Wisconsin Tribe Halts $1.5 Billion Open-Pit Mine

To protect vital wetlands, the Ojibwe tribe and local scientists and activists pressured industry to abandon plans for what would have harmed thousands of species of plants and animals.

Activists Joe Rose, Gary Quaderer, and Paul DeMain, all of Ojibwe descent, tie eagle feathers to a staff erected at the entrance of the Harvest Education Learning Project Camp in Wisconsin. Music, food, and ceremony are part of the teaching process at the camp. Photo courtesy of Paul Demain.

This article is part of our state-by-state exploration of local solutions.

The drill rigs are gone. A couple of dozen boreholes lie abandoned where mining company Gogebic Taconite had dug core samples for what was to be the largest open-pit mine in the United States.

Until last year, construction of the GTAC iron ore mine was underway in Wisconsin’s Northwoods despite protests from environmental activists. But opposition grew stronger as a coalition of local scientists, activists, and Native Americans worked to fight the mining proposal, which they argued would have contaminated vital wetlands. Ojibwe tribal member Paul DeMain says tailings from the mine would have harmed thousands of species of plants and animals in the Penokee Range and destroyed the Ojibwe tribe’s livelihood by tainting its water supply. Ojibwe members who live on the Bad River Reservation just south of the proposed mine site rely on water from the Penokee Hills, which flows down the lower basin of Lake Superior and the Bad River.

In March 2015, GTAC announced it was dropping plans to build the $1.5 billion mine. The decision followed an independent environmental assessment conducted by local scientists from nearby Northland College, who worked with the Ojibwe tribe to map out all the potential hazards. According to Glenn Stoddard, an attorney for the tribe, their treaty with the U.S. government guarantees the Ojibwe the right to hunt, fish, and gather on that very land. But what halted the mine, he says, was public pressure on GTAC from groups inside and outside the reservation.

Raising awareness about the mining project and its environmental risks was therefore critical, says DeMain, who started the Harvest Education and Learning Program. Operating alongside the mine site on public land, HELP teaches Natives and non-Natives about the Ojibwe’s dependence on Bad River’s water and land. “When you’re fighting the potential for contamination, water becomes the bottom line,” he says.

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