Sokaogon Chippewa Community News

Remembering the End of the Crandon Mine


Richard D. Ackley, Jr.

One branch of the Wolf River begins in Forest County, near the proposed Crandon Mine. Credit Royalbroil Via Wikimedia Commons

Fifteen years ago, the decades long battle against metallic sulfide mining in Forest County officially came to an end on October 28, 2003. The controversial mine began in 1975 at a site near the headwaters of the Wolf River, and soon became the center of political, economic, environmental and cultural turmoil in Wisconsin. This quiet and unassuming pristine area, predominately a wetland teeming with wildlife, eventually played a major role effecting the outcome of local history, making an impact on the demise of the Wisconsin mining industry and reaching across the globe.

The Mole Lake Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa was at the helm for stopping the mine, bringing an opposition force of sportsman, environmentalists and other Wisconsin Tribes together. Working together with the Forest County Potawatomi Tribe, the coalition combined more than 30 strategic alliances, stringent use of policy, and unrestricted outreach and education efforts.

The two Tribes, surrounded by the beauty of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, would not allow the clean, pristine beauty and purity of the water to become tainted with toxic mining byproducts. The Tribes charged that toxic run-off or “sludge” had the potential to cause widespread harm to wildlife, to aquatic species and especially to Rice Lake. Mining would have proved to be an extremely costly dilemma to taxpayers if clean-up was required.

Both the Forest County Potawatomi and the Sokaogon Chippewa held on to their language, culture and beliefs against the onslaught of anti-mine protests, negative assumptions and pro-mining state legislators simply pursuing mining as an economic boon. The history and culture of the Sokaogon would have virtually become extinct should the local lakes, rivers, streams and underground aquifers eventually succumb to contamination caused by mining operations. These two small communities in rural northern Wisconsin, having modest financial resources, were able to hang on over the years, and ultimately defeat the world’s largest multi-national mining conglomerate. Today, the 5,000 acre mine site and its estimated $16.5 billion ore body are jointly owned by the Forest County Potawatomi and the Sokaogon Chippewa.

This past Sunday, a community feast took place at the Mole Lake Cultural Center, as a chance to remember and bring back into light the challenges faced by the people who did not give up their fight against metallic sulfide mining in Forest County. The alliances created came into being to support a culture tied directly to Mother Earth.

Tina Van Zile, Environmental Director for the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, hosted a PowerPoint presentation, sharing a vast amount of historic information along with documentation surrounding the chronological events leading up to the proposed Crandon Mine. Tina shared that more than 30 organizations and three other Tribes (Menominee, Potawatomi and the Stockbridge-Munsee) came to the aid of Mole Lake to stop the mine.

“The mining controversy years had a tremendous psychological impact on many people’s lives back then,” Tina said.

Tina also explained one very important and unexpected positive outcome, which resulted from the purchase of the mine. The Madison Community Foundation, having been designated as the trustee, managed an $8 million trust fund on behalf of the Sokaogon Chippewa, which was a gift from the former mine owners BHP Billiton. In 2006, three years after Mole Lake made its final mortgage payment to the mining company, BHP Billiton, the mining company, donated that money back to the Tribe, creating a trust.

“I always thought that I would die before the controversy would come to an end. The end of the mine was so important for the future generations,” Tina said.

In an article published in the Milwaukee Business Journal on October 28, 2013, “officials from NMC, which was owned by the Nicolet Hardwood Corp. said the sale of the rights to the Native American Tribes of Forest County will terminate the longest running and most expensive regulatory review process in Wisconsin history.”

According to a mid-1990s lawsuit finally decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, the right of Indian nations to have “Treatment as a State” status on applicable issues was interpreted to apply to setting and enforcing clean air and water standards. This meant the Tribes could set their own, potentially far more restrictive limits than those of the state Department of Natural Resources, essentially meaning a potential Crandon mine would “have to be completely free of pollution.”

The annual bounty of wild rice, harvested in the late summer each year, is still thriving today as it did in 1750, long before Wisconsin gained statehood in 1848. The history of the Sokaogon as a migrating Tribe of people ultimately chose this area as their home. Wild rice is also known as the “food that grows on the water” or “Manoomin.” Rice Lake is located on Hwy 55, about seven miles south of Crandon and remains unencumbered today.

History proves that if the Anishinaabe people of the Sokaogon Ojibwe would not have chosen what is now Forest County as a place to live, long before Wisconsin’s statehood, a totally different outcome may have occurred.