Native Americans Camp Out To Protest Wis. Mining Project

A dispute over a proposed iron ore mine in Wisconsin has spilled into the nearby woods. Native Americans have set up a camp to protect land near the mine site and say federal treaty rights allow the campers to stay.

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In the far north of Wisconsin, near Lake Superior, some Native Americans are protesting a proposed mining project. They claim it would threaten their lands and water. At one of the proposed sites, tribes have set up a camp to highlight their federal treaty rights, and that has sparked a legal fight, as Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Just off a gravel road on a woody hillside near Hurley, Wisconsin, Mel Gaspar is welcoming visitors.

MEL GASPAR: This here is the LCO harvest camp here. We're under our 1842 treaty rights to harvest and gather here.

QUIRMBACH: Gaspar is a member of the LCO or Lac Courte Oreilles band of Chippewa Indians. He's referring to an 1842 federal treaty in which his tribe gave up land here but retained rights to hunt, fish and gather in the area. The camp Gaspar helped set up four months ago on long-ago tribal land is a mix of traditional and modern. There are about 20 tents, along with handmade wooden canoes, buffalo hides, large plastic port-a-potties and a computer for webcasts. More than 1,000 people have visited, but typically about two dozen stay here. Gaspar holds up a huge mushroom to show what he values in this forest.

GASPAR: What this piece here is a fungus that grows on the side of a dead white birch. It's called chaga. Now, chaga has a lot of antioxidants in it, which is good for cancer patients.

QUIRMBACH: Gaspar says protesters are gathering and documenting edible and medicinal plants and trying to show why it would be best to leave this hillside alone, rather than rip it open for a four-mile long iron ore mine now in the early stages of a state permitting process. Most campers claim that Governor Scott Walker is pro-mining and pressuring state regulators to approve the mine here in iron county, one of Wisconsin's poorest. It's the county that owns this land where the camp is sitting.

Some local officials argue the protesters are violating a two-week camping limit on county property. Most residents welcome the mine and think it's time to revive the area's long history of extracting minerals. Eight miles away, the small city of Montreal sits on top of what used to be a large underground shaft mine. The mine's huge machine shop remains, but the mining jobs left 50 years ago. Local construction company owner Wayne Nasi says a new billion-dollar mine and the hundreds of jobs it would create are desperately needed, because too many young people are leaving.

WAYNE NASI: We lose our best talent. We have a great school here. They're highly educated, and they go on and make their mark elsewhere in this country. We need something to keep our young people here.

QUIRMBACH: Nasi thinks the state would protect local rivers and groundwater near the mine. The tribes disagree. Talks between the county and tribes over the status of the camp have gone behind closed doors, and the mining company GTAC is trying to stay out of the harvest camp spotlight, after making headlines for hiring armed security guards on private property at the mine site. Some here, though, are pushing hard for a deal for the harvest camp to stay as long as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW)

QUIRMBACH: Back at the camp, Wayne Swett prepares to cut firewood that will be needed as summer ends and temperatures plummet. He's also helping build a winter wigwam and says he and others don't plan to leave anytime soon, though he knows what nights in the Northwoods can be like.

WAYNE SWETT: The first night, we froze butt. It was cold, but you get used to it after a while.

QUIRMBACH: National Native American groups are starting to help out. The environmental group Honor the Earth is holding fundraisers this weekend, in part to help tribal members at the harvest protest camp in northern Wisconsin keep those fires burning. For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

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