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UP lawmakers target state history office

A decision by the Michigan Historic Preservation Review Board to support adding a Menominee site to the National Register of Historic Places is under fire from Upper Peninsula lawmakers, who claim the action comes in response to a request from a Wisconsin-based anti-mining group.

Saying the State Historic Preservation Office has become a block to economic development in the U.P., several lawmakers are planning legislation to defund and reform it, along with a formal resolution condemning recent actions and calling for removal of its staff.

The protest comes after the board Friday voted unanimously to support the nomination of Anaem Omot — a Menominee Tribe cultural landscape bisected by the Menominee River that separates Wisconsin and Michigan.

“This action is a flagrant taking of private property rights and opportunities,” state Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Waucedah Township, said in a statement. “Our state entities should not have even considered this non-Michigan group. What’s even more shocking is that property owners only get a vote to reject this, not to adopt it and that it’s based on individual owners with no weighting for acres owned.”

According to Earthjustice, which supports the preservation effort, the vote follows several years of advocacy by historians, scientists and leaders of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin to recognize the cultural and historic resources in the district, including burial mounds, garden beds, and dance rings.

The land is near the proposed Back Forty project, primarily a zinc and gold operation that has been under consideration for 20 years. In December 2021, Gold Resource Corp., a U.S.-based mining company, became the lead developer of the Back Forty Mine when it purchased Aquila Resources.

Gold Resource plans to release a new definitive feasibility study within the next few months, and expects a round of permitting applications to follow.

State Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, said the State Historic Preservation Office and the review board “ignored the work they and mining company had already done regarding the Native American history of the site.” He accused the board of “blind capitulation to these out-of-state interests to grant this designation now when they had not found it justifiable in the past.”

State Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, also said the proposed mine should go forward.

“The constant fight against such mining projects, when we have the most stringent environmental safeguards in the word, only forces the investment and jobs to be done somewhere else with lower wages and concern for the environment,” she said in a statement.

Last month, SHPO determined that vacant buildings on the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base could not be removed until a more thorough vetting process and collection of history was completed, McBroom said. Marquette County had secured more than $12 million to remove the buildings to make way for economic development, but the SHPO determination triggered additional scrutiny from federal agencies that could result in years of delays, the lawmaker said.

“Even after touring these buildings and recognizing the need to demolish them, this agency chose to work against the county’s bottom line and the opportunity for economic growth and jobs,” McBroom said, noting the buildings have been vacant for 30 years.

“SHPO has also caused trouble for us on the trail reconstruction in Houghton County,” state Rep. Greg Markkanen, R- Hancock, said in a statement. “It is urgent that new leadership of this office and the board be had before they hinder other important projects for our communities across the U.P. and Michigan.”

The Michigan Review Board’s vote on the Anaem Omot site came after a November 2021 vote by the Wisconsin Review Board, which also unanimously approved the site’s nomination. The decision to list Anaem Omot in the National Register of Historic Places — the official list of historic buildings, districts, sites, structures and objects worthy of preservation — will now move to Michigan and Wisconsin’s State Historic Preservation offices, the National Park Service, and finally to the keeper of the National Register.

Anaem Omot, translated as “The Dog’s Belly,” is an area about 50 miles upstream from the mouth of the Menominee River where it meets the Bay of Green Bay. According to Earthjustice, it includes 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.

In a news release Friday, Menominee Tribe Chairman Ron Corn Sr. said the review board’s vote “recognizes a rare and sacred Menominee heritage site that has lasted through centuries of violent dispossession and where Menominee members continue to visit and hold ceremonies today.”

“We are absolutely thrilled,” he said.

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