"Everybody's broke around here," said Ken Scribner, a 47-year-old unemployed construction worker from Mellen, a town of about 800 people on the mine site's western edge. "We need some money."
How the collision of cultures can be resolved, short of years of litigation, is unclear.
Northwestern Wisconsin is a different world than Milwaukee, the state's largest city and a manufacturing hub. This is an untamed place, laced with secluded lakes, snow-frosted forests, swamps and towns separated by miles of lonely two-lane roads.
Iron mining was once the area's lifeblood, but the last mine closed in 1965 as the steel industry shifted to lower-grade ore. The region's economy has limped along ever since, relying on tourism even as abandoned buildings and mounds of waste rock served as forlorn reminders of better days.
Now, though, mining company Gogebic Taconite is considering a new mine in the Penokee Hills, which stretch from the northern Wisconsin woods to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Plans call for blasting away 4Â½ miles of ridge line to create a massive pit mine. The company hopes to ship ore to take advantage of rising domestic prices.
The Legislature is poised to limit public challenges and allow mining operations to store waste near lakes, ponds and rivers. The measure also contains a general presumption that any damage to wetlands is necessary.
Walker, who has been struggling to deliver on a campaign pledge to create 250,000 new jobs before he launches his 2014 re-election bid, extolled the project in his recent State of the State address. He even surrounded himself with hard-hatted union members he said want to work at the mine during the speech.
But the Bad River reservation lies just north of the mine site, where the Bad River empties into Lake Superior. According to lore, the tribe settled in the forests and marshes here long before European settlers arrived because the wild rice fulfilled a prophecy that the tribe's wanderings would end when it found food growing on water.