Sand, Land & Land Stewardship

For longer than I can remember, my family has taken the same route from our farm in southeast Minnesota to visit my grandparents in north-central Wisconsin. The first leg of the four-hour trip takes us across the Mississippi River and through the farmland, pastures and rolling, wooded hills of Trempealeau and Jackson Counties. The landmarks and scenery along every mile of the route have become deeply familiar to us over countless trips in all seasons.

So the sight that greeted me on a trip in the spring of 2012 was shocking and brutal in its unfamiliarity. East of the village of Blair — just a mile or two down the road from the slope on which we had once counted a flock of over 40 wild turkeys — a section of the hills was gone. The trees had been torn down, the land ripped open, and pale silica sand dug out and piled up in mounds almost as large as the hills they had once been. These piles of sand waited to be processed and shipped away to other states, to be pumped deep into the ground, along with undisclosed chemicals and massive amounts of water, in the process of hydraulic fracturing to obtain oil and gas.

This was the first frac sand mine I had ever seen in person. Since then, I’ve seen many more. Some of them were gaping wounds in landscapes I never had the privilege of seeing when they were whole, so I could only imagine, not remember, the hills or bluffs they used to be. The sense of the fundamental wrongness of this desecration of the land has never left me. I have also seen rural roads and tiny villages overrun with an endless stream of trucks hauling frac sand. I have seen sand mining, processing and shipping being done with no meaningful measures in place to protect innocent neighbors from exposure to dust that contains deadly crystalline silica.

For all these reasons and many more, people across our region have been moved to take action together to fight the frac sand industry. When southeast Minnesota first began to face the threat of a proposed onslaught of frac sand mining two and half years ago, citizens here called on the Land Stewardship Project to take a stand. As I’ve led our local organizing on this issue for the past 16 months, it’s become ever more clear to me that both our members and our mission have called LSP into the frac sand fight. The idea of destroying the land by strip-mining it for frac sand is fundamentally opposed to the stewardship ethic we seek to foster. And the frac sand industry represents precisely the kind of corporate-driven exploitation of the land, people and rural communities that our organization has stood against throughout our history. Moreover, LSP and our members understand that other ways are possible. Farmers like my own family, or like southeast Minnesotan Bob Christie — who was told by a mining company that the land he farms and loves was merely “overburden” in the way of sand — know that people can make a living on the land without destroying it.

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The scale of the threat we face from this new industry means we must work to combat it on many fronts and in many ways. During the 2013 session of the Minnesota Legislature, members of LSP and other groups traveled to the capitol in Saint Paul by the busload, again and again, to fight for strong legislation to restrict the frac sand industry. On a hot summer night last July, 100 people packed into a church hall in Rushford, Minn., to focus on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) ordered on 11 proposed mines. From the comments at that gathering, LSP compiled the People’s EIS Scoping Report, a grassroots document we have released widely to make certain that the voices of directly impacted local residents are heard as the EIS is carried out. Knowing from long experience that strong local democracy can be the best protection against harmful, corporate-backed developments, LSP is also working to combat the frac sand industry at the local government level. We have held trainings to help people understand and practice their rights, and I am working with residents in townships heavily targeted by the industry to build the power to protect their communities with local ordinances. Recently we have begun to work with members and allies in Wisconsin to fight the frac sand industry in that state as well.

Most recently, over 225 people from across our region braved a snowstorm in January to gather at LSP’s Citizens’ Frac Sand Summit in Winona, Minn. There we launched a new petition drive as part of the next phase of our state-level work to protect the land and people from frac sand mining. We also discussed the importance of fighting attempts to weaken local democracy in Wisconsin— something the frac sand industry is pushing hard for.

Working together, organized people have already had much success. But there is a long fight still ahead. The sand in our hills and bluffs is desired by Big Energy, one of the most powerful industries the world has ever seen. No matter how many front groups, middlemen or subsidiaries may be involved, frac sand mining ultimately exists for the benefit of the oil and gas industry. These extreme energy corporations haul away profits while leaving behind costs that must be paid by society for generations to come. The sand mined in the Midwest enables the hydraulic fracturing that is devastating other rural communities in places like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, all for the extraction of more and more fossil fuels, threatening all our communities through global climate change.

I am continually inspired by the dedication and commitment of the people I have come to know through these past months of organizing—people whose love for the land and their communities drives them to keep coming together again and again, building and sharing hope, courage and power. If you have not already begun to take action with us against the frac sand industry, then I urge you to join this fight today. Standing together, we can protect our communities and the land.

Organizer Johanna Rupprecht is based in LSP’s office in Lewiston, Minn., where she grew up on a crop and livestock farm. She can be reached at 507-523-3366 or jrupprecht@landstewardshipproject.org.