MADISON, Wis. — Legislative leaders have formed a committee to consider sweeping changes to burial site protections after a Republican bill that would have allowed quarry owners to excavate Ho-Chunk Nation effigy mounds died last session.
The committee’s membership includes the president of the company that wants to excavate the mounds as well as a Ho-Chunk representative, which could translate to tense meetings as the panel considers whether to grant developers more leeway.
“It’s the fairest way to figure this out,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, who sits on the committee. “I’d rather do it this way than have some Republican put something in the budget that allows development of tribal mounds across the state. The answer isn’t a one-sided piece of legislation.”
The Joint Legislative Council, a panel made up of legislative leaders from both parties, typically appoints study committees to research and develop legislation dealing with complex or sensitive issues. The move provides political cover for both sides and can blunt stakeholder criticism. Burial site protections have become one such charged topic.
At the heart of the matter is Wingra Stone and Redi-Mix, a Madison-based construction and concrete company. Wingra has been locked in a legal fight with the Ho-Chunk since 2014 over burial mounds located within a Wingra quarry in Dane County. Wingra wants to extract minerals beneath the mounds, but they’re in the state historical society’s burial sites catalog, which means the company must obtain a permit. The Ho-Chunk are fighting the permit in court; the case is currently before a state appeals court.
State Rep. Robert Brooks, R-Saukville, introduced a bill last year that would have allowed Wingra to excavate the mounds to determine whether human remains are present. Without any remains, the site would fall off the catalog, easing the path to excavation.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, scrapped the bill without a committee vote following intense pushback from the Ho-Chunk. The Joint Legislative Council formed the study committee in April, a month or so after the legislative session ended. The joint council named the committee members in June, picking Brooks as the vice chairman and tapping Wingra President Robert Shea and real estate attorney Justin Oeth, whose firm is representing Wingra against the Ho-Chunk. The joint council also named Bill Quackenbush, the Ho-Chunk’s tribal heritage preservation officer to the panel.
Brooks didn’t immediately return a message left at his Capitol office. Shea said he thinks it’s appropriate for him to serve on the committee even though it’s considering rewriting the law at the center of his company’s dispute with the Ho-Chunk.
“I have a situation on one of our properties which pertains to the burial preservation law and I think I’m a valuable resource,” Shea said. “We’re going to come up with something that works for everybody.”
Quackenbush didn’t immediately respond to an email.
The committee hopes to develop a bill it can recommend to legislators when they return to Madison in January for the 2017-2019 session. Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, insisted the committee wasn’t formed to help Wingra gain an edge. The company and Ho-Chunk representatives can provide a real-life example of how current regulations aren’t working, she said, but the panel includes others, including the historical society’s board of curators president, an anthropologist and an archaeologist.
“We are not trying to settle a court case in committee,” Loudenbeck said. “I don’t think the membership is skewed toward Wingra or developers over any other interest.”
The panel has met only once and hasn’t firmed up its goals for legislation. The committee is set to meet for a second time Thursday. Committee members have talked about addressing during that meeting whether the historical society’s practice of setting 15-foot no-development buffers around catalogued sites should be codified or scrapped and whether to authorize developers to disturb sites beyond the current one-year window if they’re working on longer-term projects.
They’re also weighing whether to consider making burial site locations more accessible to developers. Right now, the historical society’s list of burial sites isn’t publicly searchable due to concerns about looting and vandalism.
Other topics could include defining how much evidence is necessary to prove a site doesn’t contain human remains, whether to compensate a landowner if the historical society catalogs a site on his or her property, deciding whether cremated remains qualify as remains and whether minor impacts such as replacing a sign qualifies as disturbing a site.
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