The Crandon Mine Saga


bitter 27-year battle over the unpopular proposed Crandon mine is
over. Two Wisconsin Native American tribes combined forces to purchase
mineral rights to an estimated 55 million tons of zinc- and copper-laden
ore, and the land containing these minerals, from Northern Wisconsin
Resources Group LLC (NWRG). 

October 28, 2003, the Forest County Potawatomi and the Sokaogan
band of Chippewa announced their purchase of 5,770 acres of the
Crandon mine site for $16.5 million. The tribal groups also gained
control of their previous enemy, Nicolet Minerals Company, a subsidiary
of NWRG. Nicolet Hardwood Corporation, a local timber company logging
the region since 1870, will co-manage timber resources with the

Sokaogan Chippewa, consistently labeled the poorest tribe in Wisconsin,
operate a modest casino in the small community of Mole Lake. Tourists
and vacationers regularly cruise through the town on their way north.
The proposed mine sits closest to the community’s Rice Lake.
Sulfide mining threatened the imminent demise of their culture,
which depends on wild rice beds they’ve defended since appropriating
the lands from previous Sioux occupants in the 1700s. 

tribal secretary Thomas VanZile recognizes that the fight to protect
the land has involved “great personal sacrifice for tribal
members. But it is a sacrifice that honors our ancestors and our

Potawatomi have managed to raise their standard of living by operating
a massive casino in downtown Milwaukee’s Menom- inee River
valley, 180 miles to the south. The tribal group fought vigilantly
to secure the urban site, first purchasing the land and then wheeling
and dealing to obtain legal permits for a bingo hall that eventually
morphed into a casino as Wisconsin’s anti-gambling senti- ments

land will be distributed evenly between the two tribal groups who
are also splitting expenses. Lacking the substantial revenues the
Potawatomi earn, the Sokaogan Chippewa will be hard pressed to pay
their share. The

Green Bay Press Gazette

asked Bob Schmitz,
organizer of the Wolf River Watershed Alliance, how the Sokaogan
could afford the purchase. His reply: “These people have mortgaged
their homes and their futures and probably their children’s
and grandchildren’s futures.” 

on October 28, Glenn Reynolds, long-time legal counselor for the
Sokaogan, found himself serving as project manager for newly-acquired
Nicolet Minerals Company. The Madison-based attorney drafted letters
to Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the
Army Corps of Engineers, formally withdrawing applications for mining
permits. He wrote: “Since most of the proposed pollution prevention
technology for this project has eventually failed over the long
term, it is highly likely that the citizens of the state would eventually
be faced with the burdens of clean-up costs in perpetuity if this
project were built as designed.”

or not this economic solution to the on-going power struggle between
multinational corporations and local people permanently stops the
mine remains to be seen, tribal ownership will offer greater control
in determining the lode’s future. Though economic difficulties
may ultimately pressure the groups to exploit the land’s subterranean
wealth, the Crandon area is less likely to serve as a resource colony,
exploited by a non-native corporation that cares little for the
people or the land. Likewise, if the mine goes forward, the parties
involved are likely to employ more environmentally-sound practices
than NWRG or its numerous predecessors, which include Exxon Minerals. 

wars have raged in the communities of Crandon and Mole Lake since
1976 when Exxon Minerals, a subsidiary of Exxon Oil, reported finding
zinc-copper deposits nestled in the headwaters of the Wolf River.
Despite their best public relations blitz, Exxon quickly found itself
fighting a losing battle for those minerals. 

the prices of zinc and copper waxed and waned over the years, so
did corporate interest in the mineral riches. Native Americans—including
the Menominee 30 miles down the Wolf River—environmentalists,
and a collection of landowners, vacationers, and activists, formed
an alliance to fight Exxon’s multipronged attack. Exxon attempted
to divide and conquer this ragtag league, but dirty practices only
served to strengthen public resolve. In 1982, various groups founded
the Wisconsin Resource Protection Council to counteract Exxon’s
mine application process. 

when current Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson,
an advocate for development and big business’s number one amigo,
sat on Wisconsin’s throne, Exxon had little luck. Thompson
gave Exxon as much help as he could muster, appointing key positions
to grease the rails to Exxon’s success. The WRPC coalition
held Exxon in a stalemate that lasted until 1998 when the multinational
sold 50 percent of its interest in the mine to Rio Algom, which
renamed the project Nicolet Minerals Company, its name drawn from
the surrounding Nicolet National Forest. 

locals, enticed by economic opportunity, worked diligently to further
Exxon’s plans, turning on friends and family in the process.
The proposed mine pitted the town of Nashville, which did not want
400 acres of tailing ponds, against Lincoln township, which would
have “benefited” from the mine’s alleged tax revenues.
Potawatomi spokespeople argued that the “boomtown” syndrome
would bust Crandon as soon as Exxon pulled out of the area, citing
a former mayor of Craig, Colorado, who argued, after his community
was ruined: “The mining companies’ economic growth projections
weren’t worth the paper they were written on.” In the
meantime, Forest County and the communities would need to provide
services for the influx of mine employees. While many locals hoped
to find jobs at the new mine, others pointed out that mine personnel
would likely come from outside Wisconsin. 

corporate spokespeople argued mining would have a negligible environmental
impact, skeptical locals did their own research. The Menominee Nation
commissioned a study revealing that long- and short-term consequences
of the proposed sulfide mine on the Wolf River Basin would be profound.
Of the 58 million tons of acidic tailings produced in the mine’s
20-year predicted life, Al Gedicks, author of

Resource Wars

(South End Press), notes, “Approximately half of the tonnage
would consist of fine tailings, with the consistency of talcum powder,
and would contain high levels of acid-generating sulfides and other
heavy metals (arsenic, lead, cadmium, zinc, copper, mercury, etc.).”
The Wolf, sacred to the Menominee, would never be a source of drinking
water again. 

Exxon’s more egregious strategies to implement their mine were
attempts to pressure Department of Natural Resources Secretary Carroll
Besadny into changing the status of the upper Wolf River as an “Outstanding
Resource Water.” The corporation received help from the Wisconsin
Natural Resources Board. Three Thompson-appointed members of the
Board “consistently blocked Outstanding classification for
the Wolf River,” according to Gedicks. 

sighed a needed breath of relief as Governor Thompson  stumbled
off to Washington, heeding Bush II’s call. 

many battles that pit economic gain against environmental preservation,
corporations drive wedges to split local people along ideological
lines, creating small-scale civil wars. By crafting simplistic dichotomies—jobs
vs. unemployment, wealth vs. poverty, Native Americans vs. whites—public
relations flacks frame discourse, distracting citizens from turning
their criticism on the real culprits. Corporations milk these divisions
to their benefit, providing sizable funding to their chosen side.
While Exxon and its clones invested millions in the propaganda campaign,
the money, tax-deductible water over the dam for the corporations,
may fuel anger and frustration in communities for decades to come.
These relatively impoverished rural communities may revive the anti-Native
American bigotry that overwhelmed northern Wisconsin throughout
the 1980’s treaty-rights controversies. 

tribes will likely place the newly-acquired lands in a tax-exempt
federal trust, effectively withdrawing the properties from local
tax rolls. Forest County officials who already contend with limited
tax income since 82 percent of the County’s land is in tax-free
national forest, state-owned land, or Indian reservation, fear that
losing property taxes from the 5,770 acres will put undue stress
on taxpayers. With state and federal governments facing their own
economic woes, Forest County is not likely to receive financial
assistance and will need to cut social services even further. 

are outraged citizens going to cope with their last hopes for relative
prosperity dashed by the ruthless Indians? Victor Bellomy, retired
from the Department of Natural Resources, explained to the


“None of us are angry at the Indians. It’s federal policy
we fight. I don’t blame the Indians for taking a free lunch.”
Now he and his brethren will labor to obstruct federal policy that
they claim victimizes disgruntled white folk. Such racist sentiments
may very well bend the ears of Ashcroft and Bush, two staunch advocates
for pushing public policy headlong back into the 20th, if not the
19th, century. 

alleged “free lunch” cost the Indians and their allies
millions over the years. They prevailed by establishing the priority
of environmental over economic well-being in a region famed for
its natural beauty. But getting the message to the people, many
living in Madison and Milwaukee, took strategy as well as dollars. 

Exxon spent millions on television spots and full-page newspaper
ads, the organized opposition worked with minuscule budgets in comparison.
By the mid-1990s, the Internet became a cheap, effective tool for
spreading the word on the mine. In 1995, two activist sisters living
in Shawano, a gateway city to northern Wisconsin, started the web-based
organization EarthWINS in an effort to educate folks statewide of
the Crandon mine and to build a national and international hub for
information on similar legal battles. 

activists opposed to the mine turned to EarthWINS for web hosting,
website development and registration, and other free or low-cost
services that built their Internet presence. Online activism brought
an anti-mining message to concerned individuals throughout the state,
nation, and world.  

McNutt and Zoltan Grossman of the Midwest Treaty Network maintain
that the protracted legal battle forged connections between formerly
adversarial groups and “brought together Native American nations
with sportfishing groups, environmentalists with unionists, and
rural residents with urban students.” “Old-fashioned grassroots
organizing” connected these fragmented parts into a politically
powerful whole that accomplished what few believed possible. 

elevating a local battle to the state and national level, activists
enlisted the energy, influence, and comparative wealth of environmentalists
who valued the pristine nature of the region. These locals who view
Indians as the enemy fail to register urban-rural power differentials
as a more significant explanation for their loss. Madison’s
activist community, much closer to the state’s power structures,
influenced policy in the capital city.

purchase agreement may set precedent for other gambling- wealthy
tribes fighting similar resource wars. Environmental racism has
depended on indigenous peoples’ susceptibility to economic
incentives in exchange for health- threatening nuclear waste or
environmentally-destructive resource extraction. With padded wallets,
tribes that have bilked foolhardy gamblers of their savings may
be more likely to say “No” to exploiters. 

boosting morale for the Sokaogan and Potawatomi, the land purchase
has seriously demoralized mining advocates. Former mining company
director, Gordon Connor, Jr., blames an “anti-corporate culture”
in the state for his inability to sell the minerals to any mining
interests in the world.  

model for resistance, already proven effective in the north woods
of the U.S. dairyland, may be one of Wisconsin’s most valuable
exports, eclipsing the ephemeral wealth secreted in a bed of zinc
and copper.

Douglas J. Buege,
an educator and freelance writer, holds a doctorate in environmental
philosophy and spends as much time as possible in Wisconsin’s
north woods.