Anti-Mining Struggles in the Penokee Hills and Lake Superior Region
By Sarah Tops
Open water stretches for miles to the north, and a soft, cool breeze whips your hair into your eyes. The hardwood forest opens behind you to a pale sand beach into which you sink your toes. Gulls laugh and a single piping plover searches for mollusks amongst the gentle lapping waves. The rough outline of a commercial tug can be made out through the sea haze. No, you’re not on the east or west coast. This is the northern coast, often overlooked by most Americans, but not Midwesterners. The inland seas, our Great Lakes, have been an inspiration and way of life for generations up here.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world, covering an area the size of South Carolina. Its sloughs and shorelines contain rich wild rice beds and its waters over 80 species of fish. The Lake Superior region, spanning Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, as well as Ontario to the north, has been home to the Ojibwe people for over two hundred years, and before then, the Dakota and Huron. However, like most of America’s beautiful, natural places, it, too, is under threat of destruction and poisoning by industrial civilization.
Since the late 1800s, the Lake Superior region has suffered from large-scale iron mining operations, supplying over three-fourths of the nation’s iron ore. The land was stripped of this resource half a century ago, but with current rising prices of iron and other minerals surrounding Lake Superior, mining companies are going back to dig out the dregs, a low-grade iron ore called taconite. Communities in the upper Midwest have been affected by air and water pollution as well as poverty associated with the boom-bust cycle of resource extraction. In the past several decades, however, Wisconsin has become a stronghold against large mining operations due to a mining moratorium law passed in 1998 after a prolonged struggle against sulfide mining that began in the 1970s. Now, Wisconsin’s strong environmental laws are being rewritten by a new administration working hand-in-hand with mining companies.