Thursday, January 23, 2014

Defense of local democracy: An evolving regional grassroots response to frac sand mining

Over the past few years, dozens of local groups have formed in response to frac sand mining. Many of these groups are simply neighbors who began meeting in someone's kitchen, garage, or basement to study the impacts of frac sand mining and to find ways to express their concerns. In countless communities dealing with complex questions raised by mining, we've seen that concerned citizens help to strengthen and defend local democratic decision-making processes. 

When organized, citizens have helped to stop proposed operations that are viewed as incompatible with community well-being, such as mining operations near schools, residences, or sensitive nature reserves. Citizens have also played an important role in monitoring frac sand operations, pressuring local officials to create new ordinances or enforce existing regulations, and calling out local conflicts of interest. As with any grassroots effort, however, the longevity, size, organizational capacity, values, and influence of the groups vary widely and evolve over time. Some groups rise and fall quickly, especially as controversial proposals or operations fade from the public eye, while others might achieve an enduring presence in their community.

Although many groups first form in response to local proposals or operations, the last few years have seen various efforts to coordinate on a regional scale, both in Wisconsin and across state lines in Minnesota, Iowa, and recently northern Illinois. Some of these efforts have occurred from within local groups, as concerned citizens routinely reach out to each other to share information and learn from people's prior experiences. Social media sites such as Facebook have facilitated a substantial amount of information exchange and networking, as have traditional social networks such as family connections and friendships. Some citizens-turned-activists are routinely invited to speak at meetings and other events in communities throughout the region. The Save the Hills Alliance, for instance, which evolved from the Concerned Chippewa Citizens, consults with many local groups and held annual meetings in 2012 and 2013 that drew regional audiences.

Other regional efforts have been launched by longstanding, multi-issue organizations or networks that have recently put frac sand mining on their agendas, and they have helped to mobilize resources and offer some organizational stability and longevity. This is especially important when local groups, consisting of volunteers donating money and countless hours of scarce free time, may struggle to maintain momentum or avoid getting burnt out. In late 2011 and early 2012, the Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) co-organized with the Wisconsin Towns Association two conferences entitled "Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin Towns" and helped assemble a toolkit for local decision-makers. The WFU has also sponsored independent research on the economic costs and benefits of frac sand mining. In June of 2013, the Wisconsin Grassroots Network sponsored a regional conference titled "Standing Against the Sandstorm." Several months later in January of 2014, the Land Stewardship Project of Minnesota organized a "Citizens' Frac Sand Summit" that drew hundreds of participants from throughout the region to listen to speakers and participate in workshops to facilitate grassroots organizing. Also in January, the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice passed a resolution calling for statewide ban on frac sand mining. The resolution, signed by nearly fifty Wisconsin-based groups, was in response to recent moves in the state legislature to eliminate local democratic control over the licensing and regulation of frac sand operations. 

As this suggests, the unfortunate efforts in the state legislature to remove the ability of local governments to regulate frac sand mining will likely spur further regional organizing. While concerned citizens often work intensely in their own communities, statewide and regional organizing will be needed to push back against the interests seeking to use state government to bypass local democratic decision-making and controls. Existing organizations with paid staff and other resources will play an especially important role in linking up the many local groups that have organized throughout the region and in reactivating groups that have gone dormant. The protection of local democracy is a goal that will likely draw widespread support and help create new alliances, even among groups working on different issues or operating from diverse ideological standpoints. 

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