A lot of so-called conservatives have taken to talk radio airwaves and opinion pages recently to push dramatic changes in Wisconsin’s mine-permitting process.
Mining advocates are proud to tout their economic development bona fides, but in a blind rush to start digging in Northern Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills, they are actually losing credibility with many conservatives across the state. I am one of them.
I had the privilege of growing up Up North where I developed an independent Northwoods mindset and a deep appreciation for our state’s natural resources. While I usually identify as Republican, I am writing to break from the lockstep march Wisconsin’s GOP establishment has come to represent over the last year, currently epitomized by the race to alter our decades-old mining law in the name of short-term job creation.
Creating great jobs across the state needs be a top priority. Some future jobs may come from the mining sector, but the open-pit mine proposed in Iron and Ashland counties deserves close scrutiny and a comprehensive permitting process. Wisconsin conservatives should embrace the time-tested procedure already in place. Not only is this project the first of its kind proposed in Wisconsin, its location near the headwaters of the Bad River places the utmost importance on safeness.
Conservatives frequently look to tradition for policy guidance and mining proponents are pointing to Northern Wisconsin’s historic mining activity as evidence of safe practice. This is not an accurate comparison. The late 19th- and early 20th-century operations in the Hurley area relied on underground shaft mines and the region’s landscape remains intact today.
Conversely, the current proposal will virtually flatten the Penokee Hills by excavating a 22-mile long, 1000-feet deep, and up to 1.5-mile wide pit. Imagine widening I-94 between Lake Michigan and Pewaukee to 600 lanes – that’s roughly the same footprint. This isn’t your grandfather’s mine, and it would be wise to honor Wisconsin’s tradition of responsible stewardship that has provided us a strong balance of development, recreation and preservation.
On a recent visit to the Penokee Hills with a childhood friend who works at the nonprofit Clean Wisconsin, I snowshoed to one of several pre-glacial gorges where world-class trout streams cross the range. I observed the bubbling headwaters of the 76-mile long Bad River at Caroline Lake, just a few miles from the wetlands where the proposed mine’s tailings – leftover, non-iron minerals – are to be deposited. I drove 25 miles downstream through the Bad River watershed to Lake Superior, passing by homes and farmsteads, state parks and hunting lands. I was stunned by the Penokee Hills’ important role in influencing the flow and connectivity of the region’s wetlands and waterways all the way down to the Great Lake.
As a conservative, I believe society prospers when we operate with a strong moral order and shared sense of right and wrong. After visiting the region, I know it would be wrong to risk this important watershed and the communities (and economies) that depend on it without first conducting a proper permitting process. And I’m not alone in this judgment: Public Policy Polling reported last week that only one-third of Wisconsinites want to simplify our mine permitting process.
It seems Republicans in Madison need to be reminded that the conservatism they frequently espouse is rooted in a philosophy of restraint and sober judgment. John Randolph defended limited government in the 19th century by asserting, “Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries.”
Now it’s our turn. Let’s slow down, study hard and consider all the environmental and economic costs and benefits of the proposed Penokee Hills mine before taking action – exactly what Wisconsin’s current permitting process achieves.
There is too much at stake to rush.
Adam Schmidt, originally from Rhinelander, lives in Milwaukee and works in the education reform sector. Previously, Schmidt was a research assistant at the Center for Regulatory and Market Studies in Washington, D.C.