"Taking it to the Top: Grassroots Organizing in the New Corporate Era"
"Wisconsin's Rural Rebellion"

"The increasingly sophisticated political maneuvering by environmental special interest groups have made permitting a mine in Wisconsin an impossibility."
      --From an editorial in North American Mining (a journal of the U.S. and Canadian mining industry; August/September 1998, p. 3)

Wisconsin's movement against sulfide mining:
a (partial) success in grassroots organizing

By the Midwest Treaty Network

The Wisconsin movement for a sulfide mining moratorium and against the proposed Crandon mine may appear to have come out of nowhere, but it has actually been growing in northern Wisconsin for over two decades. In 1975, Exxon discovered the large Crandon zinc-copper sulfide deposit in Forest County, one mile upstream from the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation, five miles upstream from the Wolf River (which flows through the Menominee Reservation), and five miles downwind from the Potawatomi Reservation. A local movement slowly grew against the metallic sulfide mine proposal, which local resort owners and tribal members felt would eventually release sulfuric acids into the trout-rich Wolf River. Citing low metal prices, Exxon withdrew in 1986, only to return in 1992.

In the meantime, between 1986 and 1992, several dramatic changes took place in northern Wisconsin. 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 real environmental threats. Second, local environmentalists and the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa managed to stop the Canadian firm Noranda from opening the Lynne zinc-silver mine near the Willow Flowage in Oneida County. Third, the Kennecott Corporation fought successfully to open the Ladysmith copper-gold mine in Rusk County, next to the Flambeau River, after the Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa ran out of funds to stop the mine in court. Fourth, the Mole Lake Chippewa, Menominee, Potawatomi, Oneida, Mohican (Stockbridge-Munsee) and other Wisconsin tribes opened casinos, generating income that enabled them to better fight mining companies in the courts, and in the arena of public opinion.

Our group, the Midwest Treaty Network, was founded in 1989 as an alliance of Indian and non-Indian associations supporting Native American sovereignty (see the web site below). As the anti-treaty groups declined, we saw new opportunities to build bridges between Native nations, grassroots environmental groups, and sportfishing groups. We helped organize people to attend gatherings against the Lynne and Ladysmith mines in 1991, and in 1992-94 helped set up a series of meetings-- in Tomahawk, Lac du Flambeau, Ladysmith, and Mole Lake--to help build an alliance against mining companies on the frontlines. It was during this time that Rusk County activist Evelyn Churchill started proposing a moratorium on sulfide mining. In 1994, we sponsored a large rally in Madison, and co-sponsored (with the Indigenous Environmental Network) a Protect The Earth Gathering that drew 1,000 people to Mole Lake.

In 1995, the Network initiated the Wolf Watershed Educational Project (WWEP), which quickly mushroomed into a grassroots alliance of about 30 Native American, environmental, and sportfishing groups, and held monthly strategy meetings 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 mine 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 (which was covered only by northern media). A 1997 tour around other parts of the state increased support for the Moratorium bill by then introduced into the Legislature. Like the other tour, it stimulated the formation of local groups, local government resolutions, media coverage, and ties between established groups via the Internet. On the tours, many local citizens heard from Native American representatives for the first time in their lives.

The mining companies responded to this and other grassroots campaigns with newspaper ads, radio ads, a $1 million blitz of TV ads, and a $1 million lobbying effort. Nevertheless, in March 1998, the Legislature passed the moratorium bill after initially successful attempts to weaken it, 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, which it turned over to its Toronto-based partner Rio Algom, Ltd. The moratorium did not stop the Crandon mine, but requires companies to show one example of a North American metallic sulfide mine (open for ten years and closed for ten years) that did not pollute the environment.

What happened? How did such a small grassroots movement using old- fashioned education and organizing manage to slow down the corporate Goliath?

•   Part of the answer lies in Wisconsin's history of environmental ethics, as the home of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and the Menominee Chief Oshkosh.

•   Part of the answer lies in the state's tradition of populist and progressive politics, with a healthy dose of mistrust of corporations and their collaborators in government.

•   Part of the answer lies in the perseverance of northern Wisconsin Native American nations for their sovereignty and treaty rights.

•   Part of the answer also lies in a regional rebellion by people (regardless of race) in northern Wisconsin, which has been historically poorer than the south, and neglected by the state government in Madison.

Resource corporations are used dealing with a certain type of environmental movement. The stereotype of an environmental group is one made up largely of white, urban, upper middle class, and younger people--who go to protest harmful projects that are backed by rural communities for the jobs. The companies and its Wise Use front groups were able to portray such groups as hippies and yuppies who do not care about rural people, and urban-based environmental groups 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, and the economic disruption caused by mines that mainly give jobs to skilled outsiders. The companies slowly found out that they could not successfully use the same divide-and-conquer tactics that had worked so well elsewhere in the country. Public relations experts were very experienced in these tactics, and very good at them, but the tactics simply did not work against a broad-based, grassroots movement like they did against professionally staffed environmental groups.

•   First, they tried to split northerners by race. Some of the mining companies may have felt that, because of the treaty rights conflicts, white sportfishing groups would not join hands with the Chippewa or Menominee. Yet the groups slowly realized that if sulfide mines were allowed to open, there might not be fish in some waterways to argue about. Governor Thompson also threatened to close the casinos if the tribes did not back off on their federally backed environmental regulations. Not only did these tactics not work, but many non-Indian communities dependent on the casinos backed the tribes, and Nashville township voters next to the mine even elected a Mole Lake Chippewa to their 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. Yet the moratorium concept had emerged from rural groups, and rural legislators quickly learned that their constituents strongly supported it. Hundreds of signs sprouted up on northern roads, and the theme of regional pride was claimed by anti-mining groups before the Wise Use groups could get their hands on it. Several town boards were voted out after they made deals with mining companies.

•   Third, the companies tried to split people by class. In one of its TV ads, Exxon displayed a Milwaukee Steelworkers union local president, who backed mining because many Wisconsin plants manufacture mining equipment. 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 companies' health and safety track records. Over a dozen union locals and labor councils (many of whose members enjoy fishing in the north) passed resolutions for a moratorium..

Try as they might, the corporations and their supporters could not divide the people of Wisconsin by race, by region, or by class. Already stung by its the Valdez disaster in Alaska, Exxon did not want to face another public relations loss. After viewing the train blockade by Bad River Chippewa that stopped a mine in nearby Michigan, the companies also realize that the tribes and their allies will never back down even if a Crandon mine permit is granted. Now, international mining journals express worry about the contagious spread of anti-mining sentiment from Wisconsin through the Internet, by "barbarians in cyberspace," and place Wisconsin together with Canada, Australia, and Papua New Guinea as the main global battlegrounds for the industry's future.

The movement is not stopping, because the moratorium is only one step toward the goal of forcing the companies to withdraw--it only the tip of the iceberg that will sink the unsinkable ship. Many Wisconsinites are working in legal, technical, political, and spiritual areas not only to stop the Crandon mine, but the planned metallic sulfide mining district. The Protect The Earth Journey walked from the Red Cliff Chippewa Reservation on Lake Superior, to State Capitol on May 29-June 27, advocating a "Seventh Generation" constitutional amendment to protect the environment.

A late speaking tour in Sepetmber will involve Ontario unionists, environmentalists, and Native people with first-hand experience of Rio Algom's mining record. A depression in metals prices stemming from the Asian economic crisis, the glut in metals markets stemming from newly accessible mines in the former Soviet Union, and the decreased use of metals in automaking and the military (the major consumer of metals) all point toward bad times ahead for mining companies.

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--one that is not as easily divided and conquered. The Wisconsin anti-mining movement can provide a model not only to environmental alliances, but to grassroots educational and organizing campaigns that operate not on large staffs and funding proposals, but on imagination and community support that enables them to outfox the world's largest multinational corporations.

Wolf Watershed Educational Project
c/o Midwest Treaty Network,
P.O. Box 1045,
Eau Claire WI 54702 USA
E-mail: mtn@igc.org
Tel/Fax (715) 833-8552
Toll-free hotline (800) 445-8615

Web site: http://treaty.indigenousnative.org/content.html
Web links: http://www.earthwins.com
    See also the books -
  • "The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations" by Al Gedicks (South End Press, Boston, 1993) ISBN 0-89608-462-0; $15.00,
  • "Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and for the Earth" by Walt Bresette and Rick Whaley. (New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, 1994) ISBN 0-86571-257-3; $17.95

March 10, 2001 WWEP meeting
Wolf Watershed Educational Project meeting in the rebuilt Nii Win House next to the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation and the Crandon mine site, on March 10, 2001. Photo: Sonny Wreczycki.

Midwest Treaty Network Content Page