Story for The UpTake by Tracey Pollock
Penokee Hills, Wis.
Mercenary-style guards carrying assault weapons will return to the north woods of WIsconsin after an Arizona-based security firm received proper permits to operate in Wisconsin. Last month, the heavily-armed guards, wearing camouflage and some with face coverings, startled hikers and other forest visitors when they showed up — without permits or the legally required name tags and credentials.
Photos surfaced July 6 of the paramilitary style guards patrolling on public land, reportedly hired by Florida-based mining company Gogebic Taconite (or G-TAC) to protect its equipment in the Penokee Hills where test drilling for a controversial open pit iron mine has begun. Particularly concerning to environmental activists, local citizens and members of the nearby Bad River Band of Chippewa Indians were the covered faces, the hi-tech weaponry — which included fully automatic military rifles of a kind carried by special military forces — and the presence of heavily armed guards on public land.
The guards turned out to be employees of Bulletproof Securities, a Scottsdale, Ariz., commando-style security company that bills itself as offering “no compromise security” to anyone who needs it. The company web site features a lot of talk about securing your assets and taking control of risks, but not much — not any — about recognizing free speech protections or public lands. Shortly after the guards were encountered in the woods, and after concerned citizens raised questions about the mysterious gun-toters, Bulletproof was forced to leave the area because it had not applied for the proper permits to carry firearms in Wisconsin.
A widely-viewed video of the disturbing situation was taken by Paul DeMain, of Indian Country TV, who walked to the test-drill site with his son and grandson, conducting an interview that can be seen by clicking here. The video, entitled “Hired Guns in the Penokee Hills,” is used here courtesy of Indian Country News and Indian Country TV.
G-TAC, the mining company, said the armed guards were necessary after a June incident occurred between mine employees and protesters. Protesters confronted the employees, allegedly stealing a phone camera, removing bolts from a piece of machinery and shouting at workers for beginning the test drill process. One of the protesters has now been charged with theft of the cell phone.
State Senator Bob Jauch (D) and Assembly member Janet Brewley (D), who represent the area, have condemned the company for an over-reaction to the protesters. Other groups opposed to the proposed mine — which could become the largest open-pit iron mine in the world — have accused the mining company of wanting not just to protect its property and workers, but to frighten and intimidate opponents.
The Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club has stated that it does not object to the company’s efforts to secure its site and protect its workers. But it says that hiring camouflaged and masked guards carrying machine guns is far out of scale to the situation in the woods.
“Although Sierra Club doesn’t oppose the idea of G-TAC hiring security guards to protect their workers or equipment from real or perceived threats,” the Sierra Club’s web site says, “using heavily armed, masked security guards to guard the exploration operation is clearly unnecessary and over the top. Moreover, the fact that they are employing security and miners from out-of-state shows that they are not sincere about hiring Wisconsin workers after all.
“After the media learned that Bullteproof Securities failed to obtain a license to operate (or carry weapons) in Wisconsin, they left the site. However, the media have reported that G-TAC plans to rehire them once they have obtained the necessary licenses. In response to this alarming situation, the Sierra Club filed a complaint with the Iron County DA and the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services in mid-July . We hope that this will diffuse tensions, protect northwoods tourism, and prevent the potential for dangerous misunderstandings in the future.”
Bulletproof Securities left Wisconsin after the public outcry and the discovery that it did not have the proper permits to operate in the state. Though the District Attorney of Iron County had been contemplating charges against Bulletproof that carried a fine and a suspension of operating rights in the state, nothing was pursued.
The DA’s office did not explain its decision not to charge the company, simply stating it had dropped the investigation. The Wisconsin Department of Public Safety and Professional Services now has issued the proper permits for Bulletproof to return and operate in Wisconsin. The return is expected shortly.
G-TAC is currently paying the tab for any additional security that the Ashland County and Iron County Sheriff Departments provide by walking or patrolling the actual site of the test drilling for the mine located about a mile back into the woods, only accessible by a gravel road. The company also is paying off-duty officers to provide security, as well as hiring additional private security firms to patrol land and protect their equipment.
Opponents of the mine are not backing down from opposition to a project they say is destructive and will cause immense water and air pollution in the region. Organized opposition comes from local community members, environmental advocacy groups and farmers.