UPDATE: The Senate Mining Committee advanced the proposal Thursday, sending it to the full state Senate.
Nearly 3,500 acres of forestland in northern Wisconsin could soon be off-limits to the public. It's the land surrounding the proposed iron mine Gogebic Taconite wants to dig.
A state Senate committee listened to public testimony on the bill Wednesday, to keep protesters away from workers.
The first thing senators heard and saw at the meeting was amateur video. Someone shot it at the proposed mining site in June. It captured an altercation: protesters confronting workers and stealing a cell phone.
“We’re not dealing with rational actors,” says Quinn Williams of the DNR, who says the video captured only part of what mine opponents did. Quinn says they also tried to keep Gogebic and emergency responders off the property.
“There were a number of logs, other impediments across the road,” Williams says.
The company is asking for state help. Bob Seitz is spokesman for Gogebic Taconite.
“What we want is simple separation -- our people to be able to do their work safely, separated from other folks who might have bad intent,” Seitz says.
Senator Tom Tiffany has responded. He calls the protesters eco-terrorists -- people who resort to extreme measures, in the name of protecting the environment.
“They said ‘we will be back, and we will be back with more people.’ I can tell you, as a legislator, I take that very seriously,” Tiffany says.
Right now, the proposed mine site must remain open for recreation because it’s part of Wisconsin’s Managed Forest program. The owner pays less in taxes, in exchange for letting people use the land. Tiffany’s proposal would circumvent the rule by creating a 3,500 acre buffer.
At Wednesday’s hearing, some citizens downplayed the dangers protesters pose. Katherine Bauer says she’s seen more violence in bar fights.
“While I am not going to say that eco-terrorism does not exist, I think that -- in this context -- the word eco-terrorist is being taken to the extreme,” Bauer says.
George Meyer says he understands the need to protect workers, but hunters use the land.
Meyer is executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. He asked what happens if someone unintentionally trespasses.
“Having been on the site several times, I can attest it’s all a heavy forest, and you cannot tell when you cross the property line,” Meyer says.
Meyer urged the company to, at least, post signs if the bill passes. He also called for more time for public input.
State Rep. Janet Bewley insists her constituents have not been given enough time to weigh in on the proposal. The mine would fall in her district.
“This hearing was noticed late on Friday, before Labor Day weekend. Tuesday (was) the first day of school. The five hour or more trip from the area of the mine requires a little more advanced notice than that,” Bewley says.
While the bill now heads to the full Senate, the company continues testing rock samples.