Guest Post: Wisconsin’s Riverways & Mining

Oct 14, 2020 | Local Groups, Mining

Today, we’re pleased to welcome Justyn Huckleberry of the Wolf River Action Committee as our featured guest blogger.

Badger Minerals LLC’s exploratory drilling sites. The Badger Property is marked with a blue diamond, and the Northern Water Source is marked with a circled X.

As we transition from summer to fall, and celebrate Badger Minerals’ announcement that they won’t pursue further mining exploration at this time on the Wolf River, I’d like to share some highlights with everyone from our summer panel series, “Mining Wisconsin’s Riverways: Past & Present Issues & Activism.”

We had a wide range of speakers and topics in our panel series related to mining in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. In this post you will find panelist bios, links to each of the panel videos, and brief summaries of each panel.

While the end of Badger Minerals exploration is a victory, the fight isn’t over—scroll to the bottom to find ways that you can stay engaged in Wisconsin water protection.

Thanks for tuning in! If you’re interested in learning more please visit the Wolf River Action Committee website.

Panel 1: Tribal Histories of the Wolf River

The first Panel, “Tribal Histories of the Wolf River,” moderated by Tina Van Zile, featured three panelists:

  • David Grignon is an elder and tribal member of the Menominee nation, previous director of the Menominee Historic Preservation Department, and the current Tribal Historic Preservation Officer.
  • Gary Besaw is a tribal member of the Menominee nation, Menominee Tribal legislature, director of Menominee Tribal Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, and the Menominee Tribal Food Distribution Department.
  • Kristen Welch from the Menominee Nation is a community organizer with the indigenous nonprofit Menikanaehkem Community Rebuilders, and a lead organizer for the women’s leadership cohort Missing and Murdered indigenous women. She currently sits on the governor’s council for mental health. 

Key takeaways:

  • The three panelists joined Tina Van Zile to share the significance of the Menominee and Wolf Rivers to the Menominee people, as far back as their creation stories, and what’s at stake for their people, Indigenous communities more broadly, and the water. The Menominee and Wolf Rivers have been in Menominee ancestral history for time immemorial. Menominee ancestors are buried on the banks of both rivers, yet both have been threatened previously by the Crandon, and Back Forty mines, and now Badger Minerals exploration. 
  • David started us off talking about the consistent threats to the waterways of his people. The Menominee River is where his people were created thousands of years ago. He told the story of colonization, how the Menominee Reservation came to be, and spoke of oral histories the tribal preservation office made that could be used against mining companies. 
  • Gary spoke of the importance of water to the Menominee people since the beginning of their creation, with creation stories that are over 14,500 years old when Menominee people killed mammoths. Instead of using water as a resource for short-term uses, the Menominee people live with the water, they protect it, and the water protects them back. Water is living to Menominee people; the rivers are alive. 
  • Kristen rounded out the panel by connecting the health of water to the health of the Menominee people and missing and murdered Indigenous women. She talked about the Menominee creation story, where their first grandmother looked over all women and all of the water for them. The woman was the chosen vessel to navigate life from the spirit world to the physical world, which became a gift to Indigenous women to care for the water. Through commodifying water, people lose this spiritual connection to water. Kristen has held water walks that help to restore their relationship with the water, and water ceremonies that help protect the Menominee sacred places of creation. 
  • The panel ended on the message that Indigenous people have sacrificed everything and will continue to in order to save and preserve what is left. The panelists said they want to protect waters now, for their children, to honor their creation story, and for the deer, the fish, the plants, and the water. 

Panel 2: Water Allies of the Wolf River

The second panel, “Water Allies of the Wolf River,” was moderated by Allison Werner. This panel happened the day after the Dakota Access Pipeline was closed down, which was appropriate timing to talk about water protection and activism. There were three panelists:

  • Anahkwet (Guy Reiter), a traditional Menominee and executive director of Menikanaehkem Community Rebuilders. 
  • Paula Mohan, a Political Scientist whose research focuses on intergovernmental relationships between tribes and state and federal governments.
  • Dale Burie, born in Menominee county and president of the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River. 

 Key takeaways:

  • The three panelists shared their unique experiences of protecting natural resources, specifically water, in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A key theme of the panel was that anyone can act for protecting the environment—“you are somebody,” you can do something to help movements you care about move forward.
  • Guy has been an earth and water protector pretty much since birth. He grew up walking lightly on the earth and trying to understand his relationship with the natural world. The Menominee creation story starts at the mouth of Menominee River, so when the Back Forty Mine was proposed, Guy started to get involved in water protection. He learned about what sulfur mining was, its impacts on the natural world, put on events, and got people talking about the issue. He helped organize a 126-mile water walk over three days from the Menominee reservation to a Menominee sacred site, Keshena Falls, to the mine site. They walked with intent on the Earth, in a way to think about all of the animals, people, things that would be affected by the potential mine. 
  • Dale spoke of how his Christian beliefs drive his mission to preserve and take care of rivers of Wisconsin. He talked about the formation of his organization, the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River, which just incorporated this past June. Dale said “it isn’t about us anymore, it’s about the next generations.”
  • Paula got involved in environmental activism in high school when Menominee students were peacefully protesting violent spearfishing opposition by resort owners in Conover, WI. She learned then what it means to be both a water ally and an ally to Indigenous people. She said that “the fact that tribes now have a say in what happens in ceded territory means that that watershed has protection that it would not have had otherwise.” She gave a few recommendations to non-natives that want to get involved in water protection: build strong relationships and allow tribes to lead the way and tell you what they need; learn about the regulatory process and where the weaknesses are; and remember that mining companies cannot compete with the resistance that comes with a hive mind and on multiple fronts. 
  • To get involved—become a volunteer, get vocal through letters, calls, and e-mails, develop a tough skin, and learn how to make this hard work fun. Build relationships with your elected officials from town board all the way to the federal level—they need to know these are issues you care about. 

Panel 3: Science & the Environment

The third panel, “Science & the Environment,” was moderated by Allison Werner. There were four panelists:

  • Tina Van Zile, a Sokaogon Ojibwe, Forest County Potawatomi Native, and enrolled member of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community. She has been with the Sokaogon Environmental Department since 1994, where she has served as Environmental Director since 1999. Tina currently serves as Vice-President for Wisconsin Tribal Conservation Advisory Council and former Board Member for River Alliance of Wisconsin.
  • Doug Cox, a member of the Menominee Tribe. He has sat on the Menominee Tribal Legislature, and has worked closely in environmental protection as an environmental specialist and forest ecologist. 
  • John Coleman, the Environmental Section Leader with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. 
  • Dave Blouin, chair of the Sierra Club’s state mining committee since the early 1993 and co-founder of the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin.

 Key takeaways:

  • Tina started us off by talking about the state of Wisconsin’s laws—they aren’t written to protect cultural resources or sometimes even the environment, and recently environmental protections in the state have weakened. She reminded us that we must speak for the things in our environment who can’t speak for themselves, like the water, the trees, plants, and animals. The growth of one culturally significant plant and food, Manomin (wild rice), is stunted when it is exposed to heavy metals from mining, impacting the entire plant’s ability to establish itself in the soil.  
  • Mole Lake was the first tribe east of the Mississippi to get water quality standards in 1995. Their standards are set on baseline data, where the natural level is the acceptable level.
  • Tina brought up the language of “usable groundwater” in NR182, making the point that everything is usable and all water is connected. 
  • Doug Cox spoke about mining impacts on everyone and specifically to the Menominee tribe. He said that it’s not a question on whether there are going to be impacts, but how much. He told us that the mining industry pollutes 17-27 billion gallons of water per year, and gave the example of tailings management areas (dams) that leak and fail, such as the Brazilian Brumahdinho and Mariana Tailings Dam failings.
  • A permit for the Back Forty Mine tailings dam will be needed—pay attention for the public hearings process in Michigan. The proposed open pit by Aquila Resources would be directly adjacent to the Menominee River. In addition to water pollution, the proposed mine would have visual impacts, and since it is situated on (unadjudicated) Menominee ceded territory, important cultural impacts.
  • John Coleman introduced us to the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission’s publication Metallic Mineral Mining: The Process & the Price. John summarized from this publication the impacts through the mining process from mineral exploration through ore extraction to long lasting impacts after a mine has been decommissioned.
  • Dave Blouin talked about the overall mining landscape in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in regards to the increased interest in mineral sulfide mining in this area, with around 15 mineral occurrences state-wide. He shared that the deposits the mining industry is most interested in Wisconsin are mineral sulfide deposits, just like the Back Forty Mine in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
  • Previous risks of exploration on the Wolf River seemed low, because the ore seemed to be sub-economic (too small to be economically viable); but the exploratory drilling program shows renewed interest in the potential for a mining site to be developed.
  • The man that founded Badger Minerals co-founded Aquila resources, the company running the Back Forty Mine project. Neither company has any mining experience.

Panel 4: How the Public Can Influence the Mining Regulatory Process

The fourth panel, “How the Public Can Influence the Mining Regulatory Process,” moderated by Rob Lundberg included three panelists:

  • Prof. Al Gedicks, an environmental sociologist and Indigenous rights activist and scholar.
  • Tom Jerow, a member of the Board of Directors for Wisconsin’s Green Fire since 2014 and the Water Resources/Environmental Rules Working Group, leading the metallic mining sub-group. 
  • Allison Werner is the Policy & Advocacy Director for the River Alliance of Wisconsin. She is from Racine, where she was the executive director of Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network

 Key takeaways:

  • In this final panel Tom Jerow got us started by discussing the logistics required by mining companies to navigate the regulatory phases of mine development, including the timeline of mining operations, and necessary permits. He gave us an overview of necessary mining permits. Importantly: these rules are currently being revised in accordance with Act 134, with a public hearing on October 22 and written comments accepted by the DNR until October 26. Read on for how to engage in the process. 
  • Both Tom and Al discussed the elimination of the Prove it First provision in Wisconsin, which previously required mining companies to show an example of a mine active for at least 10 years that didn’t pollute the air or water. This provision was initially introduced during the time of the Exxon Crandon Mine fight, and resulted in Exxon pulling out of the project.
  • Al gave historical context for using regulatory framework in fighting mining projects in Wisconsin. He discussed tools both the community and the mine would employ, and told the story of Mole Lake Sokaogon Ojibwe fighting off the Crandon mine. He told us that at the end of the Crandon mine fight from 1976-2003 was the affirmation of Mole Lake Ojibwe’s water quality standards and tribal authority over the reservation and its resources.
  • Allison left us with a few key steps for how to get involved in the regulatory process:

    1. DNR staff are open to questions and available to help you understand these complicated processes—reach out to them to learn more on the 
    DNR metallic mining page.
    2. There are four administrative mining rules that are currently being updated. They have until February 2021 to finish this process. If folks would like to engage,River Alliance and other organizations will provide advice on how to engage in this legal rule-making process. 
    3. Provide written comments by October 26 that (1) stay focused on the subject matter; (2) have specific and clear comments with your reasons for your concerns for the harm to our land and waters; (3) talk from your personal experience—where do you live, is there a mine project you are concerned about, how would your community be impacted by a specific mine project?
    4. Reach out to your elected officials—they need to know you care about how metallic sulfide mining would impact your community and our lands and water. 
    5. Connect with the organizations working on these issues. Find a list of them here.  

Miigwech/thank you to everyone who participated and Happy Fall!


Visit the Wolf River Action Committee website:

For mining-related questions, please contact Allison Werner at [email protected].