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Tiffany: My bill would protect mine workers' safety (column)

4:50 PM, Sep. 19, 2013  |  Comments
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In early June, employees working at a drilling site for the proposed taconite mine in Iron County were accosted by several masked, violent protesters. The radical ecoterrorism-supporting website Earth First! Newswire has since posted a firsthand account written by some the same individuals. Among their stated goals was shattering the employees' sense of security and inflicting damage to the company.

Since this incident, it has come to light that the saboteurs also removed bolts from a bridge, lined the roads used by the employees with makeshift roadblocks to prevent emergency help from reaching them, and they added their own lock and chain to the worksite's gated entrance. The attackers have also since said that they will be back and next there will be more of them. I take the attackers at their word and I believe we should take their threats seriously. These are more than a few bad actors, they are ecoterrorists and they are here in Wisconsin. Access to these worksites is remote and radio and cell phone service is limited. Given these concerns and what took place in June, I authored Senate Bill 278.

The land where the mining activity is occurring is private property currently enrolled in Wisconsin's Managed Forest Law program. If a landowner is enrolled in the MFL program, he or she has the option of designating that land as "open" or "closed" to public recreation. Open designation allows the public to access property for the recreational activities of hunting, fishing, hiking, sight-seeing and cross-country skiing. Closed designation provides the landowners the right to restrict or permit access. Both designations provide the landowner with a tax break, with the open designation being more generous.

Owners of MFL land are permitted, without fee, to modify their open or closed designation twice during their MFL entry period or when all or some of the land is withdrawn or transferred. When land is permanently withdrawn from the MFL program, it is subject to fees and withdrawal taxes.

My bill would simply provide the landowner where the mining activity is occurring to have the option of temporarily closing their land from public access under the MFL program. The land would be limited to the area specified in the Notice of Intent filed by a ferrous mining company with the Department of Natural Resources. Any temporary closure of this land would require payment of the difference between the annual payment for MFL open and MFL closed.

Most importantly, it provides the landowner and the DNR with the framework to establish a system to open parts of the land not being used for testing.

The land would re-open when a mining permit has been approved or denied, the company ends the application or when the DNR determines a company is no longer pursuing a permit to mine. This legislation does not remove this land from the MFL program, nor does the landowner avoid any expense or payment associated with the withdrawal of property from MFL.

Some, like my colleague Sen. Bob Jauch, have suggested creating "safety zones" for testing sites. Unfortunately, designating these circles in dense forestland is just not practical. Most testing occurring on these sites is being carried out by one or two workers traveling through the property doing wetlands delineation, archeology, surface water or threatened species work. A safe workplace for these workers can only be maintained by temporarily closing the property.

My bill allows the most land to remain open while still protecting the public and workers while exploration is taking place and still maintains the integrity of the MFL program. This bill strikes a balance between the accessibility the public wants and the safety workers at the site need.

Editor's note: The bill was not included on the floor agenda for next week's Senate session.

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