On Gibbsville and Gogebic

Published the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Friday, January 20, 2011. A link is provided below.

Two weeks ago I drove through Gibbsville, a village in Sheboygan County north of my hometown of Cedar Grove. Most of the small dairy farms that once thrived in the region had vanished but Gibbsville remained to match my memories of it. The oil well was one of those memories.

In 1949 the Wisconsin Oil Refining Company drilled a test well there that reached Pre-Cambrian granite at 1,795 feet and continued for another 2,610 feet without success. While it was in operation, the test was an endless source of speculation about Sheboygan County becoming Texas. Luckily, that didn’t happen.

The Gibbsville well comes to mind while the current debate over a permit to allow Gogebic Taconite LLC to begin an open pit mine near Hurley continues in Madison. The company’s website promises jobs and respect for the environment. Local officials point to a desperate need for the 700 jobs the mine will create. Governor Scott Walker and the Republican controlled legislature see the mine as part of their Wisconsin Open for Business initiative.

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, oppose the mine, citing concerns for groundwater quality, the area’s aquifers and the unique topography of northwest Wisconsin. They are joined by the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior and Bad River Band of Lake Superior, Native Americans who fear their way of life will be destroyed.

Gogebic Taconite LLC is owned by the Cline Group, a multi-national corporation based in Canada. You can meet Gogebic Taconite’s president, Bill Williams, on their website where he appears in a blue-collar shirt looking friendly next to a statement about the company’s plans for “this important ore deposit.”

Who can you trust concerning Gogebic Taconite? When in doubt, trust the Earth.

In 1949, when environmental concerns were only dreams borne by the spirits of Wisconsin’s John Muir and Aldo Leopold, if Wisconsin Oil Refining Company had found oil at Gibbsville, today that part of Sheboygan County would either be a Superfund Site or dotted with working wells and nearby refineries. The trade would have been made. The Earth would have suffered and the part of Wisconsin that shaped my earliest memories and those of the people I grew up with would have been diminished forever.

That trade has yet to be made in the Penokee Range near Hurley where, for starters, Gogebic Taconite plans a 4.5 mile by 1.5 mile pit. While I admire Aldo Leopold immensely I differ with him when he says there are those of us who cannot live without wild things and those of us who can. We cannot live without wild things. The more we trade them away the more we are diminished.

The debate over mining in the Penokee Range near Hurley echoes one between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot over the fate of our national forests a century earlier. Muir asked that they be revered. Gifford wanted to commercialize them. With rare, notable exceptions Gifford prevailed and an irreplaceable landscape was lost.

At a hearing in West Allis concerning Gogebic Taconite, Marvin DeFoe, vice chairman of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior said, “My people would rather have clean water than a job.” While I agree with the spirit of his statement, I don’t think  the tradeoff has to be that stark.

Clean water can be preserved. Jobs can be found. But don’t expect both from the Gogebic mine.


Posted on www.jsonline.com on Thursday, January 19, 2011 and published in the print edition of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Friday, January 20, 2011.


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