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Citizen Voices Matter: In the Penokee Hills

About Mike Wiggins Jr.  

Mike Wiggins Jr. serves as Chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Raised on the Bad River Reservation, Mike learned how hunting, fishing and harvesting were essential to the Tribe’s cultural and spiritual traditions and why the Tribe’s ceded territory rights were important to protect for this generation and the next.

Why Chairman Wiggins is involved with protecting the Penokee Hills

“The Penokee Hills are the worst place in the world for an open-pit mine.”

Chairman Wiggins has told countless people about why a proposed iron mine near the Bad River Reservation would be a disaster for his nation. He tells anyone who will listen about how a mine would devastate the watershed’s ecosystem.

“A 1,000-foot deep hole in the Penokee Hills would drop the water table and contaminate ground water with sulfuric acid and heavy metals,” says Wiggins. “The sulfate pollution from metallic mining would destroy wild rice crops that grow in wetlands, including in our Tribal territory. But beyond the borders of our land, iron mining and taconite production is the source of airborne mercury emissions that pollute the air and water. We already have too many mercury consumption warnings on fish. We cannot allow an open-pit mine to pollute our water and air.”

And though there are other examples in Michigan and Minnesota where iron mining has been the source of pollution, facts about the damage iron mining causes fell on deaf ears when Wisconsin state legislators ignored an outpouring of voter opposition and held limited hearings on a new law that exempted iron mining from many of the state’s long-standing environmental protections. Elected officials touted the bill as a job creation plan.

“The irony that we see is clear,” says Wiggins. “An open-pit iron mine will destroy the ecosystem that is the foundation of what can be the sustainable economy we in Ashland and Iron Counties of Wisconsin can build for a stronger future. But farming isn’t an option if irrigation water is polluted. Hunting, fishing and tourism isn’t an option if there is sulfuric acid in the trout streams. Even if a mining project created employment opportunities for some in the short term, what about the workers of the future – our children – when they can’t drink the water?”

Throughout the debate across the state on whether an open-pit mine in Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills is a viable option, Wiggins always returns to one, undeniable point: We are the water we drink.

“No matter who you are,” says Wiggins, “whether you are a member of a tribe up north or a city farther south, or a man or woman, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, we all have one thing in common; we are all made of water. Water announces our arrival at birth and water is in our bodies and our blood until we die. The water we drink is life itself. So when we say ‘no’ to the idea of exploding the Penokee Hills for a low-grade iron mine, it isn’t an extreme statement that we are fighting for our lives. We are asking, simply, that the headwaters of our watershed remain intact so that we and our children can live.”