Potluck Suppers, Facebook, and Protest

The mission of CURE is to focus public awareness on the Minnesota River Watershed and to take action to restore and protect its water quality, biological integrity and natural beauty for all generations.

Two of the ways that CURE works to fulfill this mission is to support grassroots citizen organizing and to communicate that action to world.

On January 4, 2012, CURE accepted an invitation to assist Big Stone County residents who were mobilizing to oppose a new granite mining and crushing operation sited at the headwaters of the Minnesota River.  Strata Corporation of Grand Forks ND had just applied for a permit to blast and crush the granite outcrops along the river at Ortonville in an operation slated to last 130 years.

Big Stone County

 The 478 acre site is bordered by the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge (BSNWR), the Minnesota River and state bike and walking trail, the City of Ortonville, and residential housing.  One corner of the property touches an existing dimensional quarry operation and a third granite quarry operates just a half mile away.

Floor of the existing L.G. Everist quarry

Within the proposed quarry zone lie the granite outcroppings that gave Big Stone County its name.  The outcrops foster a rare ecosystem benefiting numerous rare plant species including the ball cactus found nowhere else in Minnesota. This stretch of the Minnesota River connects Big Stone Lake with the BSNWR and the entire river system and functions as an important corridor for wildlife migration and habitat.

Ball Cactus cluster. Photo by James Robins.Photographer Jim Robins captured this image of a wary Great Blue Heron standing guard on its nest in the new rookery in the "Strata Zone."Grassroots citizen activism runs deep in Minnesota.

But in recent years, in places like Big Stone County, activism has not been a part of the “go along to get along” culture.  As a national trend, civic engagement and participation has wanted for decades.  When citizens do step up to be part of the decision making process, local government officials sometimes push back, leaving their constituents feeling disenfranchised and ignored.

 County commissioners listening intently to testimony at the Strata CUP public hearing.

On January 5, with no citizens expected to attend a 7:30 PM hearing on Strata Corporation’s conditional use permit, CURE helped mobilize 75 people.  Strata presented their plan and no citizen spoke in favor of the project.  Two hours into the hearing, after 9:30 PM, eighteen citizen activists testified against the permit application. The Big Stone County Planning Commission Chair intended to recommend passage of the permit that night.  Citizen action derailed her plans for swift approval.

Clinton Hearing

On February 8, the Board of Supervisors in tiny Ortonville Township courageously stepped into the fray.   After listening to township residents’ concerns, watching what they saw as a flawed county process, and asserting their own right to control local planning and zoning within township borders, the Board passed an interim ordinance creating a moratorium on new industrial projects (like Starta’s) within the township.  Big Stone County Commissioners chose to ignore the township’s action and continued with the permit process.

Ortonville Township Meeting

Stop Strata action in Clinton, MNOver the last  months, local neighborhood resistance has grown into a groundswell opposing Strata’s plan and demanding consideration from Big Stone County Commissioners.  In what has become a well-organized, citizen led effort that prides itself on broad based, diverse democratic structure, civility, and nimbleness; the Stop Stata/Outcrops Forever Campaign is rewriting the playbook on rural organizing. Through Facebook, blogs, petitions, letters to editors, personal direct mail, event organizing, staged protest, and support from trained community organizers and media mavens, activism in Big Stone County has taken root and blossomed.

Gathered in the kitchen after Clinton hearing

Duane and Clark

Clinton potluck

At the core of this rural grassroots reawakening are commonly held rural values and practices.  Campaign partners stick with it.  Not always clearly seeing a way forward or feeling that their voices matter, they persevere.  Partners trust one another.  Partners have established relationships that allow joy, gratitude, anger, and frustration to ebb and flow without putting the campaign itself at risk.  Campaign partners have also discovered a secret weapon – the potluck supper!  Nothing focuses the energy of angry farmers, nuns, teachers, storekeepers, writers, accountants, photographers, artists, bus drivers, apple growers, funeral directors, and angry mothers like a potluck supper.  Desserts must outnumber main dishes 2 to 1.

Potluck before April 17 public hearing

Clinton potluck

Finally, campaign partners trust in the process.  As Patrick Moore, CURE’s Executive Director, reminds members, staff, and partners repeatedly, ”We will build the road by walking”.  For newcomers, that means we will figure it out as we go along, we will adjust, we will stumble, we will regroup, we will continue.  Stop Strata/Outcrops Forever campaign partners have built on that advice, building a road paved with trust and friendship, hard work and perseverance, ingenuity and potluck suppers.

Patrick grilling hot dogs at a potluck

On May 1, 2012, many Big Stone County residents opposed to Strata’s project were restricted from entering the Big Stone County Commission chambers.  With three Big Stone County law enforcement officers posted among the opposition, Big Stone County Commissioner, Brent Olson, spoke in favor of Strata’s plan and reminded the board that “we do not live in a zero impact world”.   The Commission voted 5-0 to approve Strata Corporation’s permit request.

Brent Olson

Tiny Ortonville Township continues to keep a moratorium against new industrial development including Strata’s Quarry in place as it studies the issue.

For more information and a look at what will happen next:

Visit the campaign on Big Stone Bolder’s Facebook page or at www.bigstonebolder.com.

To support the campaign and its ongoing work to protect and preserve the outcrops from mining go to http://givemn.razoo.com/story/Clean-Up-The-River-Environment

Outcrops forever!