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The Crandon Mine Saga
T he bitter 27-year battle over the unpopular proposed Crandon mine is over. Two Wisconsin Native American tribes combined forces to purchase mineral rights to an estimated 55 million tons of zinc- and copper-laden ore, and the land containing these minerals, from Northern Wisconsin Resources Group LLC (NWRG).
On October 28, 2003, the Forest County Potawatomi and the Sokaogan band of Chippewa announced their purchase of 5,770 acres of the Crandon mine site for $16.5 million. The tribal groups also gained control of their previous enemy, Nicolet Minerals Company, a subsidiary of NWRG. Nicolet Hardwood Corporation, a local timber company logging the region since 1870, will co-manage timber resources with the tribes.
The Sokaogan Chippewa, consistently labeled the poorest tribe in Wisconsin, operate a modest casino in the small community of Mole Lake. Tourists and vacationers regularly cruise through the town on their way north. The proposed mine sits closest to the community’s Rice Lake. Sulfide mining threatened the imminent demise of their culture, which depends on wild rice beds they’ve defended since appropriating the lands from previous Sioux occupants in the 1700s.
Sokaogan tribal secretary Thomas VanZile recognizes that the fight to protect the land has involved “great personal sacrifice for tribal members. But it is a sacrifice that honors our ancestors and our children.”
The Potawatomi have managed to raise their standard of living by operating a massive casino in downtown Milwaukee’s Menom- inee River valley, 180 miles to the south. The tribal group fought vigilantly to secure the urban site, first purchasing the land and then wheeling and dealing to obtain legal permits for a bingo hall that eventually morphed into a casino as Wisconsin’s anti-gambling senti- ments changed.
The land will be distributed evenly between the two tribal groups who are also splitting expenses. Lacking the substantial revenues the Potawatomi earn, the Sokaogan Chippewa will be hard pressed to pay their share. The Green Bay Press Gazette asked Bob Schmitz, organizer of the Wolf River Watershed Alliance, how the Sokaogan could afford the purchase. His reply: “These people have mortgaged their homes and their futures and probably their children’s and grandchildren’s futures.”
Also on October 28, Glenn Reynolds, long-time legal counselor for the Sokaogan, found himself serving as project manager for newly-acquired Nicolet Minerals Company. The Madison-based attorney drafted letters to Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Army Corps of Engineers, formally withdrawing applications for mining permits. He wrote: “Since most of the proposed pollution prevention technology for this project has eventually failed over the long term, it is highly likely that the citizens of the state would eventually be faced with the burdens of clean-up costs in perpetuity if this project were built as designed.”
Resource wars have raged in the communities of Crandon and Mole Lake since 1976 when Exxon Minerals, a subsidiary of Exxon Oil, reported finding zinc-copper deposits nestled in the headwaters of the Wolf River. Despite their best public relations blitz, Exxon quickly found itself fighting a losing battle for those minerals.
As the prices of zinc and copper waxed and waned over the years, so did corporate interest in the mineral riches. Native Americans—including the Menominee 30 miles down the Wolf River—environmentalists, and a collection of landowners, vacationers, and activists, formed an alliance to fight Exxon’s multipronged attack. Exxon attempted to divide and conquer this ragtag league, but dirty practices only served to strengthen public resolve. In 1982, various groups founded the Wisconsin Resource Protection Council to counteract Exxon’s mine application process.
Even when current Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, an advocate for development and big business’s number one amigo, sat on Wisconsin’s throne, Exxon had little luck. Thompson gave Exxon as much help as he could muster, appointing key positions to grease the rails to Exxon’s success. The WRPC coalition held Exxon in a stalemate that lasted until 1998 when the multinational sold 50 percent of its interest in the mine to Rio Algom, which renamed the project Nicolet Minerals Company, its name drawn from the surrounding Nicolet National Forest.
Various locals, enticed by economic opportunity, worked diligently to further Exxon’s plans, turning on friends and family in the process. The proposed mine pitted the town of Nashville, which did not want 400 acres of tailing ponds, against Lincoln township, which would have “benefited” from the mine’s alleged tax revenues. Potawatomi spokespeople argued that the “boomtown” syndrome would bust Crandon as soon as Exxon pulled out of the area, citing a former mayor of Craig, Colorado, who argued, after his community was ruined: “The mining companies’ economic growth projections weren’t worth the paper they were written on.” In the meantime, Forest County and the communities would need to provide services for the influx of mine employees. While many locals hoped to find jobs at the new mine, others pointed out that mine personnel would likely come from outside Wisconsin.
While corporate spokespeople argued mining would have a negligible environmental impact, skeptical locals did their own research. The Menominee Nation commissioned a study revealing that long- and short-term consequences of the proposed sulfide mine on the Wolf River Basin would be profound. Of the 58 million tons of acidic tailings produced in the mine’s 20-year predicted life, Al Gedicks, author of Resource Wars (South End Press), notes, “Approximately half of the tonnage would consist of fine tailings, with the consistency of talcum powder, and would contain high levels of acid-generating sulfides and other heavy metals (arsenic, lead, cadmium, zinc, copper, mercury, etc.).” The Wolf, sacred to the Menominee, would never be a source of drinking water again.
Among Exxon’s more egregious strategies to implement their mine were attempts to pressure Department of Natural Resources Secretary Carroll Besadny into changing the status of the upper Wolf River as an “Outstanding Resource Water.” The corporation received help from the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board. Three Thompson-appointed members of the Board “consistently blocked Outstanding classification for the Wolf River,” according to Gedicks.
Wisconsinites sighed a needed breath of relief as Governor Thompson stumbled off to Washington, heeding Bush II’s call.
In many battles that pit economic gain against environmental preservation, corporations drive wedges to split local people along ideological lines, creating small-scale civil wars. By crafting simplistic dichotomies—jobs vs. unemployment, wealth vs. poverty, Native Americans vs. whites—public relations flacks frame discourse, distracting citizens from turning their criticism on the real culprits. Corporations milk these divisions to their benefit, providing sizable funding to their chosen side. While Exxon and its clones invested millions in the propaganda campaign, the money, tax-deductible water over the dam for the corporations, may fuel anger and frustration in communities for decades to come. These relatively impoverished rural communities may revive the anti-Native American bigotry that overwhelmed northern Wisconsin throughout the 1980’s treaty-rights controversies.
The tribes will likely place the newly-acquired lands in a tax-exempt federal trust, effectively withdrawing the properties from local tax rolls. Forest County officials who already contend with limited tax income since 82 percent of the County’s land is in tax-free national forest, state-owned land, or Indian reservation, fear that losing property taxes from the 5,770 acres will put undue stress on taxpayers. With state and federal governments facing their own economic woes, Forest County is not likely to receive financial assistance and will need to cut social services even further.
How are outraged citizens going to cope with their last hopes for relative prosperity dashed by the ruthless Indians? Victor Bellomy, retired from the Department of Natural Resources, explained to the Journal-Sentinel , “None of us are angry at the Indians. It’s federal policy we fight. I don’t blame the Indians for taking a free lunch.” Now he and his brethren will labor to obstruct federal policy that they claim victimizes disgruntled white folk. Such racist sentiments may very well bend the ears of Ashcroft and Bush, two staunch advocates for pushing public policy headlong back into the 20th, if not the 19th, century.
Bellomy’s alleged “free lunch” cost the Indians and their allies millions over the years. They prevailed by establishing the priority of environmental over economic well-being in a region famed for its natural beauty. But getting the message to the people, many living in Madison and Milwaukee, took strategy as well as dollars.
While Exxon spent millions on television spots and full-page newspaper ads, the organized opposition worked with minuscule budgets in comparison. By the mid-1990s, the Internet became a cheap, effective tool for spreading the word on the mine. In 1995, two activist sisters living in Shawano, a gateway city to northern Wisconsin, started the web-based organization EarthWINS in an effort to educate folks statewide of the Crandon mine and to build a national and international hub for information on similar legal battles.
Other activists opposed to the mine turned to EarthWINS for web hosting, website development and registration, and other free or low-cost services that built their Internet presence. Online activism brought an anti-mining message to concerned individuals throughout the state, nation, and world.
Debra McNutt and Zoltan Grossman of the Midwest Treaty Network maintain that the protracted legal battle forged connections between formerly adversarial groups and “brought together Native American nations with sportfishing groups, environmentalists with unionists, and rural residents with urban students.” “Old-fashioned grassroots organizing” connected these fragmented parts into a politically powerful whole that accomplished what few believed possible.
By elevating a local battle to the state and national level, activists enlisted the energy, influence, and comparative wealth of environmentalists who valued the pristine nature of the region. These locals who view Indians as the enemy fail to register urban-rural power differentials as a more significant explanation for their loss. Madison’s activist community, much closer to the state’s power structures, influenced policy in the capital city.
The purchase agreement may set precedent for other gambling- wealthy tribes fighting similar resource wars. Environmental racism has depended on indigenous peoples’ susceptibility to economic incentives in exchange for health- threatening nuclear waste or environmentally-destructive resource extraction. With padded wallets, tribes that have bilked foolhardy gamblers of their savings may be more likely to say “No” to exploiters.
While boosting morale for the Sokaogan and Potawatomi, the land purchase has seriously demoralized mining advocates. Former mining company director, Gordon Connor, Jr., blames an “anti-corporate culture” in the state for his inability to sell the minerals to any mining interests in the world.
This model for resistance, already proven effective in the north woods of the U.S. dairyland, may be one of Wisconsin’s most valuable exports, eclipsing the ephemeral wealth secreted in a bed of zinc and copper.
Douglas J. Buege, an educator and freelance writer, holds a doctorate in environmental philosophy and spends as much time as possible in Wisconsin’s north woods.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.