Wisconsin Grassroots Alliance Close to Victory

Author(s): Debi McNutt
Date Published: July 22, 2006
Source: Political Environments #6, Fall 1998

The Wisconsin movement against sulfide mining has been growing in northern Wisconsin for over two decades. Northern Wisconsin, or the "Northwoods," is a heavily forested, sparsely populated region with many pristine lakes and rivers. Though economically poor, it is culturally rich.

In 1975, Exxon discovered the large Crandon zinc-copper sulfide deposit in Forest County, one mile upstream from the wild rice beds of the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation, five miles upstream from the Wolf River (sacred to the Menominee Nation 40 miles downstream), and five miles downwind from the Potawatomi Reservation. A movement of local citizens grew against the metallic sulfide mine, which they feared would release sulfuric acids into the trout-rich Wolf River. Exxon announced its withdrawal in 1986, citing low metal prices, only to return in 1992.

In the meantime, between 1986 and 1992, several dramatic changes took place. First, a large movement against Chippewa treaty rights used harassment and violence to try and stop the Chippewa from spearfishing. Anti-treaty groups appealed to many white sportfishermen by portraying themselves as environmentalists, but were gradually exposed as simply racist, and not truly concerned with protecting the fish from environmental threats. Second, the Kennecott Corporation fought successfully to open the Ladysmith copper-gold mine in northwestern Wisconsin. Third, environmentalists and the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa managed to stop Noranda from opening the Lynne zinc-silver mine in north-central Wisconsin. Fourth, the Mole Lake, Menominee, Potawatomi, Oneida, Mohican (Stockbridge-Munsee) and other area tribes opened casinos, generating income that enabled them to better fight mining companies.

Our group, the Midwest Treaty Network, was founded in 1989 as an alliance of Indian and non-Indian groups supporting Native American sovereignty. As the anti-treaty groups declined, we saw new oppor tunities to build bridges between Native nations, grassroots environmental groups, and sportfishing groups. In 1991-93, we coordinated gatherings and a series of meetings to build an alliance against mining companies. In 1994, we organized a large rally in Madison, and co-sponsored (with the Indigenous Environmental Network) the Protecting Mother Earth Conference at Mole Lake. It was during this time that Rusk County activist Evelyn Churchill started proposing a moratorium on sulfide mining.

In 1995, the Network initiated the Wolf Watershed Educational Project (WWEP), which quickly mushroomed into a loose grassroots alliance of about 30 Native American, environmental, and sportfishing groups, which held monthly strategy meetings on the frontlines around the north. Out of those meetings came a Spring 1996 speaking tour up the Wolf River, and also the Wisconsin River, where Exxon was then proposing to dump its liquid wastes. The tour reached 22 communities and 1,100 people, and culminated with a rally of 1,000 in front of the company headquarters in Rhinelander. A 1997 tour around other parts of the state increased support for a moratorium bill by then introduced into the Legislature. The tours stimulated the formation of local groups, local government resolutions, media coverage, and ties between reservations and non-Indian communities.

The mining companies responded to this grassroots campaign with newspaper ads, radio ads, a $1 million blitz of TV ads, and a $1 million lobbying effort. Nevertheless, in Spring 1998, the Legislature passed the moratorium bill, and pro-mining Republican Governor Tommy Thompson was forced to sign the bill to ensure his re-election. By then, Exxon had withdrawn from the project, and turned it over to its Canadian partner Rio Algom, Ltd. The moratorium does not stop the Crandon mine, but requires companies to show one example of a North American metallic sulfide mine (open for 10 years and closed for 10 years) that did not pollute the environment.

How did such a small grassroots movement slow the corporate Goliath? Part of the answer lies in Wisconsin's history of environmental ethics, and a tradition of rural people's general mistrust of corporations. Part of the answer also lies in the assertion of sovereignty by the Native American nations, and in a regional rebellion by Native and non-Native people in northern Wisconsin (which has been historically poorer than the southern part of the state, and neglected by the state government in Madison).

Resource corporations are used to dealing with a certain type of environmental movement. The stereotype of an environmental group is one that is largely made up of white, urban, middle class and upper middle class people-who oppose harmful projects that are backed by rural communities for the jobs. The companies and their Wise Use front groups were able to portray such environmentalists as hippies and yuppies who do not care about rural people, and environmentalists would often reinforce the stereotype by not being inclusive or supportive of people besides themselves.

What the companies faced in northern Wisconsin was something new-an environmental movement that was multiracial, rural-based, middle-class and working-class, and made up of many older people. The movement did not just address the environmental aspects of mining, but the economic and cultural impacts, including threats to the local tourism industry and Native American ways of life. The companies slowly found that they could not use the same divide-and-conquer tactics that had worked so well elsewhere in the country. The tactics simply did not work against a broad-based, grassroots movement like they did against professional environmental groups.

First, they tried to split northerners by race. Some of the mining companies may have felt, because of the treaty rights conflicts, that sportfishing groups would not join hands with the Chippewa or Menominee. Governor Thompson also threatened to close tribal casinos if the tribes did not back off on their strong tribal environmental regulations, which are backed by the federal Clean Air and Clean Water Act. Not only did these tactics not work, but many non-Indian communities backed the tribes on the casinos, and voters next to the proposed mine even elected a Mole Lake Chippewa to their town board.

Second, the companies tried to split rural against urban people, by portraying anti-mining forces in their ads as "well-funded," and coming out of Madison and other large cities in southern Wisconsin. Yet the moratorium had emerged from rural groups, and rural legislators quickly learned that their constituents strongly supported it.

Third, the companies tried to split people by class. In a TV ad, they displayed a Milwaukee Steelworkers union local president, who backed mining equipment contracts. Yet Rio Algom's uranium mines in Ontario had killed dozens of Steelworker members in the 1970s, and Wisconsin union members formed the Committee of Labor Against Sulfide Pollution (CLASP) to expose the company track record. Many union locals and labor councils passed resolutions in favor of the moratorium, including the United Autoworkers, Steelworkers, building trade and construction workers, teachers, state employees, and communication workers.

Racial divisions did not work, urban-rural divisions did not work, and class divisions did not work. Already stung by its the Valdez disaster in Alaska, Exxon did not want to face another public relations loss. Seeing the train blockade by Bad River Chippewa that stopped a mine nearby in Michigan, the companies also knew that the tribes and their allies would never back down even if a Crandon permit was granted. Now, international mining journals are very worried about the spread of anti-mining sentiment through the Internet from Wisconsin groups, and place Wisconsin with Canada, Australia, and Papua New Guinea as the main battlegrounds for the industry's future.

The movement is not stopping, with a Protect The Earth Journey from Lake Superior to the State Capitol (May 29-June 27). Participants walked from the north to the south, stopping in cities and villages that had not yet been educated about mining issues. An upcoming speaking tour will involve Ontario people with first-hand experience of Rio Algom.

The companies are not only worried about the spread of the moratorium concept to other states and countries, but the spread of the concept of a different kind of environmental movement.

The Wisconsin anti-mining movement can provide a model to grassroots educational and organizing campaigns that operate not on large staffs and funding proposals, but on imagination and community support.

This article is dedicated to the memory of those who stood with us in the struggle to protect our waters:
Evelyn Churchill, Rusk County Citizens Action Group;
Hilary "Sparky" Waukau, Menominee Nation;
Louie Hawpetoss, Menominee Nation;
Ron Smith, Mole Lake Sokaogon
Chippewa Community. N

< For more information, contact:

Midwest Treaty Network
c/o Debi McNutt
731 State St. Madison WI 53703
Tel./Fax (608) 246-2256
Toll-free Hotline (800) 445-8615
E-mail: mtn@igc.apc.org
Web site: http://www.alphacdc.com/treaty/content.html