The paramilitary guards in the Wisconsin woods

The tension is certainly rising in northern Wisconsin where the presence this week of paramilitary guards has ratcheted up the controversy over a proposed open-pit iron mine.

Gogebic Taconite isn’t backing down from its decision to bring in the security force from an Arizona firm, citing a June confrontation between opponents of the mine and mine workers last month. Masked protesters slashed tires and stole a camera, according to authorities.

There’s also a developing undertone to the situation that recalls the walleye wars in the ’80s. Many of the opponents are Native American.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism writes:

“There is no reason for them to Rambo up the way they have because things are peaceful,” State Rep. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) said. “After a month of peace, why bring in a paramilitary group? We are not lawless up here. We are not Deadwood where there is no law and you need the Pinkertons.”

Bewley joined state Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) in writing a letter this week asking the company to remove the guards, who are from an Arizona private security outfit called Bulletproof.

“The images are horrifying,” wrote Bewley and Jauch, “and the action by the company to hire this high-security Arizona firm is appalling. These kinds of security forces are common in Third World countries but they don’t belong in northern Wisconsin.

“We cannot begin to describe how upset the citizens of northern Wisconsin are at the sight of our forests being patrolled by masked soldiers carrying military-style assault weapons like mercenaries in a time of war. While no one can argue that your company does not have the right to protect your private property, these armed guards serve no purpose other than to intimidate local citizens and increase local tensions.”

The guards were first photographed by Rob Ganson, a mine opponent who regularly visits the harvest camp and takes frequent walks to the mine site to monitor activity. He was shocked to see the armed guards in tactical gear with face masks. Ganson, who is not a tribal member, said he has been spending time at the harvest camp to learn more about the tribal view on the mine and has in the past brought his wife along. Now, with the presence of powerful weapons in the woods, he is reluctant to bring her along anymore.

“It has definitely ramped up the tension,” Ganson said. “The last thing we need is a Kent State up here in the hills.”

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, has been heavily involved in mining issues for years. He worked as a lawyer for and served as secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources during the controversial and eventually failed efforts of Exxon Minerals to build a mine near Crandon. That project died largely due to tribal opposition.

Iron County Board Chairman and Hurley Mayor Joe Pinardi told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the the protesters are “nothing more than a small group of terrorists.”

Wisconsin passed legislation last spring relaxing open-pit mining regulations to allow the open-pit mine to proceed. Republicans said it will add thousands of jobs. Opponents say it’s an environmental threat to lake Superior.

Update 4:33 p.m.The guards have been removed after it was determined they didn’t have the proper licensing.