Anatomy of a Grassroots Campaign

How citizens in one Minnesota county put values into action to attain a win for the land and their community.

On November 22, 2016, history was made in southeastern Minnesota’s Winona County when the Board of Commissioners there passed a ban on any new frac sand operations. It is the first known countywide ban on the production of silica sand for the oil and gas industry’s use in hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking). As the Land Stewardship Project’s lead organizer on fighting frac sand development, I am privileged to have been a part of the campaign for the ban from start to finish. Following are some insights into how that victory was attained. I hope it can serve as an example for other communities of how people power can win over corporate power, in the process creating the kind of future they want.

The Power of Shared Values

The frac sand ban was achieved because everyday people came together — from all parts of the county, from different walks of life and from across the political spectrum—and chose to make it happen. We, as Winona County residents, chose to put our shared values into action. We chose to act on our love for the land, and our belief that the land has inherent value beyond any profits that can be extracted from it. We also acted on our understanding that the hills and bluffs, although they are full of sand coveted by the industry, are precious, and they don’t grow back. We chose to act on our belief that the health of the land and the health of the people are interconnected — that if we allowed this wholesale destruction of the land, we would also inevitably be harming ourselves, risking the air, the water and the healthy soil we depend on, now and for future generations. We were also energized by our belief in democracy—the idea that our government’s decisions should be made based on the will of the people and the common good, not on what corporate interests want.

In short, we decided that we, as the people of Winona County, are “the experts,” and the ones who know best about whether or not a dangerous outside industry should operate here. We chose to stand up together against an industry that is simply too extreme and too harmful to people and the land to be allowed. We chose to see the big picture: that not only is the frac sand industry clearly wrong for our communities here, but that we also have a moral responsibility not to let our sand be the source of harm inflicted upon other communities via fracking, or enable the fossil fuel industry’s continued reckless endangerment of our climate for the sake of profits.

A Growing Opposition

While the ban campaign itself took exactly 17 months from its launch to the final County Board vote, the story of local people opposing the frac sand industry begins well before that. Over the past five or more years, thousands of people in Winona County and throughout southeastern Minnesota have been taking action to stop frac sand development. Many Minnesotans witnessed the devastation inflicted upon rural Wisconsin communities as the frac sand industry exploded there, going from a handful of operations a decade ago to more than 100 today. When the industry began turning its eyes to the sand beneath the hills, bluffs and farmland on this side of the Mississippi River, local people responded with fierce opposition. Amid a flurry of local organizing in 2011 and 2012 and the formation of many new, local groups like Winona County’s Citizens Against Silica Mining (C.A.S.M.), LSP members in the region called on our organization to get involved. It was clear that the idea of strip-mining for frac sand is fundamentally opposed to the ethic of stewardship that we seek to foster.

Winona County has been particularly heavily targeted over the past several years by the frac sand industry’s extraction proposals, but local resistance has also been correspondingly strong. Neighbors organized with LSP to fight mines proposed in Saratoga Township and Warren Township. In 2012 and 2013, the residents of St. Charles Township and the city of St. Charles joined forces to defeat a proposal there for what would have been North America’s largest frac sand processing and shipping plant. Residents of the city of Winona dealt with heavy truck traffic and other consequences of processing and shipping facilities that primarily handled sand brought over the bridge from Wisconsin. Members of the Catholic Worker community in Winona engaged in non-violent civil disobedience, using their bodies to block trucks at some of these operations in order to call widespread attention to the harms caused by this industry.

A Bigger Step

Thus, by early 2015, the movement to oppose frac sand operations already involved many Winona County residents and had seen some significant successes. But people still felt daunted by the prospect of spending the rest of our lives fighting every individual frac sand mine or plant that might be proposed. LSP leaders, including the members of our Winona County Organizing Committee, began discussing the possibility of doing something bigger—of taking a proactive step at a countywide level. We knew there could be great power in bringing together, from across the county, people who had already been working to stop frac sand proposals in their own neighborhoods. Assessing the make-up of the County Board, we believed it was possible that a majority of Board members might ultimately vote to support a ban. Reaching out to LSP’s existing base of members and supporters in the county, we found there was a great deal of interest in the possibility of a frac sand ban —in simply telling the industry that sand in Winona County’s jurisdiction was off-limits.

These discussions culminated in an LSP organizing meeting held in Lewiston on June 22, 2015. Reflecting at a meeting of LSP leaders after the end of the campaign, Winona resident Jane Cowgill described that night in Lewiston as a turning point. “A lot of people wanted a ban,” she recalled. “But we didn’t think it was possible until we were all in the same room together.” More than 90 people attended, and leaders from various parts of the county shared their stories of fighting the frac sand industry. After a group discussion, meeting participants agreed by a unanimous voice vote to the following goal: To get the Winona County Board of Commissioners to pass a policy prohibiting any new frac sand mining, processing, or transportation operations in the county’s jurisdiction.

Thus, the ban campaign was officially launched. We had taken the leap, committing to work together to achieve something we knew wouldn’t be easy, but was the right thing to do, for Winona County residents now and in the future.

Starting with so many people committing to a shared goal helped to ensure a strong and successful campaign. For the next 17 months, the goal that was drafted on that June evening served as a guiding light as the Organizing Committee and LSP staff led the campaign. (It is still taped to my office wall, on the original piece of flipchart paper.)

All significant campaign strategy decisions were made by the committee, and were judged by how they would help us achieve the goal. We knew that building a winning campaign would take time, and it was important not to move too quickly. We also kept a frequently-changing timeline in front of us at each meeting, mapping out key goals and when we wanted to achieve them by. We knew it would take a gradual ramping-up of momentum to build the public call for a ban into something the County Commissioners could not ignore, and to show that a ban was the will of the majority of people in the county. After setting the goal at the campaign launch meeting, members took part in small group discussions to begin brainstorming tactics we could use. We made it clear that, while not everyone needed to do everything, there would be enough ways to participate that everyone could do something to help achieve a victory.

Signs of Change

In July 2015, yard signs reading “Protect Winona County: No Frac Sand” were the first campaign tactic to be launched. To make a splash, volunteers placed more than 80 of them on the first day at our supporters’ homes and farms all over the county. As expected, they generated quite a buzz. At the LSP office, we were soon fielding calls from strangers saying, “I’m reading your number off of this sign — I agree with you, where can I get one?” We had begun tapping into a deep vein of support among people who had never been connected with LSP before, but who cared about the land and their communities, and were more than willing to take a public stand.

In addition to building up public pressure, we knew it would also be important to have a legal element to our strategy. Previously, in other jurisdictions the frac sand industry had been able to shut down attempts to ban operations by claiming that a ban is not legal. That summer, in order to be prepared to counter such misinformation, we began what was ultimately an eight-month process of working with attorneys to release a comprehensive report explaining the clear legal rationale for banning frac sand operations. We needed to ensure that our County Commissioners, as well as the Winona County Attorney, would understand that a ban is not only legally allowable, but is by far the most practical way to deal with this industry.

After the yard signs (which were eventually put up by 450 households throughout the county), more tactics followed, including “No Frac Sand” bumper stickers and buttons, and the first letters-to-the-editor specifically calling for a Winona County frac sand ban. By the end of the campaign, 53 people had each written at least one letter to local papers supporting the ban. Momentum began to build, as more and more county residents learned that they were not alone in wanting to simply say “NO” to such an extreme and damaging industry.

From the start, we understood that even though LSP already had a significant base of members and supporters in the county opposed to frac sand operations, we would need many more to win something as big as the ban. The campaign would need to involve a major basebuilding process — contacting more and more people, identifying supporters and bringing them in, and asking them to take various actions. Along with welcoming the many new supporters who simply contacted us to, for example, request yard signs, we also carried out extensive efforts to reach out to people all over the county through a variety of methods. Such efforts included advertising on Facebook, mass mailings, telephone calls, and tabling at the Winona County Fair and other public events. This basebuilding was wildly successful—by the end of the campaign, 841 individuals who had never before been in contact with LSP had been added to our “hotlist” of supporters of the ban.

Changing the Narrative

Along with a smart campaign strategy and a focus on building our base, we also knew it was important to pay attention to another, sometimes overlooked component: narrative. The dominant narrative—sometimes referred to as worldview—that has been reinforced by corporate interests over many years tells people things like “landowners have the right to do whatever they want with their land” and “anything that creates jobs and brings in money is good.” It tells people they should oppose any government action limiting “property rights.” Framed through this dominant narrative, the frac sand issue has often been presented as “environmentalists” opposing something that brings jobs and economic benefit.

For the frac sand ban campaign, rather than confine ourselves to trying to work within the limits of the dominant narrative, LSP members lifted up our own narrative, grounded in our own deepest values and beliefs. Framing the issue differently, we offered people an alternative way to see it. We advanced our belief that the land has inherent value and that what harms the land, also harms people and the whole community.

We lifted up the reality that frac sand mining is destructive and volatile and cannot be part of the kind of economy we truly need. Over and over, we said that the proper role of government is to listen to the will of the people and to protect the common good for both people and the land. Knowing that how we talked about the need for a ban was as important as anything else we were doing, we offered people a choice to reject what the dominant narrative told them about the frac sand industry, and to tap into their own deepest values instead.

LSP leaders agree that this focus on our own narrative was a deeply powerful aspect of the campaign. Organizing Committee member and St. Charles resident Tessa Schweitzer believes it was appealing to a diverse group of people because “people want to feel like they have permission to say no to something” like frac sand mining when they feel it is wrong—“not just because of ‘environmental concerns,’ but because of the inherent value of the land itself.”

As Organizing Committee member Joe Morse of Wilson Township puts it: “This campaign gave people a real chance to talk about their own values about the land and community, in a way that people are too rarely invited to do.”

By the late fall and winter of 2015, it was time to bring the campaign to the next level by asking people to directly contact the County Commissioners. People began calling key Commissioners to ask them to support the ban, and sent them color-coded postcards explaining their individual reasons for supporting it. The intent was for Commissioners to start hearing, in more-and-more ways, that the people of Winona County wanted them to ban frac sand operations. In February 2016, we brought that message to them even more directly when people began speaking out in the public comment time at regularly-scheduled County Board meetings. From then on, at every meeting for several months, at least one person, and often three or four or five people, spoke up to call for a frac sand ban. Residents from all over the county participated—43 different people, by the end of the campaign.

This new tactic quickly drew increased media attention, and the campaign’s momentum kicked up several more notches. In March 2016, the report on the legal basis for a ban was ready to be released publicly. It included model language for a suggested amendment to Winona County’s zoning ordinance by which the ban could be enacted. The drumbeat of calls for the ban continued to build. In April, we knew we had reached a significant point when a Commissioner made a remark to several LSP leaders to the effect that it was getting a little awkward sitting at each meeting listening to people ask for a ban without doing anything about it. Later that month, the campaign took a huge step forward when the County Board officially introduced the ban for consideration, asking the County Attorney to use our model language as a starting point.

Official Consideration

By taking time to build up the campaign, we had ensured that by the time the county’s official process began, we already had a huge amount of momentum behind us. Once Winona County officials formally asked for public input, people were more than ready to speak up. The official process of considering the ban, carried out in the summer and fall of 2016, included two public hearings and two written comment periods.

On average, 80 percent of the testimony and comments favored a frac sand ban. Hundreds of people attended each hearing. County residents spoke and wrote eloquently and passionately, giving a wide variety of reasons for supporting the ban, grounded in our own narrative about why it was the right thing for our government to do. At the final public hearing, we also released a letter signed by 47 local businesses and organizations in Winona County in favor of the ban.

The process was not without a few bumps in the road. Representatives of the frac sand industry, particularly lobbyists for the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, vigorously opposed the ban, and some county officials were more willing to listen to them than to the clearly expressed will of most people in the county. In August, by a 5-3 vote, the Winona County Planning Commission, which plays an advisory role in the process of amending the zoning ordinance, recommended an amendment that would allow some frac sand operations, instead of instituting an outright ban. This proposal would have allowed up to six frac sand mines to operate at a time, with no limit on frac sand processing or transportation operations. Some Planning Commission members attempted to sell this move to the community as a “compromise” between pro-frac sand interests and those calling for the ban.

Organizing Committee member Lynnea Pfohl, a Homer Township resident who also served on LSP’s staff during part of the campaign, recalls that at that moment, it was especially helpful to be working from our own narrative. “We were nervous when we knew how the Planning Commission vote was going to come down,” she says. “But we just went right back to saying, ‘The government works for the people,’ and we moved right along.”

Indeed, the Planning Commission’s proposal was ultimately rejected—both by members of the public who supported an outright ban and later by the County Board, which had final control over the decision. On Oct. 25, a majority of County Board members voted to turn down the Planning Commission’s recommendation and instead instructed the County Attorney to finalize the language for a ban. On November 22, the ban was passed on a 3-2 vote.

The majority of Board members had heard our message, listened, and held firm, despite continued threats and pressure from the frac sand industry. In public statements, those Commissioners who ultimately supported the ban made it clear that they did so because it was what the people wanted them to do. In this case, democracy worked the way it always should.

It was incredibly moving to see how our victory inspired people both within Winona County and well beyond it, giving them hope about what organized people can accomplish. Reflecting on what has changed because of this ban campaign, Wiscoy Township resident and Organizing Committee member Kelley Stanage says, “I think people feel more empowered. People have the feeling we can do something.” By connecting all the people who came together to work for this goal, Stanage says, “We made what seemed impossible, possible. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Now, the work continues: to keep spreading the word about the ban, to invite our new supporters to engage with LSP’s work in more ways, and to use this victory to build toward more positive change in the community. In examples like this, we have proof that organizing works. We need to continue sustained and committed organizing to combat corporate power with people power. We must not let up until all the decisions made at all levels of government look more like this one — until corporate profits are never valued above what is right for people and the land.

LSP organizer Johanna Rupprecht can be reached at 507-523-3366 or via e-mail.