Sgt. Bales and the Greatest Generation

Published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Friday, March 30, 2012. A link to the essay on the page appears below.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will live in our memories as the soldier accused of leaving his base in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province in Afghanistan before dawn on March 11 and killing 17 Afghan civilians. The act is being called unthinkable, but we don’t know what the suspect was thinking at the time.

Five years earlier, this was what Bales was thinking, as he recalled a 2007 battle against Shiite militia in Najaf, Iraq, during his second tour there: “The cool part about this was, World War II-style, you dug in. You’re taking a shovel and digging as fast as you can. I’ve never been more proud to be part of this unit than that day.”

The remarks are telling because with them Bales identifies himself with the Greatest Generation more than he does with his unit. I know the feeling, and so do a lot of you who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan or any of those skirmishes like Kosovo that are thoughtlessly brushed aside. No matter where you went to serve your country, you were held to a standard established between Dec. 7, 1941, and August 1945, the dates that bracket WWII.

The Greatest Generation began its life as the title of Tom Brokaw’s 1998 bestseller about the men and women who endured the Great Depression, fought in WWII and came home to a grateful and admiring America. Now it’s embedded in our language, a term as common as it is inaccurate. Apply “greatest” to the generation that returned triumphant from WWII and every generation after it lives in its shadow.

I remember walking in the 1950s to the Ritz theater on Villard Ave. in Milwaukee to see John Wayne in “Flying Leathernecks.” After that, I wanted only to fly for the Navy. By 1966, I was flying in Vietnam. Careful what you wish for. In the ’70s, I was interviewed about Vietnam and was asked, “Is there anything you want?”

I replied, “I want to kiss a nurse in Times Square.” The reporter was too young to know that I was talking about the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945 – V-J Day. That reporter may not have known, but some of you will and perhaps, then, will see my point.

Brokaw was wrong. Our greatest generation might turn out to have been the one that gave its young men and women to fights in Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War or the troubles in between them all. It might be the one that is giving its best now to our questionable interests in Iraq and Afghanistan. It might be one we’ll never know.

We cannot continue to hold our brave people to a standard that cannot be achieved. There is a different standard now, one that we have refused to accept because we have been looking back at one that died in 1945. Winning will no longer mean what it meant then. The nurse has left Times Square.

Think of the people we have sent to war since 1945 and the ones who didn’t come back right and the ones who didn’t come back at all. Thank them. Call them the greatest. Call them that until someone else steps up, fills their boots and makes us as proud as they have.

Think, too, of Sgt. Bales and how he may have landed lucky side up in another place and time.


Link to the “Sgt. Bales and the Greatest Generation” in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

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My Father, the Snob

Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Saturday, March 3, 2012, under the headline “Santorum thinks my dad is a snob.”  A link to the essay is provided below.

In the spring of 1957, near the end of my junior year at Messmer High in Milwaukee,  my father took me for an evening drive along the city’s Lake Drive. The purpose of the drive was motivation. My grades were neither good nor bad, whereas my sister, a Messmer Senior, had excellent grades. The difference doubtless weighed heavily on my father as he drove north so the big houses built on the bluff above the lake we’re visible on my right. As they rolled by my father said, “If you study hard you can have all this.” Looking back I invariably notice two things about that statement. First, the statement is a false. You can study hard and still end up in a shack outside Fallon, Nevada. But, second, the statement gave me options. I could choose the things exemplified by those houses or not.

There was no choice embedded in another thing my father said that evening. He said, “You’re going to college.”

According to Rick Santorum, that makes my father a snob, a notion so far from the truth that it’s laughable. My father was an immigrant and, except for a 16-year foray into small business ownership, worked at blue collar jobs until he died of a heart attack a little more than two years after our drive that evening.

I chose Marquette University because I could live at home and ride the #30 bus to and from campus. An event called the Freshman Mixer launched my first year. A band played music to which I didn’t dance while I wandered around. I stopped to talk to another freshman who didn’t look like someone from Milwaukee. During our conversation I remember him saying, “How can I tell my grandfather who looks through the barbed wire at the land he once farmed that he can never go back?” I also remember him saying the words Palestine and Israel and then I moved on. Back then, I would probably have had a hard time telling you where exactly those places were. But I know now that my education at Marquette began with that statement.

The object of going to college, the point President Obama was doubtless making when he expressed a desire that all students should have access to a college education, has less to do with attending classes than it does with beginning an exploration of the infinite possibilities life offers, some planned for and some, the best of the lot, that arrive by surprise while you’re just wandering around while listening to the band.

At Marquette the Jesuits gave me a strong sense of social justice, a trait that seems almost quixotic today, but one for which I have been grateful ever since. Also at Marquette, ROTC gave me opportunities that led to my flying for the Navy. In Vietnam, the two combined in troublesome ways I now find more interesting than they were then worrisome.

Had my father lived long enough for me to take him for an evening drive along the lake in Milwaukee I wouldn’t mention the houses I still find ridiculous. But I would thank him for insisting on college and add, “This Republican candidate, Rick Santorum, thinks you’re a snob because of that.” I’d have a hard time explaining that to him. He’d come a long way from his native Germany and successfully earned the right to stand confidently on every rung he’d climbed to. But he was not a snob.

He simply wished more for me. My college education became his wish fulfilled. I realize now that when it came to the subject of college my father had a broader view than Rick Santorum because he wasn’t pro-choice.

Link to essay in the Wisconsin State Journal:

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The River, Here and There

Published in an edited version in the La Crosse Tribune on Friday, February 24, 2012 under the headline “Like life, river tough to control. The entire essay appears here. A link to the La Crosse Tribune’s edited version is provided below.

Delta State University is located in Cleveland, Mississippi, 825 miles downriver from La Crosse. I was invited to speak there a while back and during an evening reception at my hosts’ home I was shown a mark on a hallway wall that showed where flood waters would reach if the levee system along the river gave way. The mark was about three feet up the wall and I was told that many homes in the area had similar marks, there as cautionary reminders of what might happen if local vigilance and the work of the Army Corps of Engineers someday failed.

Although Cleveland is about 20 miles east of the Mississippi those flood marks say it is really on the river. So are we all.

It is roughly 1,500 miles from the Mississippi’s source at Lake Itasca, in Minnesota, to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana’s bayou country. The river drops 1,425 feet over that distance; roughly a foot per mile. Today, a drop of water beginning its journey at Lake Itasca will take 90 days to reach the Gulf. Using knowledge I gained as a boy while dropping sticks into rivers of snow melt flowing along curbs, I’d say that by the time that drop of water waves bye-bye to Riverside Park in La Crosse it still has 70 days of travel ahead of it.

If the levees and dams upstream from La Crosse weren’t there the drop of water might be tempted to stay a while. It, and the silt it carries, might stay to enrich the wetlands along the river and its tributaries and perpetuate a cycle of life that was doing pretty well before we came along to intervene.

On the other hand, if those levees and dams weren’t there barge navigation as far north as Minneapolis would not be possible and many homes and businesses along the river would not exist; none of that and more would, at least as we know it today.

During an afternoon during my visit to Cleveland, I was taken on a tour of the levees. You can read about their history or you can listen to it in Lyle Lovett’s rendition of “I Will Rise Up.” It seems that back in the bad old Delta days when the river threatened to breach the levees, persons unknown were sent across the river from the Mississippi side to blow the levees on the Arkansas side. Thus, the water that threatened both sides became a problem for only one of the sides.

That’s a dramatic example from a mostly unattractive history of our attempts to control the Mississippi. It only differs by degrees from the seemingly benign attempts upstream here in Wisconsin. Nevertheless, what we do to water here we do to water everywhere. New Orleans wouldn’t have to cower behind its levees and worry as much about the next Katrina if the levees and locks and dams above and below La Crosse were absent so the river could spread onto its natural floodplains during spring runoffs and exceptional summer rains. Perhaps Arcadia wouldn’t be as concerned about the Trempealeau River if the wetlands that disappeared to make way for Ashley Furniture’s expansion were still in their original location.

But you’ve heard all this so many times before that by now it’s just part of the background noise of Coulee Region life.  Besides, the news is telling us that this spring flooding is forecast to be minimal. We could use this probable reprieve from the Earth to think about what might yet happen if we don’t consider the results of the choices we make when we choose to intervene against the natural order of water. Or we could borrow a page from this season’s impractical guide to ice fishing and venture farther out onto this thin ice while hoping for what we shortsightedly define as the best.

Link to the edited version in the La Crosse Tribune:

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Gogebic Taconite and Our Wetlands

Published in the Green Bay Press Gazette under the headline “Gogebic’s iron mine should be examined from all angles.” A link to the commentary is provided below.

Count on the debate over the permitting process that would allow Gogebic Taconite LLC (GTAC) to move forward with a mine in the Penokee Hills west of Hurley being resolved in favor of the mine. The current political power structure within the Wisconsin legislature makes that a certainty. Only the pending recall proceedings targeting Governor Scott Walker and a group of state legislators could change that outcome. Which is why the mining bill being debated in Madison has “rush” stamped on it.

GTAC will not move forward with its plan unless concessions are made to shorten the timeline of the permitting process and the need to protect wetlands that will be impacted by the mine’s progress. Absent the concessions, GTAC will take its interests, and the 700 jobs it promises, elsewhere. In exchange for the concessions, GTAC promises to avoid impact on streams and wetlands where possible and to minimize and/or mitigate harm if those impacts cannot be avoided. It also promises no net loss of streams and wetlands. Further it says it will comply with the National Clean Water Act and all effluent limitation regulations.

Forget the low-rent extortion tactic of that 700-job carrot. That is yesterday’s news when it comes to corporate games. Ashley Furniture played that card on a larger, 2,000-job scale in Arcadia when in it sought permission of expand onto a wetland bordering the Trempealeau River. The jobs ploys are there to distract us from the real prize, concessions at the expense of wetlands.

The Ashley-Arcadia debate was resolved in 2005 when Ashley created a 34.5 acre artificial wetland after receiving permission to expand onto an existing 13.5 acre natural wetland. In 2010 floods put much of Arcadia and Ashley’s plant under water and renewed the wetland mitigation debate. How soon we forget.

GTAC’s mine in Ashland and Iron counties will affect a complex ecosystem of aquifers, wetlands, lakes, streams and rivers that combine to form a watershed that sustains the land and life around it while flowing north to empty into Lake Superior. The impact is within reach of Copper Falls State Park, and other popular tourist destinations. The mine is also within our memories’ reach of Kennecott Copper’s Flambeau Mine, 110 miles southwest, near Ladysmith, where reclamation efforts covered the open pit but left behind significant toxic metal contamination of the adjacent Flambeau River.

By contrast, the first phase of GTAC’s open pit mining operation will focus on a 4.5- by 1.5-mile site covering 4,320 acres, almost 24 times the size of the Flambeau mine, before a potential expansion onto GTAC’s full, 22-mile lease.

Water has a habit of joining other water. The relatively pure water being played in the GTAC debate will unavoidably unite with water touched by the extensive mining operation. That will happen, save some sudden turn of events in Madison. Instead of a short-sighted rush to grant GTAC a permit we should instead make every studied effort to insure the outcome is one that favors our long-term survival.

Link to the commentary in the Green Bay Press Gazette:

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Gogebic Taconite: Their Mine, Our Water

Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Sunday, February 18, 2012. A link to the essay appears below.

Water. You can’t live with it. You can’t live without it. If water is part of a river, stream or wetland that obstructs the expansion of an enterprise, then water is something the enterprise can’t live with. If the water lies within a broader view that encompasses the sustainability of life on Earth, then it’s water we can’t live without. The water remains the same. Only the views of it are diametrically opposed.

The enterprise side will invariably cite the positive economic benefits that will accrue from what it views as an insignificant, negative impact on water quality and, thus, the environment. Call the set of arguments in support of enterprise the economic impact view.

The sustainability view invariably cites the significant, negative impact on water quality that results from an enterprise interfering with the natural order. Call that set of arguments the environmental impact view.

The water that will be impacted by the approval of a permit application by Gogebic Taconite LLC (GTAC) to extract taconite from a 22-mile long stretch of the Penokee Hills lying east and west of Mellen, Wisconsin in Ashland and Iron counties is a matrix of aquifers, wetlands, lakes, streams and rivers that combine to form a watershed that sustains the land and life around it while flowing north to empty into Lake Superior.

GTAC will concentrate taconite from the iron deposits within the land it leases using a process uses water taken from aquifers below the mine site to suspend ore in a solution from which iron its parent rock by magnets. The process repeats until the maximum of iron can be isolated and then concentrated into taconite pellets. The remaining material, called gangue, is destined for settling ponds and tailing piles.

Among the many commitments that GTAC makes through statements on its website is a promise to avoid impact on streams and wetlands where possible and to minimize and/or mitigate harm if those impacts cannot be avoided. It also promises no net loss of streams and wetlands. Further it says it will comply with the National Clean Water Act and all effluent limitation regulations.

If we take GTAC Taconite at its word then it’s fair to ask why the Wisconsin State Legislature is bothering to stage a GOP-sided debate over a bill to streamline the mine permitting process. Why don’t we simply allow Gogebic Taconite to be the good neighbor it wants us to believe it is?

The answer to that, of course, is that GTAC isn’t really the good neighbor it claims to be. If we forgive the economic extortion tactic GTAC is using when it says it will pull out of the state and take its 700-job promise with it if the permitting process isn’t streamlined, then we would at the same time be foolish to overlook the meaning behind the wording of its promises concerning water quality and how they handshake cordially with language in the mine-permitting bill being advanced in Madison.

The latest version of the permit-streamlining bill contains provisions that dovetail nicely with the language of GTAC’s promises. For example, the bill requires the mining company to search for nearby sites on which to build artificial, or mitigated, wetlands to replace those destroyed. But the DNR can still give the mining company approval to build those artificial wetlands elsewhere in the state. The bill gives streamlining an ironic new meaning by granting the DNR power to allow mining waste to be dumped in a floodplain.

GTAC is attempting, with the aid of a compliant, GOP-controlled state legislature, to alter the saying: It is always easier to later ask forgiveness than it is to first ask permission. In essence, GTAC wants the state to make it easier for it to ask permission to swap its impact on wetlands with questionable attempts at artificial mitigation so that it will later find it easier to ask forgiveness when those attempts end in failure. The problem is that the likelihood of GTAC asking forgiveness is slim to none and it will be gone before we find ourselves forced to live with the negative effects of its deception.

Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal:

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The Boy, the Mine and the Earth

Published in the Duluth News Tribune on Sunday, February 12, 2012 with the headline “Flambeau mine gives us a reason to protect the Earth.” A link to the essay appears below.


I think of the boy frequently as I follow the debate surrounding the taconite mine being proposed by Gogebic Taconite LLC for the Penokee Range near Hurley, Wisconsin. The boy was nine or 10. He was born on the Red Cliff Reservation in Bayfield County, Wisconsin. When I met him in the late 1970s he was living downstate, with foster parents, in Portage County. During the three or four years the boy rode the school bus I drove, he never spoke.

On Thursday, January 26, 2012, the Wisconsin State Assembly approved a bill that fast-tracked the permitting process for iron mines. If approved by the state senate and signed by Republican Governor Scott Walker, environmental protections for lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands will be weakened. If remaining state and federal requirements are then met, Gogebic Taconite will receive its permit and offer 700 jobs over the 30 years its open pit will be in operation.

The debate over the mine in the Penokee Range is an example of now-familiar political polarization. Gogebic Taconite, local officials and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin state legislature want to circumvent certain federal and state environmental regulations to start the mine.

Opposing them are concerned local citizens, environmental activists including the Sierra Club and the Red Cliff Band and Bad River Band of Lake Superior who fear that a way of life unique to the region will be destroyed.

The other concerned party is the Earth. Like the boy, the Earth cannot speak. We must speak for it.

The jobs card has been played so often out of the same hands that it’s surprising that anyone still falls for the game. Gogebic Taconite LLC is owned by the Cline Group, a multi-national corporation based in Canada. Gogebic’s president, Bill Williams, appears on its website in a blue-collar shirt next to a statement about the company’s plans for “this important ore deposit” and its commitment to protect the environment and public health and safety.

Gogebic’s proposed mine site is 110 miles northeast of Ladysmith, Wisconsin, where from 1993 to 1997 Kennecott Minerals took 181,000 tons of copper, 103 tons of silver and over 10 tons of gold from its open pit Flambeau Mine. By 2007 reclamation efforts had covered 149 of the 181 acres of the site. By contrast, the first phase of Gogebic’s mining operation will focus on 4.5- by 1.5-mile site covering 4,320 acres, almost 24 times the size of the Flambeau mine.

Despite Kennecott’s efforts significant pollution of the adjacent Flambeau River has been alleged, a danger predicted by environmental groups when Kennecott was granted variances in order to proceed. In January 2011, a Clean Water Act lawsuit claiming that toxic mineral discharges continue to enter the Flambeau River was brought by the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Kennecott and Gogebic are incapable of being objective about whether or not they have or will harm the environment. They will not experience a Pauline conversion and befriend the Earth. They will invariably support rules favoring destroy-as-you-go industries that operate within the comfort zone of a diminish-as-you-go society.

That might be fine if we all didn’t depend on the Earth we share with them for our lives.

The boy didn’t speak learned early not to cry in order to avoid the pain of abuse. When one day he became ill and didn’t cry the illness had its irreversible, devastating effect. I wonder where he is today and how different his quality of life might be if someone had intervened on his behalf.

I wonder too where the region around Hurley will be years after the taconite is gone and the open pit has been remade into something it never was. What will flow then with the rivers that run from there to Lake Superior?

Examples of environmental devastation like Kennecott’s Flambeau Mine should be calls to act before Gogebic Taconite is allowed to leave us with another reason to look back with regret at what might have been if we had intervened. Unlike the silent boy, we must speak out now because we can.

Link to the essay in the Duluth News Tribune:

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Cancer and the growth of Wisconsin’s economy

Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Saturday, February 4, 2012, under  the headline, “Don’t ignore the malignancies of economic growth.” A link to the essay is provided below.

Cancer and economies depend on growth. The dominant belief is that the growth of one is bad while the other is good. With respect to cancer, who could argue? On the other hand, some benefits of economic growth in Wisconsin are questionable.

Here are three quotes that speak to questions surrounding economic growth in the Badger State. The first is from Gary Kramer, CEO of Badger State Ethanol near Monroe, while pointing out that 200 trucks visit his facility every day of the week. “That generates jobs as well.” No doubt about it, 200 trucks visiting a plant that operates pretty much round the clock generates jobs. Multiply that consideration by the nine ethanol plants operating in the state and arrive at a lot more trucks sucking tank cars of fuel and spewing tons of emissions in support of the state’s ethanol industry.

The second quote comes from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent state of the State address. “There is another tremendous opportunity for job growth. We can pass legislation that will streamline the process for safe and environmentally sound mining.”

Walker is speaking to the debate surrounding the permitting process for a taconite mine near Hurley that will create 700 jobs while the mine is operating.

Jay Alston, CEO of Hi-Crush Proppants, the company operating a frac sand mine near Wyeville, offers the third quote. “It is a substantial impact. This should be good for Wisconsin’s economy.” Alston is speaking of the $100,000 annual contribution to the local economy made by his mine’s 43 workers. There are 60 frac sand mining operations dotting western Wisconsin and 20 more are proposed. The math, when all are operating, discloses 3,000 workers, plus or minus, adding $8 million to local economies, or a near-negligible less than a third of a percent of Wisconsin’s GDP.

Left to stand alone those quotes lead to the belief that Wisconsin’s ethanol and mining industries are positive contributors to state’s economy. There are, after all, the drivers of the trucks, the sand miners and the future taconite miners all employed or soon to be employed, contributing to themselves, their families and the local and state economies.

However, overarching concerns attached to these economic factors should be addressed. On the proliferation of frac sand mining operations in western Wisconsin Democratic State Senator Kathleen Vinehout of Alma said recently, “The state is woefully unprepared for this. We’re regulating sand mines like we regulate gravel pits. There’s a big difference between a one acre gravel pit and a 900-acre sand mine.”

That difference is more than 899 acres. The greater concern is over whether Wisconsin wants to be seen as a prime contributor to a form of energy extraction that has been exempted from compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act. Does the state want to abet yet another destroy-as-you-grow activity operating at the Earth’s expense? Should an at-any-cost addition to Wisconsin’s economy come at the expense of the quality of life not only for us but for the rest of the country?

Only a tree-hugger would ask questions like that. I’ll brush pieces of bark off my sweater while agreeing. Nevertheless, we should all be asking these questions.

The Gary Kramer’s of our world will never disclose the fuel consumption and pollution connected to all those trucks shuttling to the state’s ethanol plants. But we should ask.

Republican Governor Scott Walker may point out that the Republican controlled Wisconsin Legislature can pass laws providing for safe and environmentally sound mining. It’s up to us to say that, yes, that can happen but the likelihood of it actually happening is south of zero.

Hi-Crush Proppants will always point to its payroll positives. But it will never suggest that we Google “fracking clean water act” to decide for ourselves.

That too is up to us. That’s what we should be up to now, not only in Wisconsin but throughout the Upper Midwest, before we find that we have spread malignancy over the Earth under the guise of enriching ourselves.

Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal:


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On Croutons, Buicks and Taconite

Published in The La Crosse Tribune on Tuesday, January 24, 2012 with the headline, “Scars from mining will never go away.” A link to the essay is provided below.

Crouton and Shred Division. That’s the wording of a sign that once graced the Sara Lee facility at 4th and Cass streets in La Crosse. If a red light stopped me there I could look up and imagine the transition bread took from bagged on a grocery shelf to thrift store to being rent into croutons and crumbs before it returned, bagged again, to a grocery near me.

That sign had some honesty, one that now seems to have disappeared until it pops up in the oddest places. Like him or not, when former GOP hopeful Rick Perry said, “Oops,” after failing to remember The Department of Energy. I had to admire the guy for his instant-case honesty. And remember BP’s hapless Tony Hayward telling us he wanted his life back while BP’s uncapped well spewed death into the Gulf. That was oops but honest too.

My all-time favorite is this GM advertising slogan from the 1950s: When Better Cars Are Built, Buick Will Build Them. That slogan was so honest it turned out to be prophetic. It carried a meaning GM never intended. It implied that Buick wouldn’t build better cars until somebody else did. Enter the better-built Japanese imports and today, Ta Da!, Buick is building better cars in order to compete.

Buick builds them, in part, from steel derived from taconite. And with taconite, specifically the taconite that Gogebic Taconite LLC wants to take from the Penokee range near Hurley, what we need now is a little honesty.

The quick and dirty take on the debate now raging in Madison over Gogebic Taconite’s application to mine in northwest Wisconsin is this: Gogebic, local officials and the Republican-controlled state legislature all want to fast track a mining permit by circumventing certain pesky federal and state regulations.

They’re opposed by a group of concerned local citizens, environmentalists who include the Sierra Club in their numbers and the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior and Bad River Band of Lake Superior, Native Americans who fear, like the others, that a way of life unique to the region will be destroyed.

Polarization is what we’re talking about here. Nevertheless, the search for honesty leads first to Gogebic Taconite’s website where its president, Bill Williams, appears in a blue-collar shirt and looking friendly next to a statement about the company’s plans for “this important ore deposit.” In the public relations game the photo and statement are known as boiler plate, meaningless spin crafted by a public relations team that knows all the buttons, how to push them and what effect the pushing has. The search continues.

One Sierra Club news release I’ve seen says the proposed mine will be 4.5 by 1/3 miles and 900 feet deep. Another release has it at 22 miles long. The spin on web sources like those includes photos of lush trees and crystalline waters alongside dire warnings about negative environmental impacts.

When faced with issues like this I invariably turn to Aldo Leopold’s observation that there are those of us who can live without wild things and those of us who cannot. That is, perhaps, the only instance where I believe Leopold is wrong with respect to present day reality. None of us are better off without wild things, especially in the 21st century.

Faced with issues cloaking Gogebic Taconite LLC I turn also to our farm here in Crawford County where, for 11 years, no pesticides or herbicides save those approved for certified organic farming have been spread anywhere. The land is the same but the look and feel of it has changed dramatically. We now have nesting pairs of bald eagles where we observed none before. Frogs and toads may have vanished elsewhere but they’re here in profusion.

There is one spot, however, where previous owners cut a shale pit into a hillside. That scar remains. It is doggedly persistent. When I consider honesty and Gogebic Taconite’s proposal for mining in the Penokee Range I think first of the Earth and that shale pit and wonder whether 700 here today and gone tomorrow jobs are honestly worth the scars they will leave in their wake forever.

Link to the essay in The La Crosse Tribune:

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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 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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Of Trees, Mines and Our Wisconsin Earth

Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Thursday, January 19, 2012 with the headline: “Don’t roll dice on environment.” A link to the essay is provided below.

One of the most vivid memories I retain from flying out of the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island, Washington during the late 1960s is the view that unfolded during the round trips over the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The Olympic Mountains punctuated the scene to the south while Canada’s Vancouver Island stretched endlessly to the north. Under me, freighters and tankers carried their cargoes to and from the ports and refineries dotting the shores of Puget Sound.

Raw Douglas fir logs were then among the cargoes leaving the Pacific Northwest bound for the Far East. When the holds of the ships were full they were piled on deck. We find it difficult now to buy anything but spruce, pine or fir dimensional lumber, identified by the S/P/F stamp, because free enterprise shipped our Douglas fir away then.

A couple years ago while remodeling a home in Kentucky I noted with a mixture of amusement and dismay that I was cutting 2 X 4s from Germany. Crying over logs from the Pacific Northwest is as useless as wringing our hands over Wisconsin’s lost pineries. We have taconite to worry about now.

The political circus playing in Wisconsin over the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine near Hurley would be worth the price of admission if the acts were new instead of the same old exploitation in a clown suit of jobs and prosperity. When the permit for the mine is granted the jobs will disappear with the taconite and Wisconsin will be left with diminished land and water and the atmosphere of resentment and despair that comes with the return of chronic unemployment? That much is certain.

What’s also certain is that Wisconsin does not need taconite any more than it needed lumber milled from the state’s native white pine during the late 1800s. That lumber went to build Chicago and other cities outside Wisconsin just as the logs departing the Pacific Northwest during the 1960s went to fill the needs of the cities of the Far East. Similarly, Gogebic Taconite LLC, the company seeking a permit to open the mine near Hurley, needs the taconite so it can be shipped out of the state and onto its balance sheet.

Among the hard questions not being asked during the debate over the proposed mine is whether it’s wise or fair to support a continual cycle of employment and unemployment linked to an extractive industry that declined decades ago. Wouldn’t some honesty about the prospects for long term employment in regions like northern Wisconsin be fairer to the prospective miners and merchants alike?

Also among the hard questions we should be asking is why record amounts of scrap metal are being shipped to China from the U.S while mining companies like Gogebic Taconite LLC are seeking permits to mine ore of marginal quality. The quick and dirty answers to that are: It’s a free country built on free enterprise, the scrap metal and mining industries are as different as night and sunrise and the world has changed.

No doubt about the first two. That the world has changed is true only with respect to the ongoing shift of geopolitics and the global economy. With respect to the ability of our natural world to absorb the indignities we inflict upon it, the Earth has changed little.

Bill Williams, the president of Gogebic Taconite LLC can spin his best regards to the people of Wisconsin from the company’s website forever and the ability of our Earth to take hits and still keep on going on will keep ticking down to a sad resolution. Bill Williams will tell you that isn’t going to happen. He wants the taconite and the profits. I’ll respond by saying that granting a permit for the Gogebic Taconite mine will be an affront to what’s left of natural Wisconsin.

The final hard question all of us should ask is whether 700 jobs in a diminish-as-you-go industry are worth another risky roll of our environmental dice.

Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal:

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