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Patrick Durkin column: Mine to add jobs, money, but at what price?

Mar. 2, 2013
 
This canyon cut by the Bad River is located in the northern end of Copper Falls State Park near the area known as the 'Oxbow.'
This canyon cut by the Bad River is located in the northern end of Copper Falls State Park near the area known as the 'Oxbow.' / Patrick Durkin/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com

When folks around towns like Mellen, Hurley and Glidden sit in church these days, priests and pastors remind them not to let the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine divide their families and friendships.

That’s no easy task, given how many are torn over thoughts of having this mammoth project in their backyard forest and streams. After all, this is about blasting a 1,000-foot, mile-wide trench out of the Penokee Range that could stretch four to 22 miles, depending on future steel prices.

Many locals grew up hunting, hiking, fishing and camping on these lands, much of which is enrolled in Wisconsin’s forest management program and open to public access. Ironically, if steel-company landowners were selling this land to the state for perpetual protection, hunters, trappers and anglers would be demanding it remain forever open to their activities.

But because we’re promised a generation or two of jobs and money for one of Wisconsin’s poorest, job-starved regions, we mostly sit in silent counsel with our conscience. Locals wince at the painful options. Some often hunt near the openings of long-forgotten shafts where forefathers tried mining copper. If this project were about deep shafts and extracting iron ore with carts on rails, they likely wouldn’t feel so conflicted.

But blasting the colorful Penokees into a dark, twisted scar of an ore trench? That sounds too much like leveling West Virginia’s mountains for the coal below. Don’t plenty of poor people still live there, with bad water and health problems, to boot?

Locals also ask what happens to Beaver and English lakes when they’re bordering a colorless chasm, or the 20 nearby streams and 56 miles of year-round streambeds, much of them Class 1 trout water.

After all, when you blow away hills and 1,000 feet beneath them, you create mountains of rock, rubble and pyrite grain to dump elsewhere. If “elsewhere” isn’t well-lined with limestone filters, the region’s rains and heavy snows will create sulfuric acid from the pyrite, and kill plant life and wildlife as it’s flushed away in once pure streams.

That gurgling carnage would continue downriver from the pit, including Devil’s Creek and its state fishery area, and Tyler Forks of the Bad River, which flows into the Bad River itself as it rumbles through Copper Falls State Park. From there it would roll toward Lake Superior, coursing through sloughs and spawning grounds for everything from trout to lake sturgeon.

You also don’t gouge mile-wide pits without breaking the Northwoods’ silence and diluting its ink-black nights. Those who enjoy midsummer porch visits or deep-woods grouse hunts will need to gird for year-round bomb blasts or distant rolling thunder, depending on their proximity to the pit. And amateur astronomers will need to sell their telescopes. Floodlights illuminating the ore gorge for nighttime work will cast a glow that hides all but the brightest stars and distant planets.

Those are just some quality-of-life issues fueling mine debates. Meanwhile, locals grapple with their histories and legacies, recalling their forebears’ passion that created and sustained Copper Falls State Park.

“Bear with me,” they’ll say when recalling that Ashland County shipped out roughly 2,000 sons to fight World War I. Many of their soldiers were aboard the S.S. Tuscania when it was torpedoed by a U-boat within sight of Scotland and Ireland. Most survived the sinking ship and went on to help occupy the Rhineland before returning home.

Once back in Ashland, Marengo, Mellen and all farms in between, many former soldiers volunteered to build trails and cut stone or log staircases into the cliffs and switchbacks flanking the Bad River northeast of Mellen. Then they drove tourist-filled trucks and buses so others could enjoy the river, too.

When the electric company announced plans in 1921 to dam the Bad River and flood its rushing rapids, plunging falls, sandstone cliffs and lava-bottomed bed, the region’s doughboys marched on Madison. Under that pressure, lawmakers in 1928 bought the 550 acres that form the core of the state park.

Today, if you hike or snowshoe in the park along the Bad River, you often overlook 60- to 100-foot drops into its winding canyon. Along the way, you’ll notice about a half-mile of river closed to public access because of high potential for erosion. The intent is to preserve these scenic resources for future generations.

One wonders how much value would erode from those resources if the Bad River’s water were sterilized by distant mountains of eternally seeping acid.

Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for Press-Gazette Media. Email him at patrickdurkin@charter.net.

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