A Conservation Victory in Oneida County: Lynne Mine Referendum Defeated.

Guest feature by Northwood Alliance Board Member Rick Plonsky


On Nov. 6 2018, the citizens of Oneida County WI voted overwhelmingly against a referendum that read:

“After performing their due diligence, should Oneida County allow leasing of County owned lands in the Town of Lynne for the purpose of metallic mineral exploration, prospecting, bulk sampling and mining?”

The non-binding referendum was rejected by a vote of 62% NO to 38 % YES and, the lopsided tally sent a strong message to the Oneida County Board: The citizens of Oneida County do not want a sulfide mine that threatens the water and watershed of the Willow River in the county forest.

The voters chose wisely. Sulfide mines contain overburden and tailings - the waste rock composed of sulfur bearing minerals - that often produces sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water. This acid (referred to as Acid Mine Drainage or simply AMD,) leaches heavy metals out of the surrounding rock and delivers the acidified metal-rich mixture into ground and surface water, with devastating effects on the surrounding environment.

       The Willow Flowage Scenic Waters Area!  A Conservation Gem

   The Willow Flowage Scenic Waters Area is described by the WI DNR as:

 “Surrounded by swamps, bogs and other watery lowlands, and is isolated from roads and development. This remoteness, along with its natural shoreline, draws visitors from around the state and region. For a wilderness experience described as 'almost Canada.' "

 “An active forestry program is in place on the Willow Flowage to maintain prime wildlife habitat, emphasize forest diversity and to promote a natural and aesthetically pleasing appearance. Future thinning of selected trees and occasional prescribed burns will help restore the shoreline to historic forest conditions dominated by long-lived tree species such as red and white pine.” 

  Additionally, The Willow Flowage Scenic Waters Area, was designated by the Wisconsin DNR as an Outstanding Resource Water in 1997. “Of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes and impoundments, 103 are designated as ORW—fewer than 1%.”  The DNR further describes an ORW thusly:  “An Outstanding Resource Water is a lake, stream or flowage having excellent water quality, high recreational and aesthetic value and high quality fishing. ORW waters are free from point source or non-point source pollution.” ORWs warrant additional protection from the effects of pollution.”

 Given that description, it is difficult to understand why some political leaders are actively promoting the County Forest in Lynne as an appropriate site to locate a sulfide mine. Whatever short term economic benefits the County could receive in the form of lease payments and short term employment, is certainly not worth the long term risk to the surrounding water and wetlands, which continues on in perpetuity.

An Added Victory:  

A Community of Conservationists Comes Together, And Wins.

  Once Act 134 was passed by the legislature and signed into law by the Governor, a sense of foreboding gripped those familiar with previous fights against a mine at Lynne.  Without the protection of the now defunct  Mining Moratorium bill, once again, the Willow was at risk. Fortunately, that core group of veteran activists were quickly joined by a new wave of citizens outraged by Act 134, and concerned about the future of the Willow Watershed. They gathered at County Board hearings and rapidly coalesced into a grassroots organization that was named “Protect The Willow.”

   Once the County Board voted to approve a referendum vote, the group sprung into action. They bought a booth at the county fair, yard signs, banners and bumper stickers. They created a website, web based non-resident petition, and a facebook page, asked for donations for signs, radio spots and ads in the local newspapers. They wrote letters to the editor, and canvassed local neighborhoods.

  Their efforts were noticed by conservation organizations; The River Alliance of Wisconsin  and the John Muir Chapter of  The Sierra Club offered much needed counsel and guidance. Other conservation groups such as the Northwoods Alliance and the Willow Region Sportsman Club offered help. The Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, offered support and ultimately funded expensive television ads to educate the electorate.

  But, the opposition -better funded and professionally organized- was busy as well. Numerous glossy mailers featuring pastoral scenes of deer and flowers arrived in voter's mailboxes. The NRDA (a mining lobbying group,) proposed funding a UW Extension voter “education,” effort, in conjunction with the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation, (a local business organization,)  but was rebuked due to the obvious conflict of interest. Ultimately the project was funded through a Milwaukee County business organization working in with the OCEDC. 

 The education effort had three components: A diverse panel was organized for discussion and content, a Green Bay marketing firm was contracted to solicit volunteers for three focus groups to determine voter perceptions, and finally four forums were held across the county to “educate,” the electorate.  One last effort by the pro-mining forces was to commission Professor Noah Williams through the Center for Research On The Wisconsin Economy (CROWE)  is funded by a grant from The Charles Koch Foundation and the Bradley Foundation,) to conduct a “study,” on the economic benefits of a hypothetical Lynne mine. This study was released one week prior to the vote.

  Despite this expensive effort, the voters were not deceived.  Ultimately, the message from Protect the Willow resonated with the electorate.

  However, this may not be the last fight over Lynne; several Supervisors have made it clear that this issue is not settled. Unless the Oneida County Mining Ordinance is amended, Lynne remains at risk. The good news is that regardless, a group of motivated, conservation minded citizens will be there to Protect the Willow.