MADISON, Wis. - A bill that would dramatically restrict public access to a proposed mine site in northern Wisconsin doesn't have the votes to pass the Senate, the measure's author acknowledged this week.
Gogebic Taconite wants to dig a 4 1/2-mile-long open pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. The company insists the mine will create thousands of jobs; opponents counter the mine will pollute the area's pristine water and wilderness.
Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, maintains his bill would help protect mine workers from potentially violent protesters. The proposal appeared to be on the fast track to passage less than two weeks ago after the Senate mining committee, which Tiffany leads, held a public hearing and approved the bill in two days.
The Senate was scheduled to meet this week, but the proposal wasn't on the floor agenda Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, released. A Fitzgerald spokesman didn't return messages.
Tiffany said members of the GOP Senate caucus are concerned the bill is too restrictive and he doesn't have enough votes to move the bill to the Assembly. He declined to say who opposed the measure.
Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, said he was one of the senators who opposed the measure. He said it's moving too fast and closes off too much land.
"The bill goes too far and I think we need to limit its scope. ... a number of us haven't even had a chance to study it," he said.
Tiffany said he's trying to broker a compromise, such as keeping the land open for the November deer hunt.
Tensions at the mine site have been high since June, when a band of protesters emerged from the woods and started cursing at workers performing exploratory ore sampling. One protester was charged with stealing a geologist's camera. The group has vowed to return to the site. Gogebic Taconite has responded by hiring paramilitary guards.
About 3,500 acres around the site are part of the state's managed forest program, which grants landowners reduced fees in lieu of property taxes if they keep the land open for recreation. Tiffany's bill would automatically close that land to the public until the state Department of Natural Resources decides whether to grant a final mining permit and mining activity begins. The company would have to pay the state for closing the land but could reach agreements with the DNR to open up sections ahead of a final permit decision.
Democrats have complained the bill is an overreaction and gives Gogebic Taconite too much authority over the land. They say the measure would prevent law-abiding hunters, hikers and anglers from enjoying land and water they've used for years.