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Oneida County Drilling Site Neighbors Claim Lack Of Communication, Legality

Dan Dumas/Kim Swisher Communications

Ron L. Zabler admits Oneida County winters have been harsh on his family’s cabin in the woods.

Some of the paint may be peeling, but that makes this place no less important to him.

“Once I’m up here, I don’t want to go back,” said Zabler, whose permanent home with his wife, Carline, is in southern Wisconsin.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
From left, Ron L. Zabler, Ron B. Zabler, and Carline Zabler walk from their cabin toward the exploratory drilling property.

A lot of his attitude has to do with his family’s history on this plot of land.

“I’ve been here since I was 14. I was here when the original owner was here,” said Zabler, who is in his 70s.

He was standing outside the red, wooden cabin with his wife and his son, also named Ron.

“This is sacred land. My grandfather’s ashes are on this property,” said the son, Ron B. Zabler. “This land’s been in our family since he got out of World War II.”

The family has always known their area of the Town of Schoepke to be a peaceful one, until earlier this month, when trucks and heavy machinery started lumbering by on the one-lane gravel road.

“They’re currently doing exploratory drilling, and you can hear the background, they’re grading our road. It’s happening now,” said the younger Zabler as machinery buzzed nearby.

Nearly two weeks ago, Badger Minerals started exploratory drilling on land in eastern Oneida County. The company anticipates prospecting for minerals like gold, silver, lead, zinc, and copper will continue through the end of the month.

Credit Dan Dumas/Kim Swisher Communications
A portion of the land on which exploratory drilling is taking place in June.

The Zablers said they didn’t know anything was in the works until the trucks started coming.

Credit Dan Dumas/Kim Swisher Communications
Browns Road, a gravel road that passes the Zablers' property, has been much busier than usual.

“Nobody notified [us] that our road, Browns Road, was going to become their road, their thoroughfare. As my parents [said], it’s been nonstop traffic,” said the son.    

The family is frustrated the drilling is happening so close their land, and even more frustrated they say they were never notified.

It also bothers the elder Ron Zabler that it’s happening so close to the Wolf River, within a half-mile, in some places.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The Wolf River, which flows within a half-mile of some drill sites.

“It just boggles my mind,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

The younger Zabler says, in the last ten days, he’s started diving into mining laws and regulations full-time.

“I’m not an attorney. I’m not a miner. I’m not an anti-mining activist. Until now,” he said. “Now I’m a full-time anti-mining activist, because I have to speak up. It’s our property. It’s in our backyard.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Jeff Seabloom.

A few hundred yards down the gravel road is the Zablers’ only neighbor. Jeff Seabloom owns a rustic cabin on 200 acres.

“There’s no running water. We have to haul that in. There’s no electricity out here,” Seabloom said. “We’re self-sustaining. I’m cool with that.”

Seabloom bought the land in the early 1990s and uses the land for hunting and a little farming.

“We’ve had potatoes. We’ve had corn. We’ve put some peas in,” he said.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
A blue ribbon marks the extent of the property on which exploratory drilling is taking place. It's near Jeff Seabloom's cabin.

But closer to the cabin than the fields is a ribbon tied to a tree.

“This blue ribbon is approximately 25 feet from my doorstep, and that is the start of the proposed mining property,” Seabloom explained.

He’s that close to the property where exploratory drilling is now taking place, and he thinks it’s illegal.

The neighboring private land is enrolled in the state’s Managed Forest Law program (MFL). That means it gets significant tax breaks in exchange for being open to the public and keeping its timber under a management program.

Credit Badger Minerals
The drilling site map submitted by Badger Minerals to regulators.

Seabloom contends Badger Minerals’ drilling isn’t allowed on MFL land, especially since it’s drilling for sulfide minerals. Gold, silver, lead, zinc, and copper fall into that category.

Seabloom has read state statute 295.40 over and over.

“In mining for nonferrous [non-iron] metallic minerals, sulfide minerals react when exposed to air and water to form acid drainage,” he read aloud.

But DNR Integration Services Section Chief Ben Callan said, under the MFL law, the drilling is permitted.

“Exploratory drilling is not specifically prohibited under the statute, which is Chapter 77,” he told WXPR. “The DNR needs to evaluate eligibility and compliance of proposed land uses with MFL in terms of being developed for commercial recreation, industrial use, and activities compatible with sound forestry.”

“I don’t buy that,” Seabloom said of Callan’s explanation. “It’s not allowed, especially when you’re talking nonferrous, because of the toxicity associated.”

Credit Dan Dumas/Kim Swisher Communications
The landscape near some of the exploratory drilling sites. Stockley Creek, which flows into the Wolf River, is in the foreground. Pelican Lake is in the background.

Drilling like this is one of the earliest stages in the mine exploration process.  Both the DNR and Badger Minerals say any potential mine would be years away, happening only after considerable regulation and permitting.

Seabloom isn’t confident that the process, now started, can be stopped short of a mine.

Credit Dan Dumas/Kim Swisher Communications
Stockley Creek, a water source for drilling operations.

“I think we’re pretty close to ‘game over’ already, unless something was to stop now. They need to cease and desist [drilling],” he said. “I think it should be stopped right now while we still have a chance. If it’s not, it’s going to be too late.”

Back up the road, the Zablers aren’t sure that a mine is likely.

But they remain concerned for their land and its legacy.

“This is something that we wanted to pass on,” said Carline Zabler. “Now, who knows what’s going to happen.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Ron L. Zabler, who has been coming to this cabin since age 14.

Badger Minerals told regulators it planned to conduct exploratory drilling on the property 24 hours a day during much of June.

This week, the company told WXPR it’s on schedule and plans to finish by the end of the month.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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