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  Crandon mine victory in Wisconsin won by a historic alliance

                            By Debra McNutt and Zoltan Grossman


On October 28, 2003, the 28-year fight to stop the proposed Crandon mine in northeastern Wisconsin came to a sudden end. Not only had opponents defeated the controversial zinc-copper project, which they had long contended would harm the local environment, economy, and Native cultures. But in the end, two Native American tribes actually ended up owning and controlling the mine site itself.


Two Native communities next to the site, the Forest County Potawatomi and the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa (Ojibwe), paid $16.5 million for the 5,000-acre mine site. Mole Lake now owns the Nicolet Minerals Company. On October 28, tribal members and non-Indian mine opponents flooded into the Nicolet Minerals Information Center in Crandon to celebrate.


As he hung a giant “SOLD” sign on the building, Potawatomi tribal member Dennis Shepherd exclaimed: “We rocked the boat. Now we own the boat.” Native children climbed up on mining equipment, in a scene reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall.


The two tribes divided the Crandon mine site between themselves, to ensure that a metallic sulfide mine could never threaten them in the future. The move could be compared to the Allies carving up Germany after World War II, to ensure that the country would no longer be a threat.


The remarkable victory by Wisconsin’s grassroots movement against the Crandon mine goes beyond stopping the project. In the process of organizing, the opposition movement also helped build bridges between groups who had previously been adversaries. It brought together Native American nations with sportfishing groups, environmentalists with unionists, and rural residents with urban students. 


This unusual alliance first drove out the world’s largest resource corporation (Exxon), and then the world’s largest mining company (the Australian-South African firm BHP Billiton). The shaft mine was proposed in an area with many wetlands, Ojibwe wild rice beds, Native burial sites, and prized trout, walleye and sturgeon in the Wolf River just downstream from the site.


Through old-fashioned grassroots organizing (such as speaking tours and local government resolutions) the movement reached people throughout Wisconsin for a state mining moratorium, and a still-proposed ban on cyanide use in mining.  Through the Internet (through websites such as and, it got the message out around the world, even leading to a rally in Australia. The alliance is an example of “globalization-from-below” in the midwestern Heartland.


International mining journals in Britain and Canada complained that the Wisconsin organizers were “barbarians at the gates of cyberspace” that were becoming “increasingly sophisticated.” They portrayed the Wolf Watershed Educational Project as a “threat to the global mining industry.” One mining industry think tank, the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, earlier this year gave Wisconsin the lowest “Investment Attractiveness Index” of any political unit in the entire world, with a score of 13 out of a possible 100.


The tribes could buy the over 5,000-acre site at a “rummage sale” price partly because the movement had driven away potential corporate partners for the tiny Nicolet Mineral Co., and therefore driven down the price by tens of millions of dollars. The former mining company director, Gordon Connor Jr., complained that Wisconsin’s “anti-corporate culture” defeated the mine, adding, "We have engaged every significant mining interest in the world. The message is clear. They don't want to do business in the state of Wisconsin.” Former company president Dale Alberts said that the Crandon mine “"is dead and gone forever. I think it is

essentially the end of mining in the state…It is a bitter pill."


Why did this movement develop in Wisconsin? Because it effectively drew from four strands in the state’s history. It personified our history of progressive populism, which mistrusts Big Business.  It exhibited the environmental ethics of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, which are still strong in our rural areas. It   tapped into the historic resentment of rural northern Wisconsin residents against state government in Madison. It was the historic perseverance of Native American nations (such as the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Menominee) to protect their treaty rights and tribal sovereignty that proved to be the main deciding factor.


During the treaty rights conflict over Ojibwe spearfishing in the 1980s and early 1990s, Native Americans and sportfishing groups fought over the fish resource, but during the Crandon fight they united to protect the fish, and healed some of their divisions. Native and non-Native rural people mistrusted the Department of Natural Resources to defend their interests, and found that tribal environmental regulations were stronger than state laws in protecting the Wolf River’s tourism economy.


The mining companies not only tried to pit whites against Native Americans, but rural northern residents against urban southern residents, and union members against environmentalists.  They failed each time. The mining companies could not divide Wisconsin communities by race, by region, or by class.


Resource corporations are used to dealing with environmental groups made up largely of white, urban, upper-middle-class people. The companies have been able to portray such activists as yuppies or hippies who do not care about rural jobs, and often because in some parts of the U.S. these activists have not let rural communities take the lead.


What corporations face in Wisconsin is something new--an environmental movement that is rural-based, multi-racial, middle-class and working-class, and made up of many youth and elderly people. This movement does not just address a corporation’s environmental threats, but also their threats to Native cultures, local economies and democratic institutions, their "boom-and-bust" social disruptions, and their mistreatment of union employees.


This type of “people power” movement also defeated Perrier springwater drilling in central Wisconsin, and is opposing an electric transmission line in northwestern Wisconsin, and other corporate projects. New environmental groups are going beyond a message of “Not In My Back Yard” to one of “Not In Anyone’s Back Yard,” with a deeper critique of our corporate economy and politics. They are asking why we need centralized electric grids instead of renewal energies, bottled water instead of cleaner public water supplies, and new sources of metal instead of recycled materials.


The victory over the Crandon mine is not simply the defeat of a single dangerous project.  It points toward new paths for diverse communities to live together. It also  shows how these communities can together build a sustainable future on the land. The former mine site will now be managed to protect its natural and cultural resources, and develop a local sustainable economy.


But for the local Native and non-Native people who have spent so much time and money to defeat the project, the victory finally brought a sense of peace, after a quarter-century of struggle. At the Information Center, Mole Lake veteran Jerry Burnett brought out an American flag that he had long carried upside down, as a symbol of distress, and turned it back upright.


Burnett told the gathered crowd, "I fought in Vietnam. When I came back, I swore I would not fight another war except in defense of my country. And then I had to fight the mining company to defend my own soil. And we have won this war. Now the war is over."

Midwest Treaty Network, P.O. Box 1045, Eau Claire WI 54702; Web: ; Tel.: 715-833-8552; Hotline: 800-445-8615;

E-mail: [email protected] (e-mail messages of support for the tribal acquisition are welcome and will be posted.)


Debra McNutt and Zoltan Grossman are members of the Midwest Treaty Network ( ). McNutt is a longtime anti-racism and environmental organizer. Grossman is an assistant professor of Geography & American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire  ( Updates, photos and movies on  the Crandon mine victory are posted at


A CELEBRATION POWWOW will be held in CRANDON on Saturday, NOVEMBER 22, at the Northwoods Recreational Center (old high school), 100 N. Prospect Ave. (turn off Lake Ave onto Madison). Grand entries 1 & 7 pm; Feast 5 pm.




More photos on next page

It is free to reprint the photos, with attribution to “ Midwest Treaty Network,” Photos at




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