This morning's New York Times features an article, "The Fight for Wisconsin's Soul," by Dan Kaufman. While Wisconsin celebrates the Badgers making the Final Four, another long-time part of the state's identity--its tradition of innovative policy, citizen commitment, and ethical leadership in conservation and environmental stewardship--has eroded away:
Wisconsin has been an environmental leader since 1910, when the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment promoting forest and water conservation. Decades later, pioneering local environmentalists like Aldo Leopold and Senator Gaylord Nelson, who founded Earth Day in 1970, helped forge the nation’s ecological conscience.We were a state of leaders, Democratic and Republican, progressive and conservative, who were able to find common ground on... the common ground. But that's gone. The history itself will always be there to admire, to pat ourselves on the back about, to make us feel good about ourselves. But the tradition has been undermined to the point that we have to be honest: Wisconsin is a leader no more.
But now, after the recent passage of a bill that would allow for the construction of what could be the world’s largest open-pit iron ore mine, Wisconsin’s admirable history of environmental stewardship is under attack.
The article focuses on the marquee environmental issue in Wisconsin these days: the corruption of state government that allowed a new mining bill to be enacted, opening the way for what may become the world's largest open pit iron mine, in northern Wisconsin's Penokee Hills. This area constitutes the upper part of one of the best preserved watersheds in the upper Midwest, holding the headwaters of the Bad River, upstream from the lands of the Bad River Tribe of Lake Superior Chippewa. The bill was written by the company it benefits, Gogebic Taconite, passed through a bought-and-sold legislature and signed by a corrupt-to-the-core governor:
To facilitate the construction of the mine and the company’s promise of 700 long-term jobs, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation last year granting GTac astonishing latitude. The new law allows the company to fill in pristine streams and ponds with mine waste. It eliminates a public hearing that had been mandated before the issuing of a permit, which required the company to testify, under oath, that the project had complied with all environmental standards. It allows GTac to pay taxes solely on profit, not on the amount of ore removed, raising the possibility that the communities affected by the mine’s impact on the area’s roads and schools would receive only token compensation.The article rightly points out the leadership of the Bad River Tribe and the other Native communities is opposing the legislation, the mine, and the culture of corruption that now pervades state government.
The legislation has generated fierce opposition since it was first introduced in 2011. ...After the vote, the Republican majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, told me that “the corporation and their attorneys drafted a bill that may have been acceptable in other states,” with the implication being that the company had perhaps gone too far for Wisconsin.
This is hardly the only issue that the Walker administration and its cronies have created by trashing Wisconsin's conservation legacy. There is the devastation of unregulated frack sand mining; the weakening of wetland protections; the corruption of wildlife management policy; the gutting of surface water quality protections; the rejection of high-speed rail; the appointment of unqualified anti-conservationists to positions of authority; blatant cronyism in the awarding of state funds to friends of the administration; etc. etc. For three years we have seen a non-stop assault on Wisconsin's lands, waters, wildlife, and its traditions of conservation and stewardship. Once a year Walker and his DNR secretary put on blaze orange and pretend to be hunters, and that's enough to keep their base of supporters in rural Wisconsin happy.
Lest we forget, though: the former Democratic governor Jim Doyle had a chance to prevent all this. He had on his desk a bill reinstating the independence of the state Department of Natural resources. He promised--twice--in campaigns to sign such legislation. He did not. The state's Democratic Party rested on its laurels like everyone else. The current hope for rescuing Wisconsin from Walker and his big money supporters, Mary Burke, says the right things, but has shown no strong interest in or understanding of these matters.
It is hard for those outside of Wisconsin to appreciate just why, in fact, all this has been so destructive to "Wisconsin's soul." This is a state whose citizens have long based their identity on connections to the land. But that was then, and this is now. Conservatives in power are no longer conservationists; the leading progressive figures fail to connect with rural Wisconsin; hunters no longer seem to know or even care who Aldo Leopold was; the Milwaukee suburban moneybags and powerbrokers simply don't care about the land, just their own political power and ambition. There are many positives: the growth of the local food and urban agriculture movements, the many local grassroots groups across the state who are pushing back, the emergence of an anti-frack-sand-mining movement, the work of the tribes who are now the voices of Wisconsin's conservation conscience. But I can't disagree with the headline: we are now a state that has lost its soul. Or perhaps we did not merely lose it. It has been sold outright, for a pittance of fast and short-term profit.
Next Tuesday we will see if we slip yet one level lower down the pit, or begin the process of reclaiming our environmental sanity. Local elections will be held across the state. Maybe the recent (failed) attempts by the Republican legislature to eviscerate the ability of local governments to regulate fack sand mining will awaken the citizens to their lost legacy. Want to see which way the winds blow? Keep your eyes on the local county board races in Iron County, site of the proposed Penokee Mine. The New York Times article does not mention it, but the normally sedate elections are being hotly contested, and the Koch Brothers are sinking big money into these obscure local races. They know what is on the line.
Best to close with the words of two Wisconsin icons.
“We have long rested comfortably in this country upon the assumption that because our form of government was democratic, it was therefore automatically producing democratic results. Now, there is nothing mysteriously potent about the forms and names of democratic institutions that should make them self-operative. Tyranny and oppression are just as possible under democratic forms as under any other. We are slow to realize that democracy is a life; and involves continual struggle. It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated.”Aldo Leopold:
We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.