January 4, 2017
An out-of-state investment company wants to build a sand mining and processing plant in Jackson and Monroe counties that would eliminate about 17 acres of pristine forested wetland, according to plans being reviewed by state and federal regulators.
The project is sought by Meteor Timber, a company owned by Atlanta, Ga.-based Timberland Investment Resources. A Timberland executive and attorneys with Weld Riley, an Eau Claire law firm that represents Meteor, contributed about $23,000 since January 2010 to Republican and Democratic legislative and statewide candidates.
Jackson County supervisors approved a conflict of interest waiver in 2015 after Meteor Timber approached the county about partnering with it to test the land for possible mining. At the time, the law firm also served as the county’s corporation counsel.
“It looks bad to have the same law firm playing both sides of the fence,” says Jerry Schmidt, a Jackson County supervisor who voted against the waiver.
Midwest Environmental Advocates, a Madison public interest law firm, wants the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Natural Resources to deny permits for the project. Wetlands are valuable habits for fish and wildlife and control flooding. Approval of the project would mean the largest single loss of wetlands for a sand project since at least 2008, and it could jeopardize Halls Creek, a tributary of the Black River and one of the top kayaking spots in the state, says Schmidt, who is also on the board of Friends of the Bad River.
Meteor owns about 50,000 acres of forestland in Wisconsin. State law was changed in 2012 by Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature to limit the amount of searching developers are required to do for their projects in order to avoid destroying wetlands.
John Behling, of Eau Claire, a Weld Riley attorney who is handling regulatory issues in the case, is also vice president of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents. He was appointed to the board by Walker.
The top recipients of contributions since January 2010 from Timberland and Weld Riley attorneys include Walker, $10,300; GOP Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, of River Falls, $3,650; and Democratic Rep. Dana Wachs, of Eau Claire, $1,400.
The top contributors since January 2010 from the real estate company and the law firm were Behling, and his wife, Tabitha, $5,550; Attorney Paul Millis, of Black River Falls, $3,250; Attorney Steve Weld, of Eau Claire, $2,475; Christopher Mathis, of Atlanta, Ga., Timberland’s director of real estate, $2,000; and Attorney Michael O’Brien, of Eau Claire, and his wife, Julie, $1,505.
Sand mining started to grow rapidly in parts of northern and western Wisconsin about eight years ago because the petroleum industry uses it for hydraulic fracking. Fracking is a drilling technique that combines fine sand with chemicals and water to get at deep oil and natural gas deposits.