Gogebic Taconite, an iron mining company owned by Florida-based coal billionaire Chris Cline, is one step closer to closing off 3,500 acres of land in Managed Forest Law (MFL) for public access as SB 278 passed out of committee on a 3-2 party line vote yesterday morning.
The bill allows GTac to prohibit public access to the land immediately upon its enactment without paying the withdrawal fees they would otherwise have to pay under current law. It was introduced last Friday afternoon and received a hearing on Wednesday.
Committee Chair Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) opened the hearing with a screening of a video of an incident at one of GTac’s drill sites in June during which a group of activists yelled obscenities at workers and one of them grabbed a camera out of the hands of a worker. Tiffany suggested that people who can’t tolerate profanity should leave the room.
As the four and a half hour hearing wore on, it became clear that the June 11 confrontation in the Penokee Hills is the sole rationale for the bill that essentially gives GTac massive tax breaks and a major exception to the 160-acre-per-municipality limit on how much land in MFL can be closed to the public.
Alternately calling the people in the video “criminals” and “eco-terrorists,” SB 278 sponsors Sen. Tiffany and Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) claimed that the measure was required to ensure the safety of GTac workers and DNR employees who have oversight responsibilities on the project.
But others disagreed, pointing out that closing access to the public would only keep law-abiding people out. Tracy Hames, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, said, “Closing of the land is not going to make the land safer per se.” He added that only legitimate users of the land – hunters, fishers, hikers, foragers – would stay away, while people with bad intentions were not likely to respect the boundaries regardless of its status as “closed.” Hames urged local law enforcement agencies to coordinate their responses to any future illegal activity on GTac property.
GTac lobbyist Bob Seitz also claimed that there have been numerous incidents where workers have been harassed by “eco-terrorists” at night and in the course of their work on the core sample drill sites. Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) asked to see the police reports from those incidents, but Seitz said that none were filed.
Seitz also justified GTac’s hiring of an out-of-state military security company to guard drill equipment. He raised the specter of “illegal camps in the woods” and said that Bulletproof Securities provided “specially trained security to go into the woods, find the camps, and monitor that activity.” He added, “It would be irresponsible of us to hire a typical security firm, expect them to go into the woods at night, and not expect a bad result.”
Responding to Sen. Jauch’s outrage at GTac’s hiring of a machine-gun-wielding private militia to patrol the area, Seitz said, “I take offense that a person providing security to a law-abiding company in the USA is a mercenary.” He failed to mention how in the very act of hiring Bulletproof Securities, GTac gave up its right to call itself “law-abiding.” Bulletproof was forced to suspend its services after it was found to be operating illegally in the state without a license.
Despite the short notice for the hearing, several dozen people showed up to register or testify on the matter. Nobody from Northern Wisconsin was able to make the 5-6 hour trip to Madison for the hearing.
Only three people testified in favor of SB 278: The bill’s author, Sen. Tiffany, GTac lobbyist Bob Seitz, and a personal friend of Sen. Tiffany, Tea Party activist Fred Kelly Grant from Boise, Idaho. Grant testified about a 30-year-old incident of a logger being injured by a spike driven into a tree by an anti-logging activist. The irony of someone who has made a reputation for himself decrying excessive legislation and government regulation supporting this law seemed to escape him.
The other eighteen or so people who testified included Sen. Jauch and Rep. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland), both of whom represent the districts that would be affected by this law. Both of them called SB 278 an inappropriate solution to the alleged problem, and slammed the committee for not making an effort to hear from people and local governments that will be affected by the bill. “You don’t close down the highway because one person is driving 85 miles per hour. You arrest the person driving 85,” said Jauch.
Calling the closure of such a large tract of land “excessive and unjustified,” Sen. Jauch said SB 278, “the sweetheart deal for GTac is an assault on Wisconsin’s values. It is a brazen act of selfishness by one out-state company.”
Al Gedicks, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sociology at UW – La Crosse, called SB 278 “nothing more than GTac’s psychological warfare against anyone who cares about protecting the water.” He expressed deep concerns about the further militarization of the mine site in the absence of a social license to operate.
Gedicks concluded, “If this ill-conceived piece of legislation is passed, Wisconsin will join the countries where highly polluting mining activity can only proceed through the use and threatened use of armed violence: the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and West Papua. Is this the legacy you want for the people of Wisconsin?”
Others pointed out that not allowing public access to the land would make it impossible to independently verify GTac’s scientific data including the shape and extent of wetlands in the area and claims about the character of the ore body and surrounding waste rock.
For example, Patricia Hammel pointed out that in their bulk sampling permit application, “GTac doesn’t think there is pyrite or asbestos in the rock they’ll be blasting despite evidence that there is.” Documented falsehoods like this demand more, not less public and peer reviewed scientific scrutiny, and that is precisely what GTac is trying to avoid.
Rick Ruecking is an owner of forest property in southwest Wisconsin. He said that his family chose to not enter it into the Managed Forest Law program even though it is open and managed for hunting because they wanted the ability to restrict access to hunters of particular species. He pays the full amount of property tax on his land and wondered why GTac gets to have a law custom tailored to their desires. “I really don’t like that there’s a special interest legislation that’s going to benefit a corporation when that same kind of benefit is not afforded to the citizens of Wisconsin,” he said.
Ruecking likened the political influence wielded by GTac in the state legislature yesterday with that enjoyed by his logging and railroad baron ancestor Isaac Stephenson over a century ago. Calling him “a major eco-terrorist in Wisconsin,” Ruecking said Stephenson told his grandfather, “They gave me the rights of one mile of timber on either side of that right-of-way. But I took ten, because I knew that by the time they caught me I would be too rich for them to do anything about it.”
Access to land wasn’t the only thing the senate committee tried to block during its executive committee yesterday. Members of the public were temporarily prevented from entering the meeting room by Capitol Police officers, and a journalist was barred from filming inside the session by Senate staff.
Despite Sen. Tiffany’s assurances the day before that the meeting would be open, Capitol Police officers were ordered to stand guard at the door and not allow members of the public to enter, in apparent violation of Wis. Stat. 19.31 that states, “The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.” Only after a Senate staffer came out of the room and verified that the meeting was open did they allow people to enter.
After the committee vote yesterday, Sen. Tiffany took the opportunity to spin the “eco-terrorist” narrative one last time by thanking television stations for leading their news programs the night before with images of the June 11 shouting match video. That is all the justification GTac needs to insulate its practices from unwanted scrutiny. Whether the rest of the legislature agrees with them or not is still an open question.
There are currently no Assembly representatives willing to sponsor the bill in that body. Absent an Assembly bill, SB 278 would not move forward. Sen. Jauch and Sen. John Lehman brought a substitute amendment to the bill in an attempt at compromise, requiring a 300-foot buffer zone around all workers, but that failed a vote in the executive committee.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.