It’s easy for me to remember the date of a remarkable assignment I had as a young journalist — a guided tour of the Kakagon Sloughs during the wild rice harvest — because it was in the year Gretchen and I were married 44 years ago.
The Milwaukee Journal sent me and a photographer to the reservation for the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians to describe the harvest for readers of the Sunday magazine — a plum assignment for a young reporter transplanted from Minnesota and just getting acquainted with the stunning diversity of the Wisconsin landscape.
A member of the tribe took us on a boat ride deep into the sloughs on the coast of Lake Superior near Ashland so we cold see the teams of rice harvesters — each canoe with a man standing in the stern to pole the canoe through the vast beds of wild rice while the man in the bow drew the rice over the gunwales with one stick and beat the heads of rice off with the other.
Some years later I learned about the importance of the vast sloughs when I served on the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute’s advisory board — that the sloughs contain some 40 percent of Lake Superior’s remaining coastal wetlands and thus are vitally important to the health of the lake.
There has long been recognition that one of the potential threats to the sloughs and their wild rice beds was the possibility of mining in the Penokee Hills at the top of the watershed that feeds the sloughs and the lake.
It is with this background that I have been dismayed by the fast-track progress of a mining bill specifically designed to make that threat a reality.
The Wisconsin Wetlands Association, which has testified against the bill (wisconsinwetlands.org/WWATestimonySB1.pdf), said in its website’s description of the Kakagon and Bad River sloughs: “The exceptional health of these wetlands is owed to the stewardship and protection provided by the Bad River Band. Despite this protection, the sloughs are still vulnerable to external threats, most notably mining in the Penokee Hills at the top of the watershed, which could irreparably alter hydrology, water quality, and wildlife habitat.”
When the Kakagon Sloughs were named a wetland of international significance last year under the so-called Ramsar Treaty, Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Tribe, said: “Spiritually, the ‘place’ and everything it has, the clean water, the winged, the seasons, the rice and fish, connects us with our ancestors and the Creator. The sloughs sustain the physical well being of our community with foods such as wild rice, fish, cranberries, waterfowl, venison and medicines. From an Anishinabe (Chippewa) world-view perspective, the wetlands ecosystem is a tangible representation of our values of caring for the environment.”
Wiggins wrote to state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazlehurst, chairman of the Senate Committee on Mining, earlier this month reminding him that as a native sovereign nation, “the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of the Chippewa enjoys the right to engage in government-to-government consultation on matters of law and policy that affect its interests. (This) involves acknowledgement that indigenous communities may reject development that threatens the health and welfare of its citizens.”
He said the Wisconsin Legislature has failed to engage in such consultations.
I hope Gov. Scott Walker appreciates the irony in that one part of his economic program proposes spending to bring international tourists to Wisconsin at the same time another part of the program threatens an internationally significant piece of the Wisconsin landscape.
Given that the state appears poised to ignore the expert advice of wetlands experts on the probable outcome of mining in the Penokees, it might yet fall to the Native Americans to stand as a final barrier to a heedless risk to one of Wisconsin’s most precious natural resources — a protection they have rendered for my lifetime and, I hope, for many lifetimes to come.