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Citizen Voices Matter: In the Penokee Hills

About Tom Podlesny

Tom is a member of the Bad River Watershed Association. He lives in Iron County with his wife Bobbi. They own cabins, land and a small lake with other families near the Penokee Hills.

Why Tom is involved with protecting the Penokee Hills

Before retiring, Tom worked for over 30 years as an independent insurance claims adjuster. Though he grew up in Ashland, WI, his office was located in downtown Ironwood, MI, which shares a state border with Hurley, WI in Iron County. It was Tom’s job to understand the value of people’s property and he’s seen the ebb and flow of the local economy.

“The 2008 recession hit this area really hard,” said Tom. “A lot of skilled people were out of work and some good companies went under. But before that, people were still making a living. It’s too simple to just blame the bad times on not having an iron mine.”

People in Wisconsin’s Northwoods tend to embrace a rugged, outdoorsy life and Tom is no exception. He describes with pride how water and land is shared. Some property owners enjoy deep tax breaks in exchange for making their land publically available to hunters, hikers and nature lovers. Wisconsin’s state constitution protects access to navigable waters as a collective right.

“We’ve seen kids leave this area for the bright lights of bigger cities, but we stay because the lakes are ours and the hunting land is for all of us. We didn’t stay for the money. We stayed for the life.”

As a member of the Bad River Watershed Association, Tom understands how all of the waters in the area near a proposed open-pit iron mine are connected. Caroline Lake is the headwaters of the Bad River which flows into Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world.

“All of these highland, spring-fed lakes are suspended in the watershed,” says Tom. “They are fragile and can’t stand one to two feet of lost depth without turning into potholes. If they dig an open-pit mine or drill high-capacity wells to use a lot of groundwater, it will impact the aquifer and it will be like pulling the plug in a bathtub.”

When asked if lawsuits would help defend the watershed, Tom expresses deep concern. Intervention by the courts or the federal government would only help if it could prevent damage to the waters.

“We could sue and try to get compensation for lost property value, but that’s not the point. I wouldn’t want money,” said Tom. “I want the lake to be there until I die and I want to leave it for the next generation. If a mine goes in, we won’t be able to get back what we had.”