The Yellow Dog plains, north of Marquette, sit on top of a large source of copper and nickel, and are now the source of a political battle over mining.
Kennecott Minerals Co. owns about 1,600 acres on the site, with state mineral leases on another 2,300, and is interested in tapping the estimated 405 million pounds of nickel and 335 million pounds of copper it holds.
The company is still evaluating the project and has not yet advanced a formal plan. It expects to make a final decision sometime this summer.
However, a coalition of property owners and environmentalists has formed to oppose mining on the plains, which it claims are an important unspoiled natural habitat. Their major concern is the type of extraction involved.
Called sulfide mining, the method generates sulfuric acid and heavy metals as byproducts, which environmentalists worry could seep into groundwater. The hazardous material can be treated and disposed of properly, and the company points to its other operations, including similar mines along the Flambeau River in northern Wisconsin , as proof that the mining can be done without causing great environmental damage.
The Wisconsin mines triggered a similar controversy in the early 1990s, and one large project was thwarted.
Environmentalists are also concerned that the operation will harm the Salmon Trout River, which hosts the last natural coaster brook trout run on Lake Superior's south shore. The river runs through the Huron Mountain Club, an exclusive 19,000-acre retreat that is part of the coalition opposing the mine.
Kennecott, a subsidiary of London-based mining conglomerate Rio Tinto, says the project could create 50 to 100 jobs over its approximate 10-year life span. But some residents are unconvinced of the economic benefit; they worry it may affect the area's hunting, fishing and tourism business.
The job possibilities haven't prevented the United Steelworkers of America from opposing the mine. The union would represent employees there but has a conflict with the company over labor issues at another mine.
The state's Department of Environmental Quality, which would oversee licensing and regulation of the mine, has brought together a working group representing all parties to move forward on the issue.