HURLEY - A last-minute letter from the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe to the Iron County Board Chairman likely saved the county from taking legal action against the controversial Harvest Camp in southern Iron County.
The camp is home to dozens protesting against a massive proposed iron ore mine that spans parts of Ashland and Iron Counties.
Last Tuesday, the Iron County Forestry-Harbors-Parks Committee voted unanimously to explore civil or criminal action against the Harvest Camp for illegally occupying Iron County Forest land without a proper permit.
The Iron County Board Chairman pulled a surprise move Tuesday night at a full county board meeting in Hurley. In front of the tiny Iron County boardroom packed with anti-mine, pro-camp attendees, Joe Pinardi announced the tribe and forestry committee would go back to negotiating for a legal permit.
Last Thursday, two days after the forestry committee's decision to explore legal action against the Harvest Camp, Pinardi received a letter from Lac Courte Oreilles Chairman Michael J. Isham, Jr.
"(It was) asking us to please go back to the negotiation table and talk about the large group gathering permit," Pinardi said.
In a copy of the document obtained by WJFW, the letter asks for a meeting "to discuss the Tribe's proposal of a treaty based harvest and education camp on Moore Park Road located within Iron County".
The letter likely saved civil or criminal action against the camp.
The Forest and Parks Committee had asked Iron County District Attorney Marty Lipske to attend the full board meeting Tuesday and advise them on legal options against the group.
"Had we not received the letter, I was expecting the worst," Pinardi said. "I was expecting legal action to have to be taken…we would have had no other choice but to begin the eviction process."
Isham's letter hinted at a decision from the forestry committee on May 14 to allow the camp to operate through April 30, 2014. But that permission hit rocky legal ground when reviewed by county agencies and other groups.
Earlier in the day Tuesday, Iron County Forest Administrator Joe Vairus told WJFW he considered the camp illegal. Iron County requires permits for campers staying on county forest land for more than 14 days at a time. The camp hadn't attained that specific permit.
"It's a black and white deal," Vairus said. "They moved in and refused to leave."
Isham's letter blasted Vairus and the Forestry and Parks Department, calling their interpretation "disrespectful".
The Executive Director of the Wisconsin County Forest Association sided with the Forestry and Parks Department. Jane Severt told WJFW that under Wisconsin Statutes 28.11, the camp is illegal.
The various permitting rules appear to leave the current legal status murky. But both the tribe and county appear to want to resolve the issue through negotiation.
Pinardi now calls any legal action against the camp "highly unlikely".
Tribal representatives at the meeting came away pleased.
"What I heard at this meeting tonight, it lifted me off the ground," Lac Courte Oreilles Vice Chairman Rusty Barber said. "They're going to negotiate in a good faith effort, and that's what the tribes like to see."
The position of Severt and the Wisconsin County Forest Association had put Iron County in a tough spot. Their stance made eviction of the camp a monetary issue for the county, as well.
"None of (the supervisors) wanted (to evict the camp). But, if we didn't, we could be losing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of state forestry money. Our county relies on our forestry money very heavily. That's all we have right now," Pinardi said.
The temporary compromise surprised most of the nearly 200 attendees at the board meeting.
The tiny boardroom was so crowded, crews set up speakers to audibly broadcast the proceedings to overflow attendees relegated to the hallway.
While legal action was averted, many took the opportunity to rail against the mine as a whole in the public comment section of the agenda.
That included an 11-year-old Harvest Camper.
"I just don't think they should put a mine there. There's a bunch of beautiful land, and what is mining going to come out of this?" Ayyub Harrison asked the Iron County Board. "It's going to go from beautiful land to something that isn't beautiful."
The Hurley Area Chamber of Commerce's Executive Director, Dorrene O'Donnell, was the solitary speaker in support of the mine.
"If you want a strong country, and you want to drive in an automobile, and you want to have a strong building out here, you're going to need this iron ore that is right here under our feet," she charged.
Northern Wisconsin is sure to see plenty more clashes between pro- and anti-mine interests. But for now, at least, the Harvest Camp adjacent to the mine site will stay. It's even designed, says Barber, to stay put through the winter and beyond, should the tribe choose.