The end of this month, Oct. 28, marks the 20th anniversary of the historic victory over the controversial Crandon mine project adjacent to the Mole Lake Sokaogon Ojibwe Reservation.
(photo credit: In 1997, about 250 supporters of a mining moratorium bill, including representatives from the state's tribes, gathered outside of the Capitol carrying signs, chanting and beating a drum.
STATE JOURNAL ARCHIVES)
Veterans of that 28-year (1975-2003) battle against the Crandon metallic sulfide mine will gather on the Mole Lake Reservation on Oct. 28 to commemorate the grassroots environmental, sportfishing and tribal victory over the world’s largest energy company (Exxon) and the world’s largest mining company (BHP Billiton).
Situated at the headwaters of the Wolf River, the proposed underground mine was 1 mile upstream from the tribe’s wild rice lake, five miles from the Forest County Potawatomi Reservation, and 40 miles (via the Wolf River) upstream from the Menominee Nation. In 1976, I was a sociology graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when I was asked to assist the Mole Lake Band in their effort to protect their wild rice lake from mining pollution. The mainstream political consensus at the time was that the mine was inevitable, given the large size of the zinc-copper deposit, promised jobs and taxes, and Exxon’s political influence in the state.
The potential destruction of the tribe’s wild rice beds was of little concern to Exxon. It was simply part of the cost of economic development. In 1979 I was part of a multidisciplinary team that produced an alternative analysis for the Mole Lake Band that challenged many of the claims made by Exxon about the impacts of the proposed mine. The international mining industry was shocked when a broad multiracial, rural-based grassroots alliance defeated the world’s largest mining corporation. How did this happen? Dale Alberts, president of Nicolet Minerals, a subsidiary of BHP Billiton, acknowledged: “A major problem in the beginning was the company did a poor job of communicating to the local people. Environmental groups got out ahead and frightened people.” But what really frightened people was the prospect of acidic mine waste piles 90 feet deep covering 355 acres at the headwaters of the pristine Wolf River. Native and non-Native groups mistrusted the DNR to defend their rights and found that tribal environmental regulations were stronger than state law in protecting the Wolf River’s fishery and tourism economy.
In the end, the Mole Lake Ojibwe and the Forest County Potawatomi tribes purchased the 5,000-acre Crandon mine property and mineral rights for $16.5 million. The land is now managed as a conservation area devoted to sustainable land management practices, tribal cultural values and tourism suitable to this environmentally sensitive area.
After the Crandon defeat, the mining industry urgently discussed the need for a “social license to operate,” with which the mining companies work to win broad support for their extractive activities. The failure to obtain such a social license raises the political and financial risks of a project and can often lead to the defeat of a mining project by widespread community opposition.
This is exactly what happened at Crandon. In 2011, a similar Indian-environmental alliance formed when the Gogebic Taconite (GTac) company proposed a mountaintop removal operation in the Penokee Hills above Lake Superior to create the largest open pit iron mine in the world. The proposed mine was upstream from the largest remaining wild rice wetland in the entire Great Lakes basin on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation. The Bad River Band asserted their sovereignty and GTac pulled the plug on their project in 2015. The assertion of tribal sovereignty, combined with building alliances with the non-Native communities in the watersheds at risk from ecologically destructive mining projects has proven to be an effective strategy.
The success of these struggles has already provided inspiration for ongoing mine battles at the Reef project in Marathon County, the Bend project in Taylor County and the Back Forty project next to the Menominee River on the Michigan-Wisconsin border.
Al Gedicks is executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and emeritus professor of environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.