The Mission Statement of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says:
“Our mission is to work with citizens to conserve and manage the state’s natural resources, to provide outdoor recreation opportunities, and to provide for commercial uses of natural resources in a way that creates a sustainable quality of life.”
Note the reference to “commercial uses of natural resources.” That describes the DNR’s approach to peat mining in wilderness areas. It is acting as an agent of capitalist exploitation of resources, not as their protector or conservator. It is also the main culprit in the increasing recreationalization of state parks and wilderness areas, encouraging the incursion of noisy, foul-smelling, wildlife-antagonistic, and nature-damaging ATVs and OHVs into areas where destruction of natural resources is being transformed by DNR Newspeak into “recreation”—mostly for men with pent-up testosterone levels. Just last week it decided to allow these machines into the
I’m sure the destructive role of the DNR is not news to many of you, but it was to me until I got involved in fighting corporate destruction of one of
I grew up in
The DNR is a major culprit in the peat-mining story. But it is not the only one, as we shall see.
The plan to mine peat in the Big Bog is a story of deceit, greed, arrogance, corruption, political skullduggery, and racism. It is capitalism run amok.
A few figures on peat (as of 2001):
• annual sales of peat in the
• 97% comes from
• 6 to 7.5 million acres of peatland in
• 56% of
• The Big Bog consists of 585 square miles of fen, sedge meadow, and swamp forests. A fen, according to Webster’s, is “low land that is covered wholly or partly with water unless artificially drained and that usually has peaty alkaline soil and characteristic flora (as of sedges and reeds).” The Big Bog stretches from jackpine forests north of
This area is mostly swamps, bogs, and upland “islands.” Common trees include black and white spruce, jack pine, green and black ash, and some paper birch, quaking aspen, white and red pine. There are many rare plants, including carnivorous sundews and pitcher plants. In the area are rare orchids. Animals include wolves, bald eagles, black bears, deer, and moose. Caribou that once roamed the muskeg are gone.
• Peat is formed when plant material does not fully decay because of acidic and anaerobic conditions. In addition to peat moss, it can include marshland vegetation such as trees, grasses, fungi, and the organic remains of insects and animals. Occasionally, peat burns spontaneously. As a boy, I remember seeing peat burning in the Big Bog on the way to picking blueberries. A peat bog takes thousands of years to evolve. Once destroyed, it cannot be fully restored to its natural state, although Berger Peat Moss of Quebec, the Canadian corporation contracted with to mine this site, claims on its Web site that it can fully reclaim a mined bog in twenty years! This seems counterintuitive, to say the least, and says nothing about the damage caused by airborne contaminants during the decades of harvesting.
Peat mining will wreak havoc on the ecosystem, including nearby rivers and lakes, by releasing into the atmosphere and earth and water harmful chemicals and metals such as mercury, aluminum, phosphorous, iron, ammonia, and sulfate.
Peat is an unnecessary garden product. Instead of it, gardeners can use manure or compost. It’s easy to make your own compost, even for city-dwellers. You can use grass cuttings and leaves (avoid cuttings where poisons have been used!), as well as vegetable excess from your kitchens, and you don’t need a lot of space or special equipment. We gardeners should wean ourselves from commercial peat products. Peat is a by-product of the rape of precious and irreplaceable natural resources.
This map shows the
The scope of the assault on this site is substantial. It involves
• clear-cutting and mining peat on 840 acres over a period of thirty to forty years, sucking up a couple of inches per year into huge machines
• destroying 320 acres for drainage ditches and settling basins, 64 acres for processing facilities and storage areas, and 39 acres for a shipping and distribution yard (that's 1,263 acres)
• That is not counting the destruction that will almost certainly result from building up the road into the site, since it presently wouldn’t be able to handle the huge machinery required
Aerial photo shows the scope, and beginning, of the massive destruction--- stretching miles
This area is located in the middle of three Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs), where it is illegal even to pick a flower. These are delicate ecosystems. They are the Lost River Peatland SNA; the South Black River Peatland SNA; and the Red Lake Peatland SNA. It is dead center in the Big Bog. What worse spot could you pick to plan an assault on the wilderness over a period of thirty to forty years? Who should have the right to determine the future of such wilderness resources—corporate profiteers and their political lackeys, or the people of the state whose patrimony they are?
According to the “Report of the Minnesota Endangered Species Technical Advisory Committee,” “once a site is designated as an SNA, it becomes the most strongly protected property in the state. Development or harmful intrusions of any kind are forbidden.” By protecting calcareous fens, mesic blacksoil prairies, maple-basswood forests, and oak savannas that were “much more prevalent in presettlement times and that are now protected as state natural areas, . . . Minnesota is also protecting species whose presence and/or status is unknown—particularly invertebrates about which our knowledge is so meager.” Considerations like these mean nothing to the DNR and its corporate clients, or to the politicians who are facilitating the rape.
The Big Bog is the primary freshwater aquifer for northern Minnesota and the headwaters for numerous streams, rivers, and lakes, including the Tamarack River (which flows into Upper Red Lake), the Sturgeon River (which flows into the Big Fork River), and the Black River (which empties into the Rainy River, which in turn flows into Lake of the Woods, and ultimately into the Arctic by way of Hudson’s Bay). Water flows north in this area. The
More than 150 species of bog plants have been used as medicines by the Ojibwe. (A few of them are listed on the leaflet that is available here tonight. Thanks to Ojibwe ethnobotanist Michael Price for this compilation.) Some of these include bog cranberry (also a food source for deer in winter), dogwood, yellow lady’s slipper, blue flag iris, labrador tea, and pitcher plants.
We’re talking here about the Mother of All Bogs.
Peat, by its very nature, lies in areas that are not much inhabited by humans. In the case of the Big Bog, this is a very remote area indeed. Mining it requires building roads to the mining site and digging deep ditches for drainage, as well as clear-cutting any existing stands of trees, because the peat needs to be dry before it can be sucked up by huge machines right out of The Empire Strikes Back. The peat is chopped up and shredded by these machines that belch mercury-contaminated dust into the air. These machines are pulled by large tractors, as shown by the leaflet announcing this event. The contaminants are carried by the wind in all directions, so that the resultant pollution is not limited to the flowage of nearby waters. Large buildings are erected to process the peat. (Even though water flows north, so not via the
Alan Maki, who has done more than anyone to expose the hideous plan to mine peat in the Big Bog, describes the process pithily:
“This strip-mining process shakes loose all the contaminants, such as mercury and dioxins, which have fallen from the skies over many millennia. In effect, the process of strip-mining peat is like taking a jumbo-sized salt shaker filled with these contaminants and shaking them into the air, onto the land, and into the water—polluting the air, the land, along with the streams, rivers, and lakes. People will breathe the air, ingest it from the berries picked and medicinal plants gathered, and drink these deadly contaminants in water. The mercury will be taken in by microscopic organisms. In turn, minnows will feed on these organisms. Larger fish will feed on the minnows. Birds of prey, like bald eagles, will feed on larger fish as birds like kingfishers and ducks will eat the minnows. Animals like beaver, moose, and deer will eat the trees and plants. Timber wolves drink from these waters and eat the smaller animals.
“Ducks will eat minnows laden with mercury and fly off where hunters will shoot them hundreds and even thousands of miles away, unaware of the mercury they and their families will be consuming. Already the waters of
This is not a doomsday exaggeration. It’s common sense. But common sense is being trumped by the profit motive. Nature, citizen health, wilderness protection, indigenous culture and rights be damned. As Malcolm X put it: “When they lay those dollars on you, your soul goes.”
It takes thousands of years for a peatland to evolve, yet Berger Peat Moss says it knows how to fully restore a peat bog in twenty years!
Let’s take a closer look at the history of this misbegotten project.
Timeline for Wilderness Rape
For decades, corporate interests have had their eye on exploiting the bog for profit. As early as the 1970s, politicians attempted to give the peatlands to the Twin Cities energy monopoly Minnegasco for gasification purposes. This effort was shot down by opposition from then
In 1991, the Pine Island Bog was omitted by the DNR as a protected peatland. In the late 1990s,
In January 2002, the DNR pronounced the Environmental Impact Statement adequate. But it was far from adequate. It involved an archaeologist, but not an anthropologist, as was required because of the relation to the Red Lake Nation. It did not address road building or rock smashing at Margie (a village on highway 71 that sits on pre-Cambrian rock and that was to be used as a rock quarry source for road building for the project). No on-site survey was done to check for heavy metals like mercury, or to assess the impact on wildlife, or the hydrology. The EIS does not address the question of mercury in the bog. No assessment of Native medicinal plants or the occurrence of rare and protected plants was done. The man who did the assessment says he did nothing more than drive past the site in winter. The assessment was a generic study of
The required public comment period was pro forma at best. Bill Brice—the head of the Land and Minerals Division of the DNR—placed a public notice of a hearing for the final Environmental Impact Statement in a single newspaper (the International Falls Daily Journal), with a cutoff date of December 27, 2002, for public comment. No notice was published in other newspapers, such as the Red Lake Nation News, whose readers had the most direct interest in the issue, nor in any other regional newspapers.
In April 2003, the DNR issued a permit to Berger, and in October 2004 the U.S Army Corps of Engineers granted a permit to Berger to mine peat in the bog.
That’s the official timeline. But there’s more to it than that.
Red Lake’s Opposition
Since 1967, the Red Lake Tribal Council has passed several resolutions condemning commercial use of the Big Bog, and peat mining in particular. The latest resolution, adopted on
In part, the resolution states:
“WHEREAS the Red Lake Tribal Council wishes to once again state unequivocally that the Band has strong cultural and spiritual ties to the wetland resources on and near Red Lake Reservation lands; and,
“WHEREAS the Red Lake Band believes that our water, our fish and game, our forests, our wild rice, our medicinal plants, and our very way of life depend on the maintenance of wetlands on and near the Reservation in their natural, undisturbed state; . . .
“THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Red Lake Tribal Council hereby reaffirms and restates its strong opposition to peat mining in general, and to any efforts to mine the Pine Island Bog specifically; and,
“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That the Tribal Council hereby reaffirms and restates its strong objection to any efforts to disturb or deface in any way, or to conduct any on-site or extractive peat operation in any of the peatlands that lie on or near Reservation land, or which lie within any watersheds in which the Red Lake Band has any jurisdiction, including the Red Lake, Rainy River and Black River Watersheds.”
This resolution was sent to the Secretary of the Interior, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Sen. Norm Coleman, Sen. Mark Dayton, Congressman Collin Peterson, Congressman James Oberstar, state senator Rod Skoe, state senator Tom Saxhaug, state representative Frank Moe, state representative Brita Sailer, state representative Irv Anderson, DNR commissioner Gene Merriam, and the Koochiching County Board of Commissioners.
The resolution also disavowed action by former tribal chairman Gerald “Butch” Brun, who sent a letter on
Who are the culprits?
The proposal to mine peat in the
Save Our Bog initially sought to enlist the support of politicians from the area in its efforts to halt the project. In retrospect, I think this was naive because we were assuming that in a democracy, elected officials would try to represent their constituents. We confused who they consider their constituents to be. Certainly, they were not the people of northern
I sent these politicians the leaflet for tonight's meeting. Rod Skoe responded, saying: "David, you may be surprised to learn that I have never thought mining peat a good idea. I have always understood the time line of peat development and that as a farmer that farms this high value land, I have an obligation to maintain the soil." These platitudes are the first time, to my knowledge, that Skoe has said anything about this issue. But note that he says nothing about a project he and his party support. Skoe also supports ATVs in the
Brita Sailer, for her part, kept opponents of the mining on a leash for a year, giving the impression she sympathized with their efforts. She even fooled a few into believing her—until, that is, she finally wrote me stating that she supported the mining. “It’s only 800 acres,” she said, trivializing the issue as a question of space and ignoring all the information she had been given about environmental ramifications. Frank Moe actually showed up at an event of Friends of the Pine Island Bog in
As a radical gay activist in
The arrogant behavior of DFL politicians shows that, like Republicans, their allegiance is to big business, not to the citizens they pretend to represent. They confirm the wisdom of something my father used to say: “Put all the politicians in a gunnysack and shake it up and a shithead will come up every time.” Keep that in mind as the 2008 phoney-baloney election campaign heats up. Anyone who thinks politicians give a shit about them or the environment is dreaming with his or her eyes open.
It gets worse.
It is now clear that there is a virtual conspiracy going on with regard to peat mining in the Big Bog. I say that as someone who generally pooh-poohs conspiracy theories. What we’re dealing with here is no theory.
In addition to corrupt politicians and the DNR, other institutions are also implicated in this assault on our wilderness. Among them are the following:
• The Upper Red Lake Recreational Association (aka Friends of the Big Bog). This is a small-businessmen’s group that for years has been trying, with considerable success, to recreationalize the bog and increase tourism to Waskish and
A couple of years ago, I wrote to Jerry Stensing—out of naïveté, it turns out—after discovering his group, to inform him of plans by Save Our Bog to leaflet the Clearwater County Fair in Bagley about peat mining in the Big Bog. He wrote back telling me to remove him from my list and to leave the issue of peat mining “to the professionals”! He compared our plans to leaflet fairgoers to “terrorism”! I kid you not.
I had thought Soil and Water Commissions were nonpolitical entities that served as watchdogs for natural resources. But I guess not. According to the
• The role of the news media has mostly been of a piece with this skullduggery. The only reporter to have covered the peat-mining issue objectively and consistently has been John Myers of the Duluth News-Tribune. To his credit,
• The biggest shock to me was the fact that almost all of
The interlocking ties between multinational corporations,
What’s the answer?
What Is to Be Done?
No progress will be made in fighting peat mining if the politicians are allowed to keep getting away with their scams. What began as an encouraging coming together of disparate activists in 2005 to fight against peat mining in the bog fizzled out, in part because of illusions in the system, in part because of personal frictions. The only way to remedy this is for a new effort that brings together all activists opposed to destruction of our natural resources. That includes peat mining, ATV invasion of state parks and wilderness areas, recreationalization and industrialization of wilderness areas, surrender to capitalist exploitation of natural resources, cell-phone towers over Douglas Lodge at Itasca State Park (something Brita Sailer has reportedly said she would work for) . . . We need grassroots organization and a hard line against illusions in the political system. Confrontation and grassroots mobilization, not collaboration.
With regard to peat mining in the bog, the following actions should be taken now:
•Write DNR commissioner Mark Holsten and demand that he pull the permit. He has the authority to do so, and in view of the facts I have presented, it is inexcusable and racist for him not to.
• Write letters to the editor of newspapers.
• Have your organizations adopt resolutions condemning the peat mining and demanding that the permit be pulled. Send copies to Holsten, newspapers, and anti-mining activists.
• Demand that your political representatives oppose this project. If you run into them somewhere, shake their hand and refuse to let go until you get their commitment to oppose this cockamamie project.
I'd like to close with a thought from Sigurd Olson that was appended to a mailing by Barry Babcock of the Jack Pine Coalition:
"With the gradual elimination of wilderness regions, with the rapid settling and opening up of the rest of the country, it behooves us to take stock of this heritage of ages past and think twice before we change it in the slightest. For the charm of the region lies not only in its lakes and rivers, not only in its forests and game, but in its wilderness nature. We must weigh the issues well before we allow the development to rob us [of] something which seems so particularly suited to the needs of those who want to leave the beaten trails, those who love the swish of the paddle and the song of running water. For these the country was created; and for them it must be kept unspoiled and unchanged as it has come down to us through the centuries."