TRAVERSE CITY (AP) – Biking enthusiast Michael Robold recoils at the idea of a copper and nickel mine amid the woods and rivers of the Yellow Dog Plains. “It would be a travesty!” he exclaimed during a rally called by opponents.

Such determined resistance is nothing new in the Upper Peninsula countryside where Kennecott Minerals Co. wants to drill the mine. But Robold was attending a standing-room-only gathering abut 300 miles away in Traverse City, where opponents distributed petitions and form letters to Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

The debate over the mining project began several years ago as a mostly local squabble in Marquette County. Now it’s reverberating across Michigan as the state Department of Environmental Quality approaches a final decision on whether to issue permits.

Supporters and opponents are contacting government officials and legislators, renting billboards and sounding off in the media and cyberspace. Combined, they’ve spent at least $99,000 on lobbying efforts, according to records filed with the Secretary of State’s office.

About 1,000 people attended a series of public hearings last month in Marquette County and Lansing. Even former Gov. William Milliken weighed in with a newspaper column denouncing the project.

The public comment period ends today. The DEQ, which has given tentative approval, is supposed to make a final ruling by mid-November. But spokesman Robert McCann said the deadline might be extended so staffers can properly consider the points citizens have raised.

“It’s an unusual case, where people all over the state have been taking interest and following it very closely,” McCann said. “Both sides are very passionate.”

Kennecott, which calls the would-be mine the Eagle Project, is targeting a six-acre underground deposit expected to yield 250-300 million pounds of nickel and about 200 million pounds of copper. Both are in heavy demand for use in electronic devices such as computers and cell phones.

The mine would operate six to eight years, providing more than 100 full-time jobs and generating millions in economic activity and tax revenue, says Utah-based Kennecott, a subsidiary of the international conglomerate Rio Tinto.

“These types of jobs are the backbone of the economy in the U.P., besides the forest industry,” said Tom Petersen, president of a pro-Kennecott group called Citizens for Responsible Mining.

Petersen, now a consultant, previously managed one of the Upper Peninsula’s two remaining iron ore mines – both in Marquette County. Supporters hope the Eagle Project would herald a new era of metal extraction in the central and western U.P., where abandoned copper and iron shafts dot the landscape and companies are exploring other potential sites.

Petersen said he helped establish the Citizens group to counter “the misinformation and fear tactics and emotional pleas of the anti-mining community.”

Opponents say the mine would ruin the serenity of the isolated Yellow Dog Plains and pollute its Lake Superior tributary rivers. They contend any economic benefit would be short-lived and offset by damage to industries such as tourism.

The company says it can build and operate the mine without harm to the nearby Salmon Trout and Yellow Dog rivers and while keeping surface effects to a minimum.

Citizens for Responsible Mining has raised about $8,000 in donations but has accepted no money from Kennecott, Petersen said. It has a Web site and is sponsoring billboard messages, speaking to civic groups and writing guest editorials for newspapers and television.

Kennecott has sought support locally and in Lansing.

Records with the Secretary of State’s office show the company has spent more than $63,000 on lobbying in Michigan since 2004. It also has contributed to nonprofit funds operated by political parties, Kennecott project manager Jon Cherry said, although he would not reveal how much. Operators of such funds are not required to disclose their donors.

“We want to make sure people in Lansing know what our project is about, what the benefits to the state of Michigan will be,” Cherry said.

The National Wildlife Federation has spent about $36,000 lobbying against the Eagle Project.

“We will never be able to match their spending,” federation attorney Michelle Halley said. “But we have advocates and citizens with a genuine sense of place, an authentic stake in where they live. Kennecott can’t buy that.”

Save the Wild U.P., a homegrown opposition group, is relying on its Web site and grassroots activism to make its voice heard instead of hiring professionals to lobby the DEQ or lawmakers, director Alexis Raney said.

“I’ll write to them, I’ll talk to them but I certainly don’t wine and dine them,” she said.

McCann said DEQ officials are giving supporters and foes a fair hearing, but won’t base their decision on which side campaigns more effectively.

It ultimately will depend on whether the DEQ judges Kennecott’s permit application as meeting the state’s nonferrous mining law and regulations, he said.

“This is not a popularity contest,” McCann said.

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