Luke Hilgemann Column: Key to Recovery Lies Beneath our Feet, Not in the Government Trough
Key to Recovery Lies Beneath our Feet, Not in the Government Trough
We are often promised that government action will create jobs and spur economic development. Too often this comes with a price tag of preferential tax treatment for a business or industry or we have to invest our tax dollars to secure the investment. Today, Wisconsin has the opportunity to welcome thousands of good paying jobs and billions in private investment and all we have to do is set timelines and create a predictable permitting process for iron mining.
Northern Wisconsin is home to one of the largest iron ore deposits in North America. Like our neighbors Minnesota and Michigan, Wisconsin used to be home to the iron mining industry. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise given the fact that we have Iron County. But the mines were closed up decades ago and any attempts to start up the industry again have been faced with a bureaucratic nightmare of state laws that are more of a roadblock than a road map.
But the land under the feet of thousands of unemployed workers in Northern Wisconsin is so valuable that mining interests have once again been sparked. What was the one obstacle to over a billion dollars in private investment and thousands of good jobs for generations of Wisconsinites? Our archaic permitting process that hasn’t been updated for decades.
We all saw the mining debate rage last session as legislators battled to pass changes that would encourage new jobs and new investments in the state. The bill fell one vote short of passing and families in the Northwoods struggling to find work had to wait another year. In the meantime, the unemployment rate for Iron County has reached 11.9%, second highest in the state. How much longer do these families have to wait before they can enjoy the opportunities that past generations did?
And the jobs won’t be limited to just Iron and Ashland County. Milwaukee is home to two of the biggest mining equipment manufacturers, Joy Global and Caterpillar. Lumber will come from yards in Green Bay as homes are built. Companies like L&S Electric in Wausau supply many of the specialized mining tools that will be utilized. And thousands of small businesses that depend on stainless steel in their manufacturing process will also benefit from resources pulled out of Wisconsin ground. Simply stated, the impact will be felt by workers and small businesses statewide.
Opponents of the law worry about the environmental impact of a new mine. Wisconsin is home to great natural resources and the Northwoods are pristine. Why would we do anything to ruing these great wonders?
But remember these areas retain their beauty despite a hundred years of unregulated mining in the area. Tailings piles sit right next to crystal clear streams, water running out of old mine shafts is clean and clear. A former open pit mine in Black River Falls was reclaimed as a lake and is an example for how our environmental standards can protect the land and economic development.
Most notably, the bill before the legislature does not change the strict environmental standards we have in Wisconsin. Nearly 3 years of baseline testing and evaluation will be required before any company can even apply for a permit. State and federal standards and regulations remain unchanged meaning the DNR, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency would have to sign off on proposed mine before any shovel touches the dirt.
Northern families who’ve seen their children move away in search of work, leaving empty homes, schools, restaurants, and shops simply can’t wait any longer.
If the delays continue, we may very well lose out on this development opportunity. In fact, in response to our efforts here to secure these jobs and investment Michigan quickly restructured their mining tax to encourage the very same companies who are looking at Wisconsin to move there instead. We have an opportunity to bring prosperity back to Northern Wisconsin but it isn’t guaranteed. The quicker we act, the more likely we are to win these jobs and the sooner people will be put back to work, restoring hope for a region of the state that has had very little in the last few years.
A lot of lip service is made by politicians about creating jobs and delivering prosperity. Now we have a real possibility to do both, without burdening taxpayers. But the window is closing quickly. We are fortunate that we still have this opportunity after it slipped through our fingers last year. Wisconsinites can’t make the same mistake twice. Now is the time for action and now is the time to pass mining reform.