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Julie Genisot: Wisconsin mine proposal calls for standing middle ground

5:54 PM, Feb. 1, 2013  |  Comments
Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany, left, of Hazelhurst, describes the latest version of a bill that changes the process for allowing new iron ore mines to open in Wisconsin at a news conference with other state lawmakers on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2012, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)
Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany, left, of Hazelhurst, describes the latest version of a bill that changes the process for allowing new iron ore mines to open in Wisconsin at a news conference with other state lawmakers on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2012, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

I grew up on the western border of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, right along the Wisconsin state line, within minutes of the mine proposed by Gogebic Taconite. You would think I have a strong feeling one way or the other about the controversy, but I don't.

Simply put, the whole subject is colored in gray for me, with no definite conclusion in sight.

There are always two sides to any story and it's those sides that stand clear to me. For 27 years, I lived in the western U.P., a place that will be directly affected by the mine, good and bad. For the past 21 years, I've been in the Fox Valley, a place remarkably different from my hometown.

When I first moved to the Fox Valley, I couldn't help but compare it to where I came from. Everyone seemed to be heading somewhere, doing things that weren't usual, like going to Chicago for a concert or heading to Green Bay for a football game.

The adventure didn't have to make sense. It just had to be available. In my area of the U.P., we didn't do those things. We didn't do them because we couldn't. There simply wasn't any money for stuff like that.

When you grow up in a world in which money is tight, sometimes you forget possibility even exists. You forget that it's OK to have fun once in a while and go on an adventure for no reason other than you want to.

When there's a question about paying to see the doctor vs. how much you'll eat that week, you don't have the optimism a positive bank account can nurture.

When you can't sleep at night because you're about to get laid off from the ski hill, "no" is the only answer you can give.

Mining jobs would alleviate a lot of those problems and bring some optimism back to a region deserted by hope for many. I know some of those people, I grew up with them and I want them to prosper. There's a beautiful self-sufficiency in them, born of a rugged necessity to work with what they have.

The people I know don't ask for a lot of favors. They'd rather not let you know they can't do something on their own.

But the other side has a compelling argument, too. If you've never visited the U.P. and northern Wisconsin, you should. When I lived there, I couldn't see how beautiful my natural surroundings were.

Living within something is the surest way to ignore it. I got used to bluffs and forests and waterfalls everywhere I looked. In the fall, the leaves turning color only meant snow was coming. I didn't see Superior as a great lake.

After a while, when I went back home for a visit, I started noticing those natural wonders in a way I never did before. Suddenly, I couldn't wait to walk along the stony shore of Lake Superior, dipping a foot into the icy water and looking for Canada.

I wanted to trip down paths into the woods, searching for that first inspiring view of a waterfall, thrilling to the sound of the rushing water that met me first.

And in the fall, I paid careful attention to my favorite bluff, filled with painted leaves waving in the wind like a final bow before the curtain closes.

That's what I'm afraid might get lost in the shuffle. I've been many places around this country and have seen some of the broader world as well. There are spots on this planet that we shouldn't touch - places where our fingerprints don't belong. The Penokee Range is one of those places.

My grandfathers were miners back when iron ore was the king of all industry in the U.P., and my dad and father-in-law worked in a copper mine before it closed up, leaving hundreds of men and families without an income.

I just don't know that this new mine is the answer, no more than I can raise a sign in protest against it.

It's so tempting to fall one way or the other, I chose to take a middle ground, a decision that might look wishy-washy but I think is the only way. We need to protect our resources as we harvest them. There can't be a rush to mine without thoughtful consideration of the environment.

That doesn't mean there is no mine. It just means we need to think about the day when this mine leaves, like they all did before.

What can we do to make sure that, when we wake up on that day, we don't rise to devastation, both economic and environmental?

I want those jobs to happen but not at any cost. There's a price to pay for everything. Gogebic Taconite could very well bring an economic rebirth to northern Wisconsin and the western U.P., but don't fool yourself that the region has nothing to lose in that gain. The area will give up its natural treasure in exchange for economic growth.

We need to measure out that exchange carefully, lest the balance tip too far in either direction.

- Julie Genisot is a Sherwood resident and a Post-Crescent Community Columnist. She can be reached at pcletters@postcrescent.com

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