Vol. 84, No. 8, August 2011
Travelers entering Hurley from Ironwood, Mich., are greeted by “Wisconsin is open for business!” Gogebic Taconite has opened an office. From Hurley through Iron County to Mellen, Highway 77 runs 25 miles through the Penokee Range and the headwaters of the Bad River watershed. The highway flanks an iron deposit, containing an estimated 20 billion tons of high-quality taconite but shielded by the granite, hundreds of feet thick, that makes up the Penokee Range.
Mining is as old as the state itself. A miner appears on the state of Wisconsin’s seal. “Badgers” were actually early lead miners. Nearly a century since the heyday of mining in Iron County and 50 years since it petered out in the 1960s, an open-pit iron mine is being considered. The mine’s estimated size after removal of the granite overburden is four miles long, a mile-and-a-half wide, and 1,000 feet deep.
Mining will offer much-needed economic development to northern Wisconsin, providing 700 living-wage jobs for 30 years by some estimates. But mining is not without risks. Legislation to be introduced this fall will fast track the permitting process for an open-pit mine and, it is hoped, trigger an economic boom in the area. What remains to be seen is how Wisconsin lawyers will serve clients, communities, local governments, and tribes as the extraction industry returns to Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has witnessed an unprecedented interest in mining, fueled by the following market forces: high petroleum prices, which have increased demand for natural deposits of sand with qualities that are well-suited for the subsurface natural-gas-production process; and high commodity prices for metals, which have driven demand for metallic resources. Not surprising are the many nonmetallic mine proposals for these sand deposits in the north central part of the state. More recently, Gogebic Taconite renewed its interest in engaging in metallic mining in northern Wisconsin.
These mining proposals provide new opportunities for Wisconsin lawyers. Mine owners who need to obtain conditional-use permits from towns and counties will need help from knowledgeable municipal attorneys. Owners of land and mineral rights require experienced real estate attorneys to help them receive the maximum value for their interests. Adjoining landowners and other area residents who raise concerns about the potential adverse effects from these massive mining projects also require skilled representation.
Developers of mining projects require lawyers who are well-versed in the state, federal, and local zoning requirements associated with these significant projects. Business interests that seek to reduce legislative hurdles in the permitting process need lawyers skilled in government relations for crafting rules and legislative changes to accomplish these business goals.
Similarly, environmental groups that desire strengthened legislative and rule-making measures to protect the environment from the perceived adverse effects of mining need access to legal expertise to accomplish their goals. Federal and state regulatory agencies need lawyers who are competent in advocating the state’s interests in the complex permitting process. And the Bad River Ojibwa tribe, whose reservation dominates the watershed, needs lawyers with Indian and environmental law practices to assert an array of rights and protect its interests.
A priority of my term as president is to identify representation opportunities for members and prepare members to maximize these opportunities. Accordingly, State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE is sponsoring a mining law symposium in Wausau on Aug. 25. The symposium will focus on the following topics:
• the role of lawyers in the history of mining in Wisconsin,
• Wisconsin laws concerning metallic and nonmetallic mining,
• proposals to change nonmetallic mining to reduce the complexities of the permitting process,
• real property and municipal interests in such proposals,
• the unique tribal legal perspective in mining proposals, and
• a case study of the past Crandon mine controversy and lessons learned from that contentious mining dispute.
Changes in local economies across the state will require an array of legal services. Wisconsin lawyers need to be well prepared to serve clients, communities, and local governments. For more information about the Mining Law Symposium and to register, visit www.wisbar.org/pinnacle.