MAC: Mines and Communities

Indians Buy Crandon Rights - Reported Mine Deal to End Long Fight

Published by MAC on 2003-10-25

Last year a proposal was made by a coalition of Native American and conservationists, to buy the Crandon mine lease in Wisconsin from BPHBilliton to stop the project going ahead. Although the company indicated it was amenable to negotiation, earlier this year BHPB sold out to Nicolet Minerals. Now Nicolet appears to be having second thoughts itself and seems willing to sell the mineral rights while holding on to the timber rights.

(Further update can be read here)

Indians Buy Crandon Rights - Reported Mine Deal to End Long Fight

By David Callender and Matt Pommer, The Capital Times (Madison)

October 25 2003

A deal that would end the nearly 25-year-old controversy over development of the proposed Crandon mine appears to be near, sources tell The Capital Times.

Sources said Friday night that two American Indian tribes have purchased mineral rights to the site in northeastern Wisconsin.

Details were sketchy, but legislative sources familiar with the negotiations said the Forest County Potawatomi and the Sokaogon, or Mole Lake, Chippewa have closed the deal with Nicolet Hardwood Corp.

As part of the deal, Nicolet Hardwood would own the timber rights to the site, but the tribes would own the mineral rights.

Sources indicated that the Potawatomi, who operate a large casino near Milwaukee, would provide most of the funding for the purchase in cooperation with the Mole Lake Chippewa.

The deal has been the subject of widespread speculation in the Capitol for the past few weeks.

Some lawmakers were briefed on the agreement late Friday but declined to comment publicly.

Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, a longtime critic of the mine, responded with an "I can't comment" to questions about the reported deal.

Gov. Jim Doyle's spokesman, Dan Leistikow, also said he could not comment.

The owners and managers of Nicolet Hardwood, Gordon Phelps Connor and his son, Gordon R. Connor, could not be reached for comment late Friday.

However, Gordon R. Connor told The Capital Times earlier Friday that a 200-acre portion of the site, known as Spirit Hill, had been the subject of negotiations with the tribes.

"We recognize it is of importance to them," he said, adding that there were "a lot of holdings near Mole Lake that are not part of the (mining) project boundary."

"For several months, we have indicated we would be willing to potentially sell" lands that would be of interest to the tribe, he said, but he said the two sides had not come to terms.

The proposed mine site encompasses more than 5,000 acres and includes land that was originally owned by the Connor family, which has run a timber operation there since the 1870s.

The mine was initially proposed by the Exxon Corp. in the 1970s, but its ownership then passed to a subsidiary and most recently to the global mining giant BHP Billiton. Nicolet bought the mine from BHP Billiton earlier this year.

From the very start, the proposed copper and zinc mine's location at the headwaters of the Wolf River and its proximity to wild rice beds on the Mole Lake reservation made it the target of opposition by environmentalists and American Indian tribes.

In 1998, the Legislature passed and Gov. Tommy Thompson signed a statewide moratorium on sulfide mining that has effectively blocked the mine's opening.

The law requires companies that want to mine in Wisconsin to show that a similar mine elsewhere has been pollution-free for at least 10 years, and that such a mine has been closed for a decade with no sign of pollution.

An arm of Nicolet Hardwood, Nicolet Minerals Corp. has continued to seek state permits for the mine.

Black said he believes the new owners have found the process more difficult than anticipated because of the mining moratorium law, the low price of copper and zinc, and the very difficult mining operation itself.

"It's in a place that really shouldn't be mined because of the high ground water table," he said.


Reporter Anita Weier also contributed to this report. updates from:

Mole Lake and Potawatomi Tribes Purchase Crandon Mine

Casino Gaming Monies Used to Protect Wolf River, Tourism Jobs & Culture

For immediate release: Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Midwest Treaty Network

Declaring a victory for the environment and Northwoods tourism, two Indian tribes purchased the proposed Crandon mine today.

The Sokaogon Chippewa Community Mole Lake Band and the Forest County Potawatomi Community will divide ownership of the mining project land and the Mole Lake tribe will assume ownership of the mining applicant, Nicolet Minerals Company (NMC).

"With this purchase, we can prevent environmental threats from unsafe proposals to mine at the headwaters of the Wolf River," Sandra Rachal, Mole Lake Chairwoman said. "The risks to the water, the land and the air from the proposed project were much too great."

"This purchase protects the Wolf River, the wetlands and the groundwater of Northern Wisconsin," Gus Frank, Chairman of the Forest County Potawatomi Community stated. "It ends the threat to the tourism economy - the economy that most of us in Northern Wisconsin, including the tribes, depend on. We all depend on the waters and natural resources of the Northwoods - for recreation, to bring tourists to our State, and, for the Tribes, to sustain our traditions. We're proud to be a part of protecting this area for future generations."

"The proposed mine would have created only a fraction of the jobs that tourism would have lost," Chairman Frank continued. Chairman Frank noted that a statewide poll in July said that opening the mine could cost that area of Northern Wisconsin more than 23% of its in-state vacationers. "A 23% drop in tourism would cost 1,650 tourism jobs and $65 million per year in lost revenues in the three counties surrounding the mine, devastating the area economy."

Tina L. VanZile, Vice Chairwoman of Mole Lake said the tribe would withdraw the applications to mine at the site, saying, "NMC's mining proposal is environmentally unsafe and technologically unsound."

Kenneth VanZile, Councilman of the Mole Lake said the purchase protects lands of cultural, historic and religious importance. "The purchase will end the threat to Rice Lake, where the Sokaogon Chippewa have taught their children to harvest manomin (wild rice) for many generations. The purchase includes Spirit Hill, where more than 500 Chippewa and Sioux were buried after a battle over the rice beds 200 years ago."

"The mine site and surrounding area also includes lands, waters, plants and other resources needed for traditional cultural practices," Chairwoman Rachal stated.

Northern Wisconsin Resources Group LLC (NWRG) sold its mining assets, including the mine project site, mineral rights and other lands, to the two tribes. The purchase includes 5,770 acres in Forest County, as well as 169 acres in Shawano and Oconto Counties, that will be divided between the two tribes.

Al Milham, Vice Chair of the Forest County Potawatomi Community said the purchase of the mine site will allow Forest County to focus on sustainable development. "The Northwoods can create jobs without threatening the natural resources that our tourism and our quality of life depend on. It's time to focus on long-term and sustainable development."

Chairman Frank said pristine areas, such as those at the mine site, are becoming increasing scarce in Northern Wisconsin, limiting the ability of tribal members to conduct traditional practices. "We have lost so many resources, so many wild places, in just a few generations. This purchase protects some of the remaining resources, from the groundwater and wetlands to the waters of the Wolf River."

"Protecting these lands has required a great personal sacrifice for tribal members. But it is a sacrifice that honors our ancestors and our children," Thomas VanZile, Mole Lake tribal secretary said. "Our ancestors lived here. They fought and died to protect these lands for future generations. It is our responsibility to continue that tradition. For this reason, we have used our financial resources, including gaming revenues from our casinos, to protect this important Northwoods area. Without gaming revenues, we could not have purchased the mine site."

Both tribes have vehemently opposed the mining proposals at the site for years. Under those proposals, the mine would affect water and increase sediment in Swamp Creek which flows into Rice Lake on the Mole Lake reservation, just west of the proposed mine site. The Potawatomi reservation is also nearby, to the northeast.

The tribes said the problems with the current mine proposal are numerous. For example, both the mine and a tailings dump would contain perpetually toxic wastes. The mine and the 16 million tons of wastes in the dump would be never-ending sources of groundwater contamination. In addition, the mine waste dump would eventually fail, potentially releasing massive amounts of additional contamination.

The proposed mine would also cause significant risks of surface and groundwater contamination because of its transportation, use, storage and disposal of hundreds of thousands of tons of hazardous substances, including cyanide. Similarly, the proposed mine would cause devastating flooding, dehydration and other impacts to hundreds of acres of wetlands. Tens of thousands of tons of sediments would be dumped into now-pristine wetlands and streams.

The possibility of mining has created controversy since 1969, when Exxon began mineral exploration south of Crandon. An application to mine at the site was filed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by Exxon in 1980 and withdrawn in 1986. The current proposal to mine zinc and copper at the site was filed in 1994 and substantially revised in 1998. However, the applicant had not yet submitted enough technical information for the application to be deemed complete and for the formal agency review of the permit to begin. Permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are also needed to mine.

Owners of the current project have included Crandon Mining Company, Rio Algom, Billiton and BHP Billiton. In April, Northern Wisconsin Resources Group acquired the official mine applicant, Nicolet Mineral Company (NMC), from BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining company. The Sokaogon Chippewa now own NMC.


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:

E-mail (or or

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

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