Crandon Mine Victory in Wisconsin Won by a Historic Alliance
by Debra McNutt and Zoltan Grossman

This fall, the 28-year fight to stop the proposed Crandon mine in northeastern Wisconsin came to a sudden end. Opponents defeated the controversial zinc-copper project, which they had long contended would harm the local environment, economy and Native cultures, and, in the end, two Native American tribes gained ownership and control of the mine site.

The Forest County Potawatomi and the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa (Ojibwe) paid more than $16 million for the 5,000-acre mine site. On October 28, tribal members and non-Indian mine opponents flooded into the Nicolet Minerals Information Center, now owned by Mole Lake, to celebrate. The Nicolet Minerals Company has dropped all mining permit applications for the Crandon mine.

As he hung a giant "sold" sign on the building, Potawatomi tribal member Dennis Shepherd exclaimed, "We rocked the boat. Now we own the boat." The two tribes divided the Crandon mine site between themselves, to ensure that a toxic, metallic sulfide mine could never threaten them in the future.

This remarkable victory goes beyond stopping the project. In the process of organizing, the grassroots opposition movement helped to build bridges between groups that had previously been adversaries. It brought together Native American nations with sport-fishing groups, environmentalists with unionists and rural residents with urban students.

This unusual alliance first drove out the world's largest resource corporation (Exxon) and then the world's largest mining company (the Australian-South African firm BHP Billiton). The shaft mine was proposed in an area that encompasses many wetlands, Ojibwe wild rice beds and Native burial sites, as well as prized trout, walleye and sturgeon in the Wolf River (see EF!J August-September 2002).

Through old-fashioned grassroots organizing, which included speaking tours and local government resolutions, the movement campaigned throughout Wisconsin for a statewide mining moratorium and a still-proposed ban on cyanide use in mining. Using the Internet, the campaign got the message out around the world, even leading to a rally in Australia. This is an example of "globalization-from-below" in the midwestern Heartland.

International mining journals characterized the Wisconsin organizers as "barbarians at the gates of cyberspace" who were becoming "increasingly sophisticated." The Wolf Watershed Educational Project was portrayed as a "threat to the global mining industry." Last year, one mining industry think tank, the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, gave Wisconsin the lowest "Investment Attractiveness Index" of any political unit in the entire world (a score of 13 out of 100).

The tribes bought the site at a "rummage sale" price partly because the grassroots movement had driven away potential corporate partners for the Nicolet Minerals Company, and therefore had caused the sale price to drop by tens of millions of dollars. Nicolet's former director, Gordon Conner, Jr., complained that Wisconsin's "anticorporate culture" defeated the mine, adding, "We have engaged every significant mining interest in the world. The message is clear. They don't want to do business in the state of Wisconsin." Former Nicolet President Dale Alberts said that the Crandon mine "is dead and gone forever. I think it is essentially the end of mining in the state. It is a bitter pill."

How did this strong anti-mining movement develop in Wisconsin? Because it effectively drew from four strands in the state's history. It engaged the tradition of progressive populism, which has a history of mistrusting big business. It exhibited the environmental ethics of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, which are still strong in rural areas. It tapped into the historic resentment that rural northern Wisconsin residents have for the state government in Madison. And it was the historic determination of Native American nations, including the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Menominee, to protect their treaty rights and tribal sovereignty that proved to be the decisive factor in the campaign's success.

The mining companies not only tried to pit whites against Native Americans, but also rural northern residents against urban southern residents and union members against environmentalists. They failed in each attempt. The mining companies could not divide Wisconsin communities by race, by region or by class.

Resource corporations are no strangers to dealing with environmental groups made up largely of white, urban, upper-middle-class people. The companies have been able to portray such activists as yuppies or hippies who do not care about rural jobs.

What corporations face in Wisconsin is something new--an environmental movement that is rural-based, multi-racial, middle-class, working-class and made up of many youth and elders. This movement does not just address a corporation's environmental threats, but also its threats to Native cultures, local economies and democratic institutions, as well as its "boom-and-bust" social disruptions and its mistreatment of union employees.

This type of "people power" movement also defeated a Perrier-owned springwater drilling project in central Wisconsin in 2002 and is opposing an electric transmission line in northwestern Wisconsin. New environmental groups are going beyond the message of "not in my backyard" to "not in anyone's backyard," corresponding with a deeper critique of our corporate economy and politics. Environmentalists are asking why we need centralized electric grids instead of renewable energy, bottled water instead of cleaner water supplies and new sources of metal instead of recycled materials.

The Crandon mine victory points toward new paths for people of diverse backgrounds to work together. It also shows how communities can together build a sustainable future on the land. The former mine site will now be managed to protect its natural and cultural resources, as well as to develop a local sustainable economy.

For the local Native and non-Native people who have spent so much time and money to defeat this project, the victory brings a sense of peace after a quarter century of struggle. At the Nicolet Minerals Information Center, Mole Lake veteran Jerry Burnett brought out an American flag he had long carried upside down, as a symbol of distress, and turned it upright.

Burnett told the gathered crowd, "I fought in Vietnam. When I came back, I swore I would not fight another war except in defense of my country. And then I had to fight the mining company to defend my own soil. We have won this war. Now the war is over."

For more information, contact the Midwest Treaty Network, POB 1045, Eau Claire, WI 54702; (715 833-8552; and Wolf River Protection Fund.

Debra McNutt and Zoltan Grossman are members of the Midwest Treaty Network. McNutt is a longtime anti-racism and environmental organizer, while Grossman is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

© Earth First! Journal January-February 2004