RHINELANDER - Wednesday night's public hearing in Rhinelander was designed to take public comments on specific proposed changes in Oneida County's mining ordinances.
Instead, it turned into a lopsided public assault on metallic mining in general.
The county's Planning and Development Committee is considering a complete overhaul of its metallic mining rules, as prompted by a new state law. The law, which repeals Wisconsin's so-called mining moratorium, gives counties until July 1 to make changes to their standing ordinances.
Mining ordinances are of special interest to Oneida County. A potentially valuable deposit of zinc, lead, copper, and other minerals lies below county forest land in the town of Lynne. Companies first began considering projects in Lynne decades ago.
But a large majority of people speaking at Wednesday night's hearing rejected any notion of open-pit mining in Oneida County.
"Be warned. If mining is allowed in our forestlands, this will become a different place," Sarah Juon told the committee.
Under the proposed changes, any mining exploration or bulk sampling would have to be approved by the Planning and Development Committee. A mining permit would need simple majority approval from the full county board.
Currently, a special conditional use permit for mining requires three-fourths support from the county board.
Some wanted county ordinances to read much differently.
"Today I am proposing that Oneida County be the first county in Wisconsin to ban all metallic mining," said Mark Pflieger, who lives in Harshaw. "Our waters are too precious to even risk the chance of a mine."
Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) wrote the bill repealing the state mining moratorium. Gov. Scott Walker signed it in Rhinelander last December.
"It is about jobs and it is about northern Wisconsin. We have a comparative advantage here in northern Wisconsin over the rest of the state," Tiffany said at Wednesday's hearing. "It's billions of dollars of wealth that's underneath the ground."
Among a small handful of supporters of mining exploration at the hearing was Dr. George Karling, the superintendent of the Three Lakes School District.
"The best way to keep our young people and families in the Northwoods is to develop these resources appropriately," Karling said.
Several members of the Lac du Flambeau tribe, the tribe with a reservation closest to the Lynne deposit, registered strong opposition to mining.
"This is a promise from me. We will expend [our tribe's monetary] resources the best we can to litigate and to fight any type of mining," said Brooks BigJohn, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Tribal Council.
The county committee will begin deliberations on the proposed mining ordinance next Monday. They will continue Tuesday and Wednesday, if needed. If the proposed ordinance passes, it will move to the full county board for approval by the July 1 deadline.
"We have been in a hurry, but we tried to take into consideration public comments as best as we could," said Oneida County Planning and Zoning Director Karl Jennrich. "Our intent is to get something in place."