Synthesis/Regeneration 12   (Winter 1997)

Rob Danielson's From the Ground Up

Undermining the Mines: Video Shows How Communities Can Fight Back

by Greta Gaard, Minnesota Green Party

If you have ever wondered about the environmental and social impacts of mining but have been put off by the technical nature of the subject, see this video. In just 40 minutes, From the Ground Up gives you an in-depth view of mining-and what local citizens can do to stop it-by examining the specific case of Noranda Minerals, and the copper-zinc mining operations proposed and in progress along the Rhinelander-Ladysmith Greenstone Belt in northern Wisconsin.

The video was filmed in the spring of 1992, when University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee video professor Rob Danielson set out to document the controversies surrounding mining development in northern Wisconsin. For three months, he traveled and talked with the residents of northern Wisconsin-small business owners, anglers, geologists, historians, economists. What he saw and learned is condensed and clearly presented in this unique and compelling video.

To get his point across, Danielson uses an array of techniques, from impressionistic views of skylines, forests, and rivers to helicopter shots of mining pits. The juxtaposition of old black-and-white photos from the local historical societies with current interviews of residents and experts helps the viewer understand the evolution of mining in northern Wisconsin and the magnitude of the current problem. Danielson's charts are especially lucid, helpful explanations of the location of metal deposits and the impacts of mining. He is thinking visually, and produces memorable images: a dog lapping water from a bucket; the sluggish, polluted flow of the Clark Fork River; a woman sampling the government-certified "safe" water-and spewing it out.

Ordinary people can take charge and get their message across.

There's little of the high-tech about Danielson. Many of his charts and maps are placed by hand as we watch, and Danielson modestly reports making his illustrations with "crayolas and Kinko's color transparencies." These strategies seem to epitomize Danielson's message: ordinary people can take charge and get their message across.

Danielson operates on the basic assumption that the land, the animals, and the people are equally important. But this assumption is challenged by the location and operation of a new mine in northern Wisconsin, where at least six massive zinc-copper deposits lie, infused in volcanic sulfides. The mining of similar deposits has produced several of our nation's largest Superfund sites, among them the Clark Fork River in Montana. Yet the developers claim that such mining in northern Wisconsin will have a largely beneficial effect.

To explore the developers' claim, Danielson compares the histories and economies of two mining counties: Rusk County, where mining is already in progress, and Oneida County, where the next mining development is proposed. The economy in Rusk County has relied on exploitative, intensive use of the land, beginning with clear-cutting old growth forests and converting the deforested land to dairy operations. Danielson shows that this was a shortsighted economic strategy because it didn't take into consideration the characteristics of the land: the short growing season and sandy soil, which had been perfect for the forests were unsuited for dairying. Now the county's hopes are pinned on new mining jobs. But studies predict these jobs only have the potential to lower unemployment by 1 percent.

In Oneida County, however, the economy is better. Just after the turn of the century, the clearcut-and-farm policy was rejected in favor of a sustainable yield. When forestry and related industries are managed sustainably they are the largest providers of jobs. In Oneida County these industries are locally owned and operated, unlike large-scale manufacturing enterprises.

Danielson provides a quality of life comparison of the two counties. In terms of population density, violent crime, the public school dropout rate, property taxes, and water quality, Oneida County is a better place to live.

It's been said that manufacturing jobs pay more. But, as Danielson's analysis shows, that income fails to account for the associated costs in overall quality of life.

Danielson's research findings have been mirrored on a global scale. In July 1992, when Danielson was post-producing his video, Worldwatch Institute published Paper #109, Mining the Earth, which confirms every one of Danielson's findings on the economics of mining, its environmental impact, and the shifting demand of world markets. Author John Young describes copper production as "exceptionally destructive," and says that with respect to mining overall, "prevention is better than cure."

And that's the beauty of Danielson's approach. From the Ground Up is part of a growing collection of environmental videos by grassroots activists and experts who believe that video is a more effective medium than articles and books for disseminating crucial information. Danielson says he's not interested in reaching "as wide an audience as possible;" rather, he wants the video to be used as an informational tool for community groups, showing how local, citizen-based research and communication can empower communities to take real control over their immediate environments. Ideally, these groups will be able to use the information and strategies presented to affect state and local policies. With Danielson's straightforward terms and powerful images, it's easy to see him reaching this goal.

To obtain a copy, send a check or money order for $9.00 payable to From the Ground Up, P. O. Box 16471, Milwaukee, WI 53216.

Synthesis/Regeneration home page  | Synthesis/Regeneration 12 Contents