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Possible national historic site designation for Menominee lands angers UP lawmakers


Some state lawmakers from the Upper Peninsula are outraged by a recent State Historic Preservation Review Board decision to move forward in the process of adding some lands near the Menominee River to the National Register of Historic Places.

That decision was sought by the Menominee Indian Tribe, based in Wisconsin. The tribe considers the lands, which span Michigan and Wisconsin across the Menominee River, culturally and historically significant.

Those lands include the area where the proposed Back Forty mining project is planned. That controversial project, which has been in the permitting stage for years, would initially extract gold and zinc through open-pit mining.

State Senator Ed McBroom (R-Waucedah Township) believes the tribe’s efforts to get historic site designation is a transparent attempt to stop the Back Forty project.

“The real effort here from the tribe is not really about history,” McBroom said. “It's simply about stopping the mine, as evidenced by their previous efforts there in the past.”

McBroom said he and some other U.P. lawmakers are fed up with the board and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) after a series of decisions, including designating buildings on the decommissioned Sawyer Air Force base as historic sites.

McBroom said those buildings are “a wreck,” and the designation stifles efforts to demolish the buildings and redevelop the site. He said the preservation office is frustrating economic development efforts across the U.P.

“I just think it's really out of control. The current [SHPO] director is making very bad decisions and using their discretion very poorly,” McBroom said. “I don't think anybody, any lover of history, can really look at this and say that these actions are justified, and that they're the right thing to do for the people of the U.P.”

The Tribe does publicly oppose the mine. But Stephanie Tsosie, an attorney with the Tribal Partnerships Program at the group Earthjustice, refuted McBroom’s assertion that the tribe’s claim is just about preventing the Back Forty from ever operating.

“The Menominee Tribes have been working on this process for many, many years,” said Tsosie, who helped argue the tribe’s case before historic preservation officials in Michigan and Wisconsin. ”There are cultural, historical, and spiritual sites within this area. “They are very well documented. They have gone through rounds of research and review from archeologists in both Wisconsin and Michigan, and it's finally in a place to move forward.

“The reality is that it's independent of the mine. It's independent of any proposed project in the area,” Tsosie said.

According to the Menominee Tribe, the area that would be designated includes Anaem Omot (“The Dog’s Belly”), home to the “famed Sixty Islands site," which is "steeped in Menominee history. The origin of the Menominee Tribe takes place at the mouth of the Menominee River,” the tribe said in a recent press release hailing the Michigan preservation board’s decision. The lands also contain “documented burial mounds, ancient raised agricultural fields, and hammered metal artifacts dating to the Old Copper period. There are also several ancient dance rings in the area, which were used for ceremonial purposes by Menominee and other neighboring tribes.”

Tsosie said a historic site designation would not ban new construction or development on the land, but it would bring “an additional level of review on how that project will impact those properties and that area”

McBroom admitted that the historic designation would not ban the Back Forty project outright, but would “make it much, much more difficult,” he said. “It will make a lot of extra hoops for the mine to have to go through.” He added that it's “inappropriate for an out-of-state entity to come in and demand that Michigan citizens lose their private property rights.”

The Wisconsin and Michigan preservation boards’ decisions are just another step in the process toward adding the lands to the National Register of Historic Places. It still requires sign-off from State Historic Preservation officers in Michigan and Wisconsin, and ultimately from the National Park Service and the Keeper of the National Register.

In a statement, Otie McKinley, a spokesperson for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation on behalf of SHPO, said that “We appreciate the importance of creating economic opportunity in communities across the U.P. In this case, there are a number of complex factors to be considered – both cultural and economic. The nomination to add this land bordering the Menominee River to the National Register of Historic Places was submitted for review and the State Historic Preservation Office has a duty to submit that request to the State Historic Preservation Review Board, which acts independently of SHPO, if that request meets all eligibility requirements.”

McKinley said that “SHPO will give full consideration to the letter that was provided on behalf of Gold Resource Corporation (owner of the rights to the Back Forty project), including a full review of the boundaries under consideration prior to submitting the recommendation to the Keeper.”

“It remains vital to balance company growth that drives economic impact in the region, while recognizing the importance of the rich history and culture that further Michigan’s tradition as a state that is inclusive and our communities as compelling places to live, work and travel,” MEDC CEO Quentin Messer Jr. added in a statement. “Work remains, we are ready to get it done, and we look forward to working with legislators from the region to identify solutions that accelerate people-centric economic development in the U.P.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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