By Zoltan Grossman and Debi McNutt
Midwest Treaty Network
versions of this piece ran in
Isthmus (Madison) and Shepherd Ex-
press (Milwaukee) in November 2000.
Exactly 100 years ago this month,
"Fightin' Bob" LaFollette was elected governor, partly due to the strength
of a populist farmers' movement, which helped him take on corporate monopolies
such as the railroads.
Today, most Wisconsin urban residents assume that the
only important political news comes out of the State Capitol, and sometimes
out of a campus, but that Wisconsin's rural areas are a cultural and political
wasteland where nothing ever happens.
Hit the restart button.
Wisconsin is in the midst of the one of the biggest
upsurges in rural activism that has been seen for decades. Our countryside
has sprouted at least four major rural alliances against corporate proposals
that threaten the environmental and economic well being of rural communities.
These new populist alliances are taking on four different
kinds of companies:
* Mining companies.
In northeastern Wisconsin, local residents have been fighting to stop
the Crandon metallic sulfide mine for 25 years.
The mine is proposed by a Canadian company, next to wild rice beds of
Mole Lake Ojibwe Reservation, and upstream from the pristine Wolf River
and the Menominee Nation. It threatens water with sulfuric acid, toxic
chemicals, and underground water "drawdown." Despite the passage of a
moratorium law three years ago, the mine is not dead yet. Many environmental
groups around the state are fighting the proposal, and are backing a bill
that would prohibit the 20 tons a month of cyanide planned for use at
the mine. One alliance on the frontlines of the controversy, the Wolf
Watershed Educational Project (WWEP), has united tribes with sportfishing
groups, grassroots environmentalists with unionists, and local rural residents
with urban students (see http://www.treatyland.com).
* Utility companies.
In northwestern Wisconsin, the private utility Wisconsin Public Service
Corporation proposes a 13-story-tall, 345-kilovolt transmission
line from Duluth to Wausau, in order to ship electricity to Chicago
and (through a feeder line) to the Crandon mine. The new group Save Our
Unique Lands (SOUL) has organized to oppose the use of eminent domain
to condemn private farmland, and has researched health effects on cattle
and humans. The alliance has brought together farmers and other local
residents, tribes, and environmentalists (see http://www.wakeupwisconsin.com).
Residents of the southern Wisconsin towns of Cambridge and Edgerton have
also worked to stop power plant proposals, forming the similar grassroots
groups POWER and RURAL.
* Water companies.
In central Wisconsin, the DNR recently permitted Nestle-owned Perrier
to sink high-capacity wells at Big Springs in Adams County, that would
pump springwater 24 hours a day, with no legal protection against springs
and rural wells going dry. The Waterkeepers of Wisconsin (WOW) has united
farmers, other rural residents, and environmentalists in four counties,
and gained support from other parts of the state that may eventually see
their springwater going to the one-million-square-foot plastic bottle
plant (see http://www.friendsofthemecan.com).
* Agribusiness companies.
Around Wisconsin, family farmers continue to oppose farm foreclosures,
which are again climbing dramatically, and the battle is far from over.
They recently resurrected the "milk strike" of the 1930s. They have joined
other local residents in stopping enormous factory farms for hogs or dairy
cattle, such as the proposed corporate farm halted in the Town of Porter.
Wisconsin dairy farmers helped make BGH a global concern, and are now
turning to oppose the use of genetic engineering to manufacture "supercows"
that could only be afforded by corporate farms. The Madison area is fast
becoming an world epicenter of biotechnology experimentation, with little
public discussion on how new technologies will further disadvantage family
dairy operations (see http://www.familyfarm.org).
Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Garvey
has been an attorney and activist on behalf of all four of these rural
movements. At an April 29 anti-corporate rally at the Capitol, he observed
that "We've got these companies on the run, and they can't figure out
what's gone wrong....As people look to government and it does not respond,
they have to take matters into their own hands....We're not going to turn
our Dairyland over to the multinational corporations. This is a state
where people come first." But other than Garvey, few progressive leaders
have attended rural hearings and rallies, which consistently draw hundreds
of people. The real action is not in the State Capitol, but is only "trickling
up" to state politicians.
Governments. The new rural populist movement is taking
on state agencies that are trying to frustrate its aims, notably the Department
of Natural Resources (DNR) and Public Service Commission (PSC). The DNR
has opened an enormous loophole in the mining moratorium law, and recently
gave Perrier the go-ahead to start sucking out Big Springs. The PSC--which
is not to be confused with the corporation with the nearly identical name...or
is it?--has been greasing the skids for the transmission line. The rural
groups correctly view the DNR and PSC as beholden to Governor Thompson,
and have called for the independent appointment of the agency directors.
The rural groups are also reclaiming their local democratic
institutions in their townships and counties. Town boards that made deals
with the Crandon mine companies have been voted out of office, most famously
in the 1997 revolt in the Town of Nashville,
covering half the Crandon mine site. With a 99 percent turnout, Nashville
voters defeated a pro-mine town board, and elected an anti-mine board
led by Chairman Chuck Sleeter, whom they have since re-elected twice with
larger margins. A similar revolt shook the Town of New Haven in September,
when voters recalled a pro-Perrier town chairman, and replaced him with
anti-Perrier leader Chuck Hill, in an election covered by major TV networks
and Time magazine. If any other town chairs dare to sign secret deals
with multinational corporations, their voters may also "Chuck 'em out."
Perhaps the only governments that are truly trusted
by rural populist groups are the tribal governments. Even sportfishing
groups, who not that long ago were arguing with the Ojibwe (Chippewa)
and Menominee about off-reservation fishing rights, have joined with the
tribes to protect the same fish from the threat of mining. The Mole
Lake Ojibwe have used the federal Clean Water Act to strengthen their
reservation environmental laws, but for doing so have been slapped with
a lawsuit by
Attorney General James Doyle. Native Peoples have also
joined forces with SOUL farmers, not only because the transmission line
may affect Ojibwe reservations, but because some of the electricity would
be generated by dams that have flooded Manitoba
Cree lands. Finally, the Ho-Chunk Nation has come out in opposition
to Perrier�s plans, which is close to tribal cultural sites. In all these
cases, local non-Indians have found tribal officials more responsive to
their concerns and protective of the environment than state officials.
Not In Anyone's Back Yard. The grassroots rural organizers
are not only learning about indigenous peoples, but about union health
and safety issues, company track records Latin America, and the WTO. The
Spirit of Seattle is coming to the conservative-looking, salt-of-the-earth
residents of the Heartland. You can drive across Wisconsin, and in one
day see signs reading "Stop Crandon Mine," "No Way Perrier," "No Line,"
and "Milk Strike." If there was ever a revolution in Lake Wobegon, this
is what it would look like.
Corporations are used to 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 20-somethings--who
protest harmful projects that are backed by rural communities for the
jobs. The companies have been able to portray such groups as hippies and
yuppies who do not care about rural people, and urban-based environmentalists
would often reinforce the stereotype by not being inclusive or supportive
of people besides themselves. Companies have pigeonholed rural environmentalists
as "Not In My Backyard" (NIMBY) proponents who only seek to protect their
What the companies have faced in environmentally minded
rural Wisconsin is something new-- an environmental
movement that is multiracial, rural-based, middle-class and working-class,
and made up of many elders and youth. The movement does just address endangered
species, but endangered cultures and endangered local economies. By proposing
alternative sustainable development--such as appropriate energies and
metallic recycling--the groups can oppose new mines and lines with a message
of "Not In Anyone's Backyard" (NIABY). The companies have slowly found
out that they cannot successfully use the same divide-and-conquer tactics
that have worked so well elsewhere in the country.
Mining is one example where industry strategies are
clearly failing. One international mining journal
in 1997 discussed Wisconsin as one of the industry's main global battlegrounds,
where "the increasingly sophisticated political maneuvering by environmental
special interest groups have made permitting a mine...an impossibility."
Another journal this year portrayed the Wolf Watershed Educational Project
as an "example of what is becoming a very real threat to the global mining
industry." Yet another journal pointed out that Wisconsin "barbarians
in cyberspace" were spreading anti-corporate tactics around the world
through the Internet. The national media attention on the groups against
Perrier and transmission lines has also exposed the corporate fears that
Rural America is in revolt.
A united movement? The different rural populist groups
in Wisconsin are already joining forces with each other. Last April, a
Capitol rally against the mine, line, and Perrier drew 750 students
and others from around the state. On November 28, SOUL and WWEP plan a
joint noon rally at the Rhinelander Holiday Inn to greet the first PSC
hearing on the transmission line. If they join together, the rural groups
could form a strong populist environmental movement for democratic local
control and sustainability.
If the rural groups, however, also unite with urban-based
anti-corporate forces--who oppose sweatshops, W-2, job discrimination,
union busting, and the privatization of health care and prisons-- they
can form an even more powerful statewide anti-corporate movement. Such
a united grassroots anti-corporate coalition could not only help to prevent
future Tommy Thompsons, but to assert greater citizens' control over our
environment and economy, and to usher in a new Progressive Era.