The July 12 headline in the Wisconsin State Journal carried the ominous news of “Bizarre and alarming” acts at the Gogebic Taconite drilling sites in the Penokee Hills.
The story was accompanied by a photo provided by security guards from the site of a young man sitting on the ground wearing a plastic garbage bag. Tom Parella, owner of Bulletproof Securities, the company that until recently was guarding the site described the event and the man.
According to Parella, guards watched the man sneak through the woods near the drilling site then lie silently on his back for 30 minutes even as guards spoke to him. Eventually the man departed, and the guards watched as he zigzagged through the trees, Parella said.
Makoons or “Little Bear” of the Bad River Reservation is the man in the black plastic bag and he describes the event a bit differently. He asked that we not use his English name here.
22-year-old Makoons said he was looking for wild mushrooms along with Professor Joe Skulan and others when he got separated from the group. “I got kind of turned around and decided to head towards the sound of the drilling machine (at the GTAC drill site). He sat down near the camp, covered himself with a black plastic bag to protect himself from the rain and mosquitoes and watched the activity at the drilling site for awhile. “I’m astonished they didn’t see me. I was right there in plain sight,” he remarked.
Makoons noted that in times past when he had accompanied groups visiting the drill sites, workers always turned off the drilling machines. “I was interested in seeing what they were doing but I couldn’t’ see much. The guards were just sitting around bullshitting, drinking beer and trying to keep the mosquitoes off,” he recalls.
Eventually Makoons notes that the workers and men must have become aware of his presence because they suddenly stopped the machine and put on their hard hats. “All of a sudden I heard a twig crack behind me and it was one of the guards. He took out his phone and took my picture,” Makoons recalls.
“I flashed a peace sign for him, but I guess he didn’t get that picture,” Makoons said.
He repeatedly tried to talk to the two guards but they refused to speak to him. “I offered them a cigarette but they wouldn’t say anything. I said, ‘geez, you guys don’t talk much, do ya?”
Makoons admitted to feeling a bit intimated by the sight of the assault rifles. “I figured that my friends would hear if the guards shot me so I wasn’t too scared,” he said.
Eventually, Makoons headed back to the Harvest Camp. “I told them to have a nice day but they didn’t say noth’in,” he recalls.
“I think its kinda funny that these guys who are specially trained ex-rangers could let a guy from the Woodlands in a garbage bag sneak up on them,” he said.
Makoons noted that people often wander through that area of the Penokees to gather wild plants and was concerned that someone might accidently get hurt by the guards.
“I don’t think they’re trained to be in the north woods, “ he observed.
Ashland County Board Chairman Pete Russo agrees and calls the presence of guards armed with assault rifles in the Penokee Hills as a “cocktail for disaster.” During a July 12 interview with Wisconsin Public Television’s Here and Now news show, Russo expressed concern about the upcoming hunting season. “What if hunters and guards come up on one another and can’t see each other?” he asked.
“It’s not good,” he stated.
The mining and drill sites are located on forest cropland according to Russo. “That means that the public is entitled to camp, hunt and fish on that land,” he observed.
The Journal included another example of an alarming act at the drilling sites referring to a video that was recently posted on Facebook depicting the alleged June 11 violent protest at a GTAC drill site. The video is no longer available on Facebook but a silent version of the video is posted on the newspaper’s website.
A masked woman is shown ripping away a phone from a female worker at the drill site as about 5 fellow protestors shout obscenities at the group of 6-8 mostly male mine workers.
Bob Seitz, GTAC spokesman told Wisconsin Public Radio, “I think when the people of Wisconsin see that, they’re going to understand why we have security up there and why we take this situation very seriously,” he said.
A complete viewing of the facebook video depicting the assault on the mining workers shows masked protesters surrounding a female protester wrestling a phone away from another female mining employee. About 6 male mine workers stand by silently during the incident, some with amused smiles on their faces. None of the protesters appear to be carrying weapons although one person can be seen with a rock in his hand.
During a July 12 radio news program broadcast on WORT-FM in Madison, Kelly Westlund, Ashland City Council Member asked why the GTAC workers were laughing on the video. “The protesters were a bunch of kids swearing at them. They didn’t pose any real threat,” she observed.
Mining supporters are portraying these events as justification for the use of heavily armed guards at the drilling sites. According to Wisconsin Radio Network,
Gov. Scott Walker defended GTAC’s security measures during a speech July 11 at the Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum in Madison. He didn’t rule out offering state security help to GTAC in the future if needed.
Walker described the protesters as “masked ninjas,” and said that calling them eco-terrorists was “not far from the truth.”
According to the Journal, the state’s business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce are pointing to the video as evidence that the drilling sites should be closed to the public.
Seitz has indicated that once Bulletproof gets licensure in the state of Wisconsin, the company will continue to provide security for the drilling sites. GTAC leaders asked the Bulletproof guards to “stand down” recently when it was learned that the security company was not licensed to operate in the state. (Related story: Automatic Weapons & Guards in Camo: Welcome to Mining Country, Wis.)
The Bad River tribe issued a press release on July 12 in which tribal chairman Mike Wiggins condemns the use of violence.
“Although we believe that the actions taken by Gogegic Taconite leading to the destruction of the Bad River headwaters and contamination of our surface and ground water resources are criminal, we absolutely condemn any planned or improvised act of violence or vandalism against the industry or companies, and emphatically discourage any person to take part in any violent action,” Wiggins said.
Mining opponents say that mining supporters are blowing such incidents out of proportion.
“Trying to build equivalency against a kid sitting in the woods in the rain wearing a garbage bag and the use of armed mercenaries is astounding,” noted Skulan during an interview on July 12 at WORT radio in Madison.