. In the mid-19th century the land was allotted to Ojibwe and Sioux people who did not want to live on reservations. The headwaters of the Bad River watershed that drain into the Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs where much of their sacred wild rice grows are also located in the Penokees.
Gogebic Taconite (GTac), a West Virginia-based iron mining company owned by coal mining billionaire Chris Cline, plans to strip mine a 22-mile long stretch of the Penokee Hills in four phases over 35 years. They began core sample drilling on the first phase last month.
GTac's application for a bulk sampling permit was returned to them by the Department of Natural Resources at the beginning of July for lack of adequate information, including how they plan to handle asbestos dust created by explosions, and the potential for sulfuric acid leeching from pyrite dust mixing with water.
Shortly after receiving that letter, GTac hired Bulletproof Security, a private militia from Arizona, to guard their drilling sites. Photos of machine gun wielding men in full battle gear prompted public complaints to the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services, who confirmed that they were operating illegally in the state without a license.
GTac withdrew the paramilitary group on July 10 and replaced them with another more low-key security force, apparently state-licensed. That same day, activists who oppose the proposed mine received death threats posted by administrators of the Wisconsinites for Safe Mining Facebook page.
Since Bulletproof Security was given the boot for operating illegally on public-access land, right wing media outlets began printing statements by GTac supporters claiming that the LCO Treaty Harvest and Education Camp is operating illegally on county land.
Camp spokesman Paul DeMain says no one from Iron County has formally communicated with him or camp host Melvin Gasper about the disposition of the requested and apparently approved land use permit. County Forester Joe Vairus claims that he sent Lac Courte Oreilles Chairman Michael Isham a letter asking them to apply for a large group camping permit, but that he has not received an application yet.
Iron County Forest Committee members say that the camp is in violation of the 15-year county forest management plan. Changing county ordinances that would alter the plan would require approval of the DNR under Wis. Stats 28.11. Board members say that the DNR is threatening to remove their certification for managing County Forest Law, including partial funding of forestry positions, if they allow the LCO Treaty Harvest and Education Camp to remain in place.
Iron County Forestry Committee member James Lambert, Iron County Forester Joe Vairus, Iron County Forestry Committee Chair Thomas Thompson, Jr. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
The full county board will take up the recommendation to pursue criminal and civil charges against the camp at its regular meeting next Tuesday, July 30.
Before the meeting went into closed session, Dick Thiede asked the committee why they were going into closed session to discuss a policy decision that legally must be made in open session. Iron County corporate counsel Michael Pope said that they had grounds to close the session because the decision -- that had yet to be made -- was likely to result in litigation.
After the quick reading of the motion and vote, the meeting was opened up for public comment.
During this portion of the meeting, Joan Kemble said, "I've been in public service many years. I've never encountered a closed meeting followed by a vote and THEN the public comment. This is very strange to me. I've never heard of doing business this way."
Other concerned citizens raised questions about the process moving forward.
In a written statement, Dick Thiede asked, "Have you considered that physical opposition to the eviction is possible and that legal opposition by the 11 Great Lakes Tribes and the Federal Government is certain? Does Iron County have the financial means to carry out litigation which will take years, perhaps decades, and most certainly will end up in Federal court and most certainly end in defeat for the county?"
Other questions included: How will the decision be carried out? Why weren't the people at the camp notified ahead of time that if certain actions weren't taken that criminal charges would be brought?
After the hasty vote was taken, Hurley resident Maureen Matusewic said, "Way to go, guys. Now that GTac's illegal you're gonna come after the harvest camp. They've been up there for months and now you're gonna make a big deal of this months and months later? This is just one more example of Iron County looking foolish, and I'm kind of embarrassed about another goof up. I have a feeling this is gonna turn around into another big thing that is gonna make us all look like we're yokels up here."
The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa maintains that their rights to hunt, fish and gather in a usual and accustomed manner are reserved under treaties with the U.S. Government dated 1837 and 1842. Should the Iron County Board vote to pursue charges against the tribe, it is unclear which law enforcement agency will be charged with enforcement, or which court would hear such a case should it come to that.
Furthermore, rights retained under the treaties with the U.S. Government may prove to be stronger than the DNR's threats to Iron County of withdrawal of state support.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.