MAC: Mines and Communities

Editorial: Crandon mine victory won by a historic alliance

Published by MAC on 2003-10-25

Editorial: Crandon mine victory won by a historic alliance

By Debra McNutt and Zoltan Grossman

The remarkable victory by Wisconsin's grassroots movement against the Crandon mine goes beyond stopping the 27-year-old project. The movement brought Native American nations with sportfishing groups, environmentalists with unionists, and rural residents with urban students.

This unlikely alliance first drove out the world's largest resource corporation (Exxon) and then the world's largest mining company (BHP Billiton). Now it has not only defeated the mine, but acquired control over the mine site.

Through old-fashioned grassroots organizing (such as speaking tours) the movement reached people throughout Wisconsin for a mining moratorium and a (still needed) ban on cyanide 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 our own backyard.

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 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.

Why did this movement develop in our state? Because it effectively drew from four strands of Wisconsin history. It personified progressive populism, which mistrusts Big Business. It exhibited the environmental ethics of Muir and 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. Finally, it was inspired by the historic perseverance of Native American nations to protect their treaty rights and sovereignty.

During the spearing conflict of the 1980s, Native Americans and sportfishing groups fought over the fish, but during the Crandon fight they united to protect the fish, and healed many of their divisions. Native and non-Native rural people mistrusted the DNR 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 hippies and yuppies who do not care about rural jobs, and often because in some parts of the U.S. these activists did 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 grassroots movement also defeated Perrier springwater drilling in central Wisconsin and is opposing the transmission line in northwestern Wisconsin, and other 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 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 our state, with communities that can live together and build a sustainable future together.

For photos links to:

Debra McNutt and Zoltan Grossman are board members of the Midwest Treaty Network:

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Grossman is an assistant professor of geography at U.W.-Eau Claire:

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