Victory at Crandon Mine

An update to the Activism piece that appeared in Issue 8.

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Dennis Shepherd a member of the Potawatomi Tribe, posts a "SOLD" sign over the sign of the Nicolet Mineral Company, the former owner of the Crandon Mine site.

On October 28, 2003, the Sokaogon Chippewa and the Forest County Potawatomi Nations purchased 5,770 acres of land in northern Wisconsin and ended one the most heated environmental battles the Great Lakes has ever seen. The land was the site of the proposed Crandon Mine. It had been originally purchased by Exxon/Mobil in 1970 and had changed hands many times. Sokaogon Chippewa from nearby Mole Lake were one of the main opponents of the mine over the last three decades but they were not alone. The victory at Crandon Mine can be attributed to many hands. It represents a perfect example of how grassroots organization can work.

The land sits above one the largest veins of copper sulfide in the world, and much of the debate was over the general safety of sulfide mining. Great ecological disasters have dotted the history of sulfide mining. The practice is so dangerous because it employs millions of gallons of cyanide. Sulfide minerals are not found in pure veins, so the ore must be separated from the surrounding material. This is done in very large containment ponds of cyanide-laced water. Disasters in Africa and South America occurred when these containment ponds either leaked into the surrounding ground water or broke their banks during a large rain. Death can come slowly or it can ride a wave through the surrounding ecosystem — either way its results are devastating.

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Tribal children pose on top of the vanquished mining equipment.

The fight over Crandon Mine was especially contentious because the mine site lay at the head waters of the Wolf River. This river is known throughout the upper Midwest for its sport fishing, its white water, and its waterfalls. Thousands of people from many different walks of life organized against Crandon Mine over the years. They formed a unique alliance of environmentalists, sportsmen, and Native American tribes that the proponents of the mine were not able to turn against one another.

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Mole Lake and Potowatami tribal elders pose with their grandchildren in front of the former headquarters of the Nicolet Mineral Company.

But the victory at Crandon Mine was not won solely because of idealistic reasons. It represents a victory of new money over old money. The main force that now drives the economy of northern Wisconsin is not logging or mining: It is tourism. Millions of people flock to northern Wisconsin to fish, paddle, hunt, and hike every year. Many of them stop at Native American-owned casinos along the way and plop down some cash before they head home. The Potowatami Tribe is one of the largest casino owners in the state. Tourism fueled the fight against the mine. The victory at Crandon Mine is an example of the will of the people and the will of the marketplace being in perfect synergy.

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