MCPL logo

Marathon County Public Library

Skip Navigation Holiday hours: All MCPL locations will be closed by 5pm on Wed., 11/27, and closed all day Thu., 11/28.

Learn More About Penokee Hills Wetlands

May 7, 2015

On Thursday, May 14, residents in our community have the opportunity to learn about and discuss an area of the state many have heard about in the last few years, and an area that is near and dear to me personally: the Penokee Hills region of northern Wisconsin.

Tracy Hames, executive director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, will be at MCPL Wausau to talk specifically about wetlands scattered through the roughly 25-mile Penokee-Gogebic range that stretches through Ashland and Iron counties. Hames will show photos, maps and other graphics and discuss the important ecological role these wetlands play in an area brimming with forests, lakes and streams. The talk begins at 6:30 p.m.

If the area sounds familiar, it’s because mining company Gogebic Taconite (G-Tac) several years ago announced its intent to mine taconite (low-grade iron) from a swath of land 4.5 miles long, 1,000 feet wide and nearly 1,000 feet deep, which would’ve made it the world’s largest open-pit taconite mine. A report funded by G-Tac estimated some 700 permanent and 1,000 temporary jobs would be created from mining operations – significant numbers in a region mired in some of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

From the start, the plan was saddled with controversy and opposition – including intense opposition from the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, which claimed the mine would cause irreparable damage to the Bad River Watershed and was an assault on Tribal sovereignty over air and water quality control in its own reservation. The headwaters of the Bad River begin in the Penokee Hills and meander north through the Tribe’s reservation before reaching Lake Superior, the largest freshwater body of water in the world.

All of the controversy came to a halt in late March, when G-Tac announced it would withdraw its pre-application notice and cease all plans to mine the area. It was not opposition that spurred the company to drop (for now) its mining plans. The company’s own environmental analysis “revealed wetland issues that make major continued investment unfeasible at this time,” G-Tac President Bill Williams said. It is those same wetlands that Hames will discuss on May 14.

So, why is this area important to me personally? I spent four years (2006-2010) as a reporter with The Daily Press in Ashland, and covered a wide range of environmental stories for the paper, including some centered in the Penokees: research on the endangered pine marten that makes its home in the area, tourists drawn to the natural resources and water quality in the region’s many lakes and rivers. I’ve hiked portions of the North Country Trail just north of the proposed mine and waded through rivers and creeks in feeble attempts at fly-fishing. I stood in the Bad River and held a 4-foot sturgeon making its way upstream from Lake Superior to spawn (for a reporting assignment, not for sport). To me and many others, it is a place of incomparable beauty that Wisconsinites and everyone else should see and appreciate for themselves.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I personally was happy to hear G-Tac had abandoned its mining plans. Yes, the region would’ve benefitted from economic activity and job creation, but at what cost? I never believed claims the mine could be developed in an environmentally safe way. Not something of the magnitude proposed by G-Tac, and not in this area. Worse yet, this mining project would be active for 50 years or so and would have permanently altered a region that took tens of thousands of years or longer to develop.

Hames and the Wisconsin Wetlands Association never took an official stance against the mine. In fact, we planned this program before mining plans were abandoned and as we organized it, I made sure this would not be full of anti-mining sentiment, but a science-based discussion about the wetlands, of the potential impacts to wetlands if mining operations came to fruition and an ecological/biological understanding of the aesthetic beauty visible to the naked eye.

I’m glad he’s willing to share more information about a region we’ve all heard so much about, and I hope this talk will motivate others to see the Penokee region with their own eyes.
Chad Dally is a library specialist at MCPL Wausau. His views do not necessarily represent those of the Marathon County Public Library.
 
For More Information

 



Wisconsin Nature