Wisconsin and the Great Lakes region holds some of the most beautiful natural wonders in the United States, even if they’re not as well-known as famous spots like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Historically, advocates in the state have worked hard to protect its environment, but all of that is starting to change as Republicans have seized control of the state legislature and Governor Scott Walker sits prepared to approve legislation that may repeal key environmental regulations, like the moratorium on sulfide mining passed in 1997 by the then-Democratic legislature.
For those not in the know, sulfide mining is a messy, polluting process. It’s used when sulfur-rich ores are mined and processed to get at the goodies inside, like gold and silver. This involves the generation of a large amount of acid waste, a historic and huge problem for the mining industry because it’s difficult to manage and contain. Wisconsin’s legislators eliminated the problem by banning sulfide mining, but mining companies have started fighting back, laying the groundwork to access the riches they think lie beneath Wisconsin’s soil. They’re arguing that mining will bring needed revenue into the state, but environmental advocates aren’t sold on the idea, concerned about the high environmental cost associated with mining.
One group of advocates is particularly concerned: the Anishinaabe tribes living around the Great Lakes. They have a centuries-old tradition of stewarding natural resources, particularly the wild rice crop, which is sacred to them. After years of environmental destruction and exploitation, only one natural wild rice wetland, the Kakagon Slough, remains. The indigenous people of the area are concerned that mining runoff would be toxic to the rice, and it could cause other environmental problems as well, potentially devastating hunting, fishing and wild forage in the area.
Tribal leaders are fighting back, organizing to protect the environment. They’re starting with more conservative strategies to determine if it’s possible to stop mining before it starts through legislative and other conventional channels, but it doesn’t necessarily have to end there. Activists and organizers, particularly among the younger set, haven’t ruled out more direct action to defend their heritage, joining indigenous peoples around the world and across North America in the fight to protect the Earth.
In Michigan, the Keweenaw Bay Indians are opposing a planned mine in their area, concerned not just about the potential environmental impacts of mining but also about being cut off from sacred sites. In Arizona, a long legacy of mining on and near native land has created a troubled past, even as some groups, like the Navajo, take control of mining on their own land. Throughout the US, Native Americans are actively working to protect the environment by all possible means, including coordinating with government officials to find a way to use resources safely, respectfully and sustainably. Indigenous people have long been heavily involved in numerous environmental programs to protect natural resources while balancing the desire to use them, as seen with cases like salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
With a Republican-dominated legislature, it’s likely these changes to environmental legislation in Wisconsin will sail through, despite the clear and present danger they pose to the state’s environment and, by extension, the health of the state’s human population. Rapid action is needed to maintain the moratorium on sulfide mining and other environmental regulations, and to ensure that these resources are protected forever so they aren’t vulnerable to changing political winds and economic pressures.
Photo credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources