By: Alan L. Maki
A Canadian multinational conglomerate sees big profits in peat strip-mined from the Big Bog.
(For location: Consult Minnesota DNR PRIM map “Upper Red Lake Area”... peat mining area is located in the approximate vicinity of the "Old Pine Island Ranger Station" in the Pine Island State Forest).
Forget about the “battle in Seattle,” capitalist globalization has become an issue in northern Minnesota and a confrontation between a Canadian multi-national conglomerate and Minnesotans is brewing. In the name of creating jobs, politicians --- local, state, and federal--- have been working behind closed doors, and are quite literally, clearing the way for Berger, Limited to come in and truck away the profits from a one square mile site at the “Old Pine Island Ranger Station,” located in the Pine Island State Forest between Washkish and Big Falls (“The Secret Is In The Soil,” Beager).
The Big Bog, as it is known to Minnesotans, is the primary fresh water aquifer for northern Minnesota and the headwaters for numerous streams, rivers, and lakes, including the Tamarack River, Upper and Lower Red Lakes, the Sturgeon River (which flows into the Big Fork River), and the Black River, which empties into the Rainy River, which in turn exits into Lake of the Woods (Friends of the Big Bog). The Rainy River and Lake of the Woods are boundary waters with Canada. Northern Minnesotans have relied on this aquifer for their source of fresh water and for their livelihoods in forestry related industries for over one hundred years; Red Lake First Nation’s peoples rely upon on this bog’s highly complex and delicate ecosystem for their economic, social, cultural, and spiritual needs--- and have for centuries.
Anglers from all over Minnesota, the United States, and from all parts of the world, fish these waters year round (“Red Lake Walleye,” MNDNR). This watershed provides some of the best duck and goose hunting in North America. Trappers understand the importance of this bog as a source of life where fisher, marten, mink, beaver, and otter live. Moose, timber wolves, deer, black bears, and bald eagles live in this pristine wilderness.
Articulating the need to protect and defend the Big Bog peat lands, Roger Jourdain opposed any commercial development of this bog. Jourdain was the popularly re-elected Chairman of the Red Lake Nation for almost thirty years. Jourdain declared, time and time again from 1967 until his death in 2002, “The most important use of the peat lands is as natural filter for the waters which maintain our lakes. Peat provides habitat for our wildlife. Much of our forests grow on peat. The wildlife, timber and fish are our greatest resource… (the) primary source of employment and income for the tribe” (“The Patterned Peatlands of Minnesota,” Meyer 260). Jourdain believed destroying this bog would destroy his people and his nation.
Some people ridicule those calling for protection of the Big Bog by saying there is more swamp in northern Minnesota then there are jobs for people. The fact is unemployment is a major problem. Another problem is that many workers are mired in poverty because they have poverty-wage paying jobs. However, solutions to these problems can be found without destroying a living ecosystem that should be protected because it is worth more--- for a variety of reasons--- in its present pristine state than mined for peat. As we view the world we live in fresh water is a precious resource and in many areas of the world a commodity as expensive as gasoline; often more scarce. We don’t have to look far to see how fresh water supplies have become depleted and polluted. A joint state-tribal cooperative water bottling plant would create many times the jobs--- real living wage jobs. More people working under the protection of union contracts in forestry related, casino, and tourism jobs would also solve many poverty related problems in northern Minnesota.
The politicians supporting this mining project have put forth two arguments supporting this project (“The Secret Is in the Soil,” Beager). They claim it will create thirty to forty jobs. Most of these jobs will be part-time jobs (with four to five full-time employees) paid poverty wages up to $8.00 an hour. These same politicians also say that the state will benefit financially. What they are not telling people is that the state of Minnesota will receive the paltry sum of $7,000.00 per year as payment on the lease for this state land (DNR Permit).
The peat will be used for horticultural purposes, making this project even more illogical, since there are even better alternatives to peat for the same horticultural purposes which would create even more jobs at real living wages for people in northern Minnesota. One alternative would be to establish a state owned cooperative (perhaps a joint state-tribal venture) that would make compost from sawdust and fish viscera. Right now there are piles and piles of sawdust all over northern Minnesota that nobody has figured out what to do with it, and fish viscera is carted off to landfills or dumped along roadsides, or into the waters of rivers and lakes. Old newspapers could also be used in the process of making high quality compost. This cooperative venture could reinvest the profits into other cooperative ventures, use the funds in the communities for parks and recreation programs for young people, or pay higher wages along with more benefits to those employed. Except for the one foreign corporation--- Berger, Limited--- and maybe forty employees, no one else will benefit from the destruction of the Big Bog. The Wal-mart store across the border in Fort Frances, Ontario will probably get the better portion of the paychecks.
The process of mining peat involves building roads to the site. Deep ditches are dug for drainage since the peat needs to be dry before it can be picked up and processed. After drying, the peat is chopped and shredded in order to be harvested by behemoth vacuums belching mercury contaminated dust into the air. These huge vacuums are pulled by big energy consuming tractors. Huge buildings will also be erected in the bog to process the peat.
These huge vacuums that suck the peat from the bog are much like the vacuum used to sweep a living-room carpet, except a much larger two-story version--- which operates without any filters. What happens when the filter is removed from the home vacuum cleaner as the carpet is cleaned? The home fills with dust particles. In the process of mining the peat from the Big Bog the air will be filled with mercury and other contaminants like dioxins as dust is belched into the air fifteen to thirty feet and carried off by the winds to the surrounding area.
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 Minnesota lakes and rivers have high levels of mercury and doctors are warning women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and small children not to consume too much fish because of the high levels of mercury in the fish (Minnesota Fishing Regulations 2005; “Consumer Advisory,” USDA; “Mercury,” EPA).
Over the thirty to fifty year life of this project mercury levels will continually rise to even higher levels. Mercury accumulates, unlike some pollutants that dissipate over time. Our government should have the common sense to be doing things in a way to reduce the entry of mercury into our environment and the food chain; this peat mining operation will have the opposite affect.
This pristine, wilderness bog is a shared resource. This resource is shared by the people of the state of Minnesota and the people of the Red Lake Nation; this can be seen by looking at a map. The people of the Red Lake Nation have not been consulted on this mining project even though the drainage ditching for this project has been run right through their lands without their permission (PRIM map).
Since 1967 the Red Lake Tribal Council has passed resolution after resolution condemning the commercial use--- and peat mining specifically--- in relation to the Big Bog (Red Lake Resolution No. 226-83). The Red Lake Tribal Council resolution passed in the year 2000 states this opposition very emphatically (Red Lake Resolution No. 171-2000). For some reason--- yet to be determined--- a former Red Lake Nation Chairman, Gerald “Butch” Brun, signed and sent a letter to the Koochiching County Board of Commissioners, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (both the Corps and EPA scientists opposed this project) stating that the Red Lake Nation had dropped its opposition to mining peat in the bog (Brun). The present Chairman and Council passed another resolution on March 8, 2005 denouncing the Brun letter and setting forth their continued opposition to any commercial development of the peat lands, including this mining project (Red Lake Resolution No. 44-05). Quite appropriately, but probably by coincidence, this most recent resolution was passed on International Women’s Day. Women and children suffer the worst affects from mercury contamination (“Consumer Advisory,” EPA).
With this penetration of capitalist globalization into the north woods of Minnesota has come the most disgusting and vile racism polluting the political landscape. The politicians and Berger have known of the historic opposition on the part of the Red Lake Nation towards peat mining in the Big Bog, yet they sought a deceitful means to circumvent this opposition. The claim is that after receiving the Chairman Brun letter the Red Lake Nation just changed its position with the change of leadership. This is an argument that just doesn’t hold water because Red Lake’s opposition towards commercial development of the peat lands has been very united, relentless, and overwhelming since 1967 when the council opposed the establishment of a State Park (Red Lake Resolution No. 182-68). In addition these politicians are well aware that the overwhelming majority of the Red Lake Nation population is opposed to this peat mining even if one elected official supported it. Then, these same politicians never had the common decency to go before the Red Lake Nation Tribal Council to ask for their input or to seek permission to drain this mercury laden water through Red Lake Nation lands. So much concern for 40 unemployed people getting jobs, but so little concern for the partner--- a sovereign Indian Nation of more than 10,000 people--- with whom this bog is shared has created a political environment contaminated with racism.
The democratic rights of all Minnesotans have been disregarded in this process as these politicians working with this multi-national corporation schemed behind closed doors in trying to sneak this project by the people. What were the politicians thinking? That because this is taking place out in the middle of the bog--- out of sight and out of mind--- no one would know what was going on? This is not democracy.
Why did Bill Brice--- the head of Land and Minerals Division of the Minnesota DNR--- run the Public Notice of the hearing for the final Environmental Impact Statement in the International Falls Daily Journal, but not in the Red Lake Nation News (“DNR Notice of Hearing,” MNDNR)? This was done to circumvent massive public opposition to strip-mining the peat in the Big Bog.
The Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources signed the permit authorizing Berger to strip-mine the peat in the Big Bog without consulting with the people of the Red Lake Nation who share this bog with all Minnesotans. The Commissioner did not advise the more than 80 member organizations of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, the largest environmental organization in Minnesota, of his intent to authorize the permit to allow this strip mining of the peat in the Big Bog to proceed; this coalition includes: Trout Unlimited, Izzak Walton League, Clean Water Minnesota, and the Audubon Society. The Commissioner, upon taking office, made a pledge that he would seek such input from all parties involved when projects like this would come under consideration before giving his approval.
There is a composting alternative to peat that can be spun into an industry that will create more jobs and pay working people real living wages while serving a socially useful purpose by cleaning up our environment and providing a high quality composting material for horticultural purposes at the same time. This alternative provides better results without any environmental destruction. This is a socially progressive, environmentally friendly “green solution” to bring people from all communities together. The present project will only serve to create greater divisions among people.
Congressman James Oberstar touts these forty jobs without considering the rights of the people of the Red Lake Nation whose livelihoods and culture are dependent upon this bog. Koochiching County Commissioner Mike Hanson has also pushed this project relentlessly while touting jobs, jobs, jobs for the residents of Big Falls--- while selfishly ignoring the negative economic, social, and cultural impact peat mining will have on the people of the Red Lake Nation.
Both Congressman Oberstar and Commissioner Hanson talk about the revenue the State of Minnesota will receive in lease monies as if it is some kind of windfall. This is ridiculous considering the fact that the county, state, and federal governments, together with the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation agency, have had to foot the bill for the EIS, miles upon miles of road building, ditch digging, and clearing the land (“The Secret Is In The Soil,” Beager). It should be noted that the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation agency, in spite of claims to the contrary, in the “Secret Is In the Soil” article, is adamant in stating they neither support nor oppose this strip-mining project and the funds referred to are “pass through funds” from the taconite tax. There is no way the State or Federal governments will ever recover the money that has already been spent, let alone the money that will have to be spent just for the upkeep of these roads through the bog after heavy double bottom semi-trucks get done hauling the peat from the bog in the summer. Taxpayers would be further ahead if this boondoggle was scrapped and the names of all the unemployed people in Koochiching County and from the Red Lake Nation were to be put into a hat with forty names drawn from the hat every year and each person given a check for $25,000.00. Berger is not paying for anything. Taxpayers have to pay for new roads to be built into the site and taxpayers are footing the bill to drain and clear the land; taxpayers will have to pay to maintain these roads over a thirty to fifty year period.
Taxpayers will ultimately have to foot the bill to clean up this mess thirty to fifty years from now. Any company that won’t pay to get the profits out of the bog certainly is not going to stick around to pay for “reclamation” costs which will be in excess of all wages combined, considering inflationary costs (“Peat Mineland Reclamation Rules,” Minnesota). Commissioner Hanson has left open the possibility that Koochiching County residents, through a special and specific tax, may end up footing the bill (“Secret is in the Soil,” Beager).
The “Minnesota Volunteer,” a publication of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, stated in a recent editorial, “The purpose of protection is straight forward: to ensure survival of something of value. Devising a plan to accommodate that purpose is not always simple because people see different possibilities.” And Kathleen Weflen’s editorial continued, “As citizens, we often disagree on what to protect, as well as when, where, and how to provide protection. We may also disagree on who best represents our interests…” (“Something of Value”). The point is, in this case a handful of politicians scheming behind the backs of the people made the decision in place of a process that is supposed to be open for the very reason that people have a right to protect their resources for whatever their value--- economic, social, cultural, spiritual (“Earth’s Ecosystem Crucial for Economic, Social, & Spiritual Stability,” UNEP). In this case openness becomes even more important because the resource is a shared resource; a resource stolen from one of the partners many years ago and then the partner was pushed onto a reservation after having all their resources stolen from them to be used by the other partner now intent on using this stolen resource to create great wealth to the exclusion of the partner it was originally stolen from. Under the circumstances, having a full and open hearing on this issue is not too much to expect from a government that boasts to the world that it is the greatest democracy on the face of the earth.
Is the bog worth more in its natural, undisturbed, pristine state, both as a valuable freshwater resource for all Minnesotans, and as an economic, social, cultural, and spiritual resource to the people of the Red Lake Nation than if it is being strip mined for peat? Given the statement of Roger Jourdain, previously cited and not challenged by one single government agency or politician, we have to say the Big Bog is worth more in its pristine, undeveloped state. Will many more jobs be lost than created as the result of this bog being destroyed? Again, we have to answer “yes,” because as has been pointed out by the Department of Natural Resources in all their scientific literature, this bog is a very delicate ecosystem; tamper with any part of it and you completely alter the entire ecosystem (Lost River Peatland SNA; South Black River Peatland SNA; Red Lake Peatland SNA, MNDNR ). Who has the right to decide the future of this resource? The people of the state of Minnesota and the people of the Red Lake Nation, in accordance with the goals and objectives set forth by the United Nations, are the ones who should make the decision on whether or not this peat strip-mining should take place.
The International Falls Daily Journal ran a front page story on this project headlined, “The Secret Is in the Soil” on March 1, 2005 touting the forty jobs as the justification for this project while not saying one single word about why so many people are opposed to this project because of what the negative effects of this boondoggle will be. Minnesotans and Red Lakers are now asking if this bog isn’t being destroyed because the profit is in the soil (“Save Our Bog” leaflet).
People see this as one more example of politicians and government officials putting the profits of a corporation before the needs of the majority of the people without giving any consideration to the long-term consequences to the environment. Berger sees only profits in the soil of the bog, whereas Minnesotans see a clean supply of fresh water and the people of the Red Lake Nation see their way of life at risk. The United Nations Millennium Statement on the Environment issued on March 30, 2005 calls upon the peoples of the world to take decisive action to defend the earth’s ecosystems because these ecosystems are crucial for economic and social stability (UNEP). Why are Minnesota politicians going against this trend that aims to protect just such resources? Forty poverty wage jobs is not justification to destroy this valuable natural resource; no other reason has been provided.
While a few jobs will be created, many more jobs in forestry related industries will be lost when water levels drop in the bog as it is drained for the peat to dry. Trees that depend on this water and the nutrients it contains will begin to die off or stop growing at their normal rate as they are deprived of this water. As higher levels of mercury in fish and wildlife get reported, tourism will suffer and many more people will lose their jobs than gain employment in mining the Big Bog (Minnesota Fishing Regulations 2005, DNR). The eco-tourism business related to the bog has just now begun to take off as the “Big Bog” is pitched as the last true pristine wilderness bog in the lower forty-eight states where moose and timber wolves roam and bald eagles soar (“Friends of the Big Bog,” leaflet; “Red Lake Walleye,” MNDNR).
In fact, this strip-mining will take place right smack, dab in the middle of what the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources refers to as three of the most significant Scientific and Natural Areas (SNA’s) in our state--- Lost River Peat Lands SNA, South Black River Peatlands SNA, and Red Lake Peatlands SNA--- that are important components of this highly complex eco-system and used for scientific study and eco-tourism (“Lost River SNA;” “South Black River SNA;” “Red Lake SNA;” DNR). To even think that placing a one square mile hole six to twelve feet deep, along with a paved all season road from Washkish through the Big Bog to Big Falls, will not destroy the bog is the epitome of irrationality.
As suggested in the “Minnesota Volunteer,” people have a right to have their views and opinions heard (“Something,” Weflen). On this issue people have not had that right to be heard. The stakes are very high for all Minnesotans, especially the people of the Red Lake Nation who have had their land and resources stolen from them in the past. Minnesotans all have a right to determine how they want difficult social and economic questions solved. Does a solution lie in continuing down the road of capitalist globalization or will solutions be sought as advocated by former, popular Governor Floyd B. Olson in cooperative socialist alternatives?
Mike Hanson, the Koochiching County Commissioner who has been the biggest advocate of mining the peat in the Big Bog has arrogantly stated that this project will proceed while knowing that many Minnesotans--- after becoming aware of the destruction of the Big Bog now in progress--- are voicing concerns and disapproval (“Tribe Opposes Plan,” Beager). This conduct goes beyond arrogance to rise to one of the worst forms of racism. Commissioner Hanson expresses a complete disdain for democracy.
Ironically, at about the same time the permits were being authorized to allow this strip-mining operation to proceed, which will add to the existing mercury levels in Upper and Lower Red Lakes, fisheries biologists from the Minnesota DNR and the Red Lake Nation DNR were announcing the success of the program aimed at walleye population recovery in these two lakes (“Red Lake Walleye,” MNDNR). On top of all of this the Minnesota DNR has announced that walleye and northern pike fishing will once again be open to anglers on a portion of Upper Red Lake. What will anglers be consuming in the fish they catch? Anglers and their families will consume mercury contaminated fish. Anglers should have been invited to participate in the decision making process, also.
Mike Hanson, Koochiching County Commissioner, and U.S. Congressman Oberstar, along with DNR Commissioner Merriam who authorized this strip-mining of the Big Bog, should have to come before Minnesotans and justify this peat mining project continuing in light of the fact that Minnesotans and the people of the Red Lake Nation have so much more to lose than what the 40 people who will get poverty wage paying jobs will gain from this deal. There is something terribly wrong with American democracy if a boondoggle like this that will adversely affect so many people in so many different ways and destroy an entire ecosystem can not be halted before any further harm is done, simply because this project--- that never should have begun--- is underway.
The Tribal Council of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians unanimously approved Resolution # 44-05 on March 8, 2005 for the express purpose of opposing the strip-mining of peat in the Big Bog. This resolution states, “The Red Lake Tribal Council 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…” This has been the position of the Red Lake Nation for over thirty years. Congressman Oberstar is aware of this position. Commissioner Hanson is aware of this position. And Commissioner Merriam has known for many years that this has been the historic position of the Red Lake Nation. These three individuals had an obligation to consult primary historical documents before advocating, promoting, and authorizing this destruction of the Big Bog to proceed. As public officials they had fiduciary responsibilities to consult with all parties before undertaking this project and allocating public funds to be spent on this hideous boondoggle. Who would believe that three public officials with massive staffs at their disposal would not bother to consult with the people of the Red Lake Nation? This is intolerable conduct on the part of public officials.
The organization Save Our Bog has called upon DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam to use his authority and to revoke the permit that he has issued to Berger (“Save Our Bog,” leaflet). Under the circumstances this is the only just solution to this problem. After revoking the permit, Commissioner Merriam should then suggest, after consultation and in cooperation with the Red Lake Nation, that the Minnesota Legislature provides permanent protection to this important bog.
Yet to be fully explored is why Red Lake Tribal Council Chairman Gerald Brun signed the letter authorizing this peat mining project to proceed. The facts, which will be explored in detail in a future research article, will document how this dirty deal that traded off the pristine, patterned peatlands of northern Minnesota in exchange for consideration of a casino venture is part and parcel to the way global capitalism works in stealing wealth, exploiting labor, instigating racism, and subverting democracy.
Another forthcoming article will explore what we can do to stop capitalist globalization from destroying our communities and our living environment. Time is of the essence as the destructive work has begun in the Big Bog. However, intervention on the part of Minnesotans educated about the importance of these peatlands can halt the destruction and reclaim the damaged area.
Beager, Laurel. “Secret is in the Soil.” International Falls Daily Journal 01 March 2005
Beager, Laurel. “Tribe Opposes plan.” International Falls Daily Journal. 21 April 2005
Brun, Gerald. Letter to commissioners. 25 Mar. 2005
Center for Food and Safety and Applied Nutrition. Consumer Advisory.
DNR. “Lost River SNA.”
DNR. Minnesota Fishing Regulations. 2005. Page 95
DNR. Permit to Mine Peat. 04/02/03
DNR. Peat Mineland Reclamation. 09/29/03
DNR. PRIM Map Upper Red Lake Area. 2003
DNR. Public Notice. 11/27/02
DNR. “Red Lake SNA.”
DNR. “Red Lake Walleye, its history, collapse, recovery.” 1/04
DNR. “South Black river SNA.”
Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury.
Friends of the Big Bog. “Friends of the Big Bog.”
Meyer, Melissa. Patterned Peatlands of Minnesota. Ed. H.E.Wright Jr.,
Barbara A. Coffin, and Norman E. Aaseng.University of Minnesota Press.
Red Lake Tribal Council. Resolution No. 186-68. 03/15/67
Red Lake Tribal Council. Resolution No. 44-05. 03/08/05
Red Lake Tribal Council. Resolution No. 171-2000. 08/09/2000
Red Lake Tribal Council. Resolution No. 226-83. 10/05/83
Save Our Bog.Save Our Bog. Leaflet.2005
United Nations Environment Program. Earth’s Ecosystems Crucial for Economic, Social, &
Spiritual Stability. Press Release. 03/30/05
Weflen, Kathleen. “Something of Value.”Editorial.Minnesota Conservation
Volunteer.DNR.March-April 2005: 2, 3
· The actual peat mining site can be located by looking at a Minnesota DNR PRIM map. Mining is taking place at the “Old Pine Island Ranger Station” in the Pine Island State Forest. You will locate this site about half-way between Washkish and Big Falls slightly north on the map.
· Red Lake Nation Tribal Council Resolutions can be obtained by calling Jody Beaulieu the Red Lake Nation Archivist at: 218-679-3341; P.O. Box 550, Red Lake, MN 56671
· Gene Merriam, the Minnesota Commissioner of Natural Resources can be contacted at: email@example.com
· Alan L. Maki
58891 County Road 13
Warroad, Minnesota 56763
Cell phone: 651-587-5541
· To find the latest newspaper articles go to the web site for the International Falls Daily Journal: http://www.ifallsdailyjournal.com/ and do a search
· Save Our Bog
Please feel free to copy and distribute.
Two other articles are available on this blog: one on racism and the Big Bog issue; another from an anthropological viewpoint in keeping with the United Nations’ “Millennium Statement on the Environment”
A speech on the Big Bog by Alan L. Maki to the Thief River Falls Political Affairs Discussion Group is also available.
If you come across any articles, websites, or any other information relating to the Big Bog please pass it on to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Red Lake Nation resolution opposing peat mining: http://www.rlnn.com/ArtMar05/RLTCOppPeatMining.html