NOVEMBER 1, 2003
Long fight buried, or is it?
Tribes' deal apparently dooms Crandon mine, but
hard feelings linger in the North Woods
By GRAEME ZIELINSKI
Mole Lake - According to local histories, the Chippewa Indians
who settled here spent 30 years, in the late 1700s and early 1800s,
repelling Sioux attackers intent on appropriating rich beds of rice.
I don't know how we're going to come up with
that money. It's put us in a hell of a spot here. . . . I feel sorry
for the taxpayers. - E. Huettl, chairman of the Forest County Board,
on the loss of revenue from the planned mine.
They wanted to give up this? For what? - Robert Van Zile,
historian, on the land that would have gone to the Crandon mine.
Local activist Victor Bellomy opposed the land purchase but
denies there's any racism behind opposition to the tribes. "I don't
blame the Indians for taking a free lunch," he said. "Wouldn't you?"
with map: http://www.jsonline.com/news/state/oct03/180901.asp
Graphic/Bob Veierstahler email@example.com
The warriors who fell during that struggle are buried underfoot
near Rice Lake, where on a recent day Chippewa historian Robert Van
Zile stood amid a bog and scanned the horizon.
A planned mine would have imperiled the lake, he said.
Then, as if on cue, a bald eagle streaked across the sky, beating
its wings over the pristine glacial tarn framed by hardwoods, reeds
and the same bed of rice that was fought over centuries ago.
"They wanted to give up this? For what? Van Zile asked.
Jobs and a better economy would have been the answer, but that
dialectic is moot, at least for the moment, as the Sokaogon (Mole
Lake) Chippewa, joined by the Forest County Potawatomi tribe,
The tribes completed a $16.5 million deal last week that gives
them control over the 5,770 acres that were to become site of the
so-called Crandon mine operation. (The mine itself would have been
in the Town of Nashville.)
Joined by environmentalists and a few non-tribal residents, the
tribes had spent 28 years beating back the effort - initiated by the
mighty Exxon Corp. and supported by much of the non-tribal political
establishment of Forest County - to tap one of the richest mineral
veins in the United States.
Many locals were eager for the economic boost the mine would have
provided to the region, which is among the poorest in the state.
Environmentalists and the tribes predicted ecological catastrophe
and foresaw the death of features such as Rice Lake and distress for
the local watershed.
The seesaw struggle, which sometimes was cast in racial terms,
finally tipped in recent years in favor of the tribes, whose
political fortunes have changed because of the influx of gambling
money from their new casinos that has allowed them to stop the
Now, both sides are spelling themselves after a struggle that
exposed feelings as toxic as the sulfuric acid that would have been
the byproduct of the project.
The copper and zinc, meanwhile, will remain in the realm of the
Beneath the ground.
County to lose money
Erhard E. Huettl, chairman of the Forest County Board, has served
in that body since 1968, even before Exxon began its overtures. He
was a powerful supporter of the project over the years, and his tone
during an interview suggested some disbelief, shared by several
other residents interviewed, that the fight actually is over.
Huettl helped reach agreements that meant hundreds of thousands
of dollars for the cash-poor county from the Nicolet Minerals Co.,
the entity charged with developing the mine.
Now, Huettl says, the county faces the prospect not only of
losing that money, but also of losing hundreds of thousands of
dollars annually in property taxes. That's because the tribes are
likely to seek to have the land put in a non-taxable federal trust,
although they have not said definitively that they will do so.
"I don't know how we're going to come up with that money," Huettl
said. "It's put us in a hell of a spot here. . . . I feel sorry for
The problem is compounded, he said, by the fact that the county
already can tax only 18% of its land, owing to national forests,
Indian reservations and state-owned property.
Sitting in her offices, which adjoin the modest Mole Lake casino,
tribal chairwoman Sandra Rachal demurred when asked what the tribe
would do to help the county with the shortfall.
"I'm sure we can work something out," she said.
Van Zile, driving his truck on the mine site through the dirt
roads that cut through birch stands and ring crystal-clear lakes,
was less politic.
"They're the ones that got addicted to that money. . . . They got
totally buffaloed into this thing for the last 28 years," he said.
"Let them figure it out."
Another county supervisor who doesn't like the tribal acquisition
of the mine is Bill Schultz, who represents the Crandon area that
badly is wanting for good-paying jobs.
Schultz said he detected a lot of anger from residents who feel
that the Chippewa and Potawatomi have denied the region a shot at
prosperity, even as they enjoy their own.
"They're kind of using our money to come back and haunt us," he
said, referring to the casino take.
As he rode ATVs into his shop in Crandon, Doug Hayes, a former
snowmobile racing standout, said he held no ill will against the
tribes. In fact, he expressed hope they would relent and reanimate
the mining program.
"I think it'll happen someday," he said. "Someday we're going to
need zinc, and they're going to mine it."
But not anytime soon.
Reversal of fortune
Glenn Reynolds, the Madison-based tribal attorney for the
Sokaogon, finds himself in the unlikely position of being the new
project manager for his longtime nemesis, the Nicolet Minerals Co.,
which the tribes acquired as part of the deal.
On a recent day, he was at the tribal offices sending a letter to
the Army Corps of Engineers and the Wisconsin Department of Natural
Resources, formally withdrawing requests for mining permits.
If the tribes were to mine the area, which hasn't been ruled out
absolutely, it would represent an enormous reversal from the logic
put down in Reynolds' letter.
There were "no imaginable permit conditions that would protect
these resources over the long term," he wrote in the letter that he
was thumbing as an assistant made copies.
Later, he rode with a reporter to his new offices in Crandon,
where Nicolet Minerals had set up an information center to advocate
the mine, complete with two huge pieces of machinery in front.
Last week, the tribes hosted an emotional ceremony celebrating
the sale and plastered an enormous "SOLD" sign on front. Everyone in
town knew the shorthand.
Walking through what are now his offices, past a mannequin in a
mining outfit, all the eloquent Reynolds could muster about the
reversal of fortune was, "It's really weird."
Ready for the next battle
One of the most vocal opponents of the tribes, Victor Bellomy, a
retired DNR worker, saw in the sale of the land not the end of a
battle but the beginning of another one.
"They're going to try to have that land put in (federal) trust,"
he said. "It's going to be my job to fight this."
In his kitchen in the Town of Nashville, a stone's throw from
where the mine would have been dug, he bemoaned the special
privileges he says American Indians receive in this country and was
especially critical of the way Gov. Jim Doyle (he calls him "Navajo
Jim") obstructed and ultimately killed the mine. (The governor
praised the tribes' deal last week, saying it will prevent
"environmentally harmful" mining from taking place in the area.)
Bellomy denied that there was an undercurrent of racism in the
opposition to the tribes.
"None of us are angry at the Indians. It's federal Indian policy
that we fight," he said. "I don't blame the Indians for taking a
free lunch. Wouldn't you?"
Many in town seem to be hoping that the mine sale will at least
mean a break from such hot rhetoric.
Brian Wilson, on a lunch break from his job as a foreman at a
local trucking firm, joked at the unlikely end of the Crandon mine
"What're we going to have to talk about now?" he asked.
From the Nov. 2, 2003 editions of the