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Cornell's Danielle Fasbender


Fairmount Minerals operates a sand mine on the east edge of Menomonie. A member of the Young African Leaders Initiative at UW-Stout tours the mine in 2014.

Frac-tured hills: Professor’s book goes inside the fight against Wisconsin sand mines

MENOMONIE — Like the west-central Wisconsin residents he attended meetings with, Thomas Pearson became aware of frac sand mining as a citizen, concerned about a new industry that threatened to alter lives and landscapes.

His concern, as he watched the drama unfold, grew into a research project and then, over the course of several years, a book. “When the Hills Are Gone: Frac Sand Mining and the Struggle for Community,” was published in early November by the University of Minnesota Press.

With its title a dead giveaway, the book takes a critical look at the controversial industry and how the corporations behind the mines exerted their influence in the region. None of that is surprising, given that Pearson is an anthropologist and an associate professor of social science at University of Wisconsin-Stout.

The 248-page book, however, is more a case study of grass-roots community activism and democratic process than a condemnation of the industry itself, he said, noting that the industry has its supporters too.

“I want people to understand the growing influence of corporate interest and how corrosive that can be for local democracy. A lot of people were caught off guard by frac sand mining. People felt like the mining companies had much more power than they should have,” Pearson said.

“I’m trying not to romanticize grass-roots activism. I’m looking critically too at the circumstances in which grass-roots efforts like these succeed or fail,” he said.

As frac sand mining became a reality throughout west-central Wisconsin starting in 2006 with a rush to open mines on rural land, residents in the affected areas mobilized, if slowly at first.

Pearson was one of them, attending meetings in garages and going to town halls in the lower Chippewa River valley where residents, officials and corporate representatives clashed in cities like Menomonie, Glenwood City, Chippewa Falls and New Auburn and townships like Cooks Valley, Howard, Red Cedar and Tainter.

As of 2016, the region had more than 70 active mines in 13 counties, bounded by Barron and Rusk to the north, Monroe to the south and Wood and Pierce to the east and west. Trempealeau and Chippewa counties have the most, with about a dozen each.

Battle lines in the sand

Residents feared degradation of the landscape and threats to the environment and their health, the latter from silica dust. Sand companies saw profits, jobs, wealth for landowners and claimed that a flattened hill could be turned into farmland, an assertion disputed by activists.

Sand mine operations crush prehistoric ridges into sand once again. West-central Wisconsin sand, prized because of its hardness, is mostly transported by rail to oil fields for high-pressure drilling.

Citizen groups like Save Our Hills, Save the Hills Alliance and Loyalty to Our Land fought the process. Notable successes, such as a groundswell effort leading to the rejection of a mine proposed near the Hoffman Hills State Recreation Area in Dunn County, also were met with failures as mines overcame regulatory hurdles, or lack thereof, and opened throughout the region.

One such major proposal by Vista Sand has been on hold for several years. It would include a mine near Glenwood City with a processing plant near Menomonie. The young industry already has experienced boom and bust periods, depending on the oil market.

“For many, frac sand mining presented a sudden threat that drew into question deeply held assumptions about rural landscapes and environmental well-being,” Pearson writes.

“I try to cast a social science light on activism as a phenomenon. A lot of the activism was by people who lived next door and had very little experience at it,” he said, adding that it took several years for established environmental groups to begin supporting residents’ efforts.

He took an on-the-ground approach with his research, essentially embedding himself within the movement, examining why people were opposed and providing firsthand accounts of their efforts.

Pearson, a Chicago native who lives in Menomonie, visited Harlan and Edith Syversen of Dovre. They had sold part of their small dairy farm 10 years earlier to “an aspiring farmer,” who then sold out to a sand company and moved away. Before long, a mine was open a short walk from the Syversens’ once bucolic homestead, which had been in the family for generations.

Part of the book deals with the loss people felt or feared from a landscape being changed forever.

“We inscribe places with meaning, with a sense of history. Mining eliminates, or at least distorts, the cultural script from which that meaning is derived,” Pearson writes.

“When the Hills Are Gone” follows opposition to frac sand mining for about a decade, through 2015. “Hopefully it will offer lessons from the first phase, if and when it becomes a significant issue again,” he said.

Praise and support

Adam Briggle, author of “A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking,” said Pearson’s book is “a masterful blend of stories and scholarship that will be the definitive account of a major environmental justice issue.”

Along with activists from the region, Pearson said he received support in writing the book from colleagues in UW-Stout’s social science department and Center for Applied Ethics; 10 applied social science majors who helped with research via an applied anthropology seminar in fall 2014; undergraduate research assistants; and the university through a Faculty Research Initiative grant.

“When the Hills Are Gone,” paperback, sells for $25 and can be purchased through the University of Minnesota Press. Learn more at


Thomas Pearson, an anthropologist and associate professor at UW-Stout, followed activists who opposed frac sand mines in west-central Wisconsin in his book “When the Hills Are Gone.”

Veterans are key as surge of states OK medical pot for PTSD

NEW YORK — It was a telling setting for a decision on whether post-traumatic stress disorder patients could use medical marijuana.

Against the backdrop of the nation’s largest Veterans Day parade, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this month he’d sign legislation making New York the latest in a fast-rising tide of states to OK therapeutic pot as a PTSD treatment, though it’s illegal under federal law and doesn’t boast extensive, conclusive medical research.

Twenty-eight states plus the District of Columbia now include PTSD in their medical marijuana programs, a tally that has more than doubled in the last two years, according to data compiled by the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project. A 29th state, Alaska, doesn’t incorporate PTSD in its medical marijuana program but allows everyone over 20 to buy pot legally.

The increase has come amid increasingly visible advocacy from veterans’ groups.

Retired Marine staff sergeant Mark DiPasquale says the drug freed him from the 17 opioids, anti-anxiety pills and other medications that were prescribed to him for migraines, post-traumatic stress and other injuries from service that included a hard helicopter landing in Iraq in 2005.

“I just felt like a zombie, and I wanted to hurt somebody,” says DiPasquale, a co-founder of the Rochester, New York-based Veterans Cannabis Collective Foundation. It aims to educate vets about the drug he pointedly calls by the scientific name cannabis.

DiPasquale pushed to extend New York’s nearly two-year-old medical marijuana program to include post-traumatic stress. He’d qualified because of other conditions but felt the drug ease his anxiety, sleeplessness and other PTSD symptoms and spur him to focus on wellness.

“Do I still have PTSD? Absolutely,” says DiPasquale, 42. But “I’m back to my old self. I love people again.”

In a sign of how much the issue has taken hold among veterans, the 2.2-million-member American Legion began pressing the federal government this summer to let Department of Veterans Affairs doctors recommend medical marijuana where it’s legal. The Legion started advocating last year for easing federal constraints on medical pot research, a departure into drug policy for the nearly century-old organization.

“People ask, ‘Aren’t you the law-and-order group?’ Why, yes, we are,” Executive Director Verna Jones said at a Legion-arranged news conference early this month at the U.S. Capitol. But “when veterans come to us and say a particular treatment is working for them, we owe it to them to listen and to do scientific research required.”

Even Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin recently said “there may be some evidence that this (medical marijuana) is beginning to be helpful,” while noting that his agency is barred from helping patients get the illegal drug. (A few prescription drugs containing a synthetic version of a key chemical in marijuana do have federal approval to treat chemotherapy-related nausea.)

Medical marijuana first became legal in 1996 in California for a wide range of conditions; New Mexico in 2009 became the first state specifically to include PTSD patients. States have signed on in growing numbers particularly since 2014.

“It’s quite a sea change,” says Michael Krawitz, a disabled Air Force veteran who now runs Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, an Elliston, Virginia-based group that’s pursued the issue in many states.

Still, there remain questions and qualms — some from veterans — about advocating for medical marijuana as a treatment for PTSD.

It was stripped out of legislation that added six other diseases and syndromes to Georgia’s law that allows certain medical cannabis oils. The chairman of the New York Senate veterans’ affairs committee voted against adding PTSD to the state’s program, suggesting the drug might just mask their symptoms.

“The sooner we allow them to live and experience the kind of emotions we do, in an abstinence-based paradigm, the sooner that they are returning home,” said Sen. Thomas Croci, a Republican, former Navy intelligence officer and current reservist who served in Afghanistan.

The American Psychiatric Association says there’s not enough evidence now to support using pot to treat PTSD. The 82,000-member Vietnam Veterans of America group agrees.

“You wouldn’t have cancer treatments that aren’t approved done to yourself or your family members,” and marijuana should be subjected to the same scrutiny, says Dr. Thomas Berger, who heads VVA’s Veterans Health Council.

A federal science advisory panel’s recent assessment of two decades’ worth of studies found limited evidence that a synthetic chemical cousin of marijuana might help relieve PTSD, but also some data suggesting pot use could worsen symptoms.

Medical marijuana advocates note it’s been tough to get evidence when testing is complicated by pot’s legal status in the U.S.

A federally approved clinical trial of marijuana as a PTSD treatment for veterans is now underway in Phoenix, and results from the current phase could be ready to submit for publication in a couple of years, says one of the researchers, Dr. Suzanne Sisley.

barbara / Submitted 

The cover of “When the Hills Are Gone” by UW-Stout’s Thomas Pearson.


A Marine veteran holds a sign to show support for cannabis for PTSD sufferers in 2015 outside the state Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa. 

breaking topical featured
Lawmakers, experts eye Missouri as model for juvenile justice changes

When the most serious juvenile offenders are incarcerated in Missouri, they’re not sent to one central, sprawling campus hours away from their families as they are in Wisconsin.

Rather, they’re housed in one of nearly three dozen small, regional facilities, typically close to home. Some of the facilities don’t even have fences, while others are nestled in state parks.

And instead of mechanical restraints and solitary confinement, practices that have led to numerous federal lawsuits in Wisconsin, authorities in Missouri mostly rely on less restrictive means of treating problem teens.

As Wisconsin grapples with allegations of staff and inmates being harmed at the state’s juvenile correctional facility, some are pointing to the Missouri model as a guide to a more rational, effective youth correctional system.

“We know juveniles are better at home or with family or in the community more than anything else unless it’s a real threat to the community,” said Beth Huebner, a criminal justice and criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who studies how incarceration affects family relationships.

Even in cases where juvenile offenders must be separated from their communities because of the severity of their crimes, they are still better served if their families are able to visit, she said.

The Missouri model differs markedly from how juvenile corrections are handled in Wisconsin, where lawmakers voted in 2011 to close youth prisons in the southeastern part of the state and house all the state’s most serious juvenile offenders in a single facility in the North Woods. Unlike Missouri, the State of Wisconsin is not responsible for housing young offenders committing less serious crimes.

And the lack of use of solitary confinement in Missouri stands in stark contrast to the deployment of solitary at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma, north of Wausau.

While Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials have made more than two dozen small and big changes to how the state’s youth prison operates to address allegations of inmate abuse and unsafe conditions for staff, some lawmakers and juvenile justice experts say the state’s juvenile justice system is in need of a radical change.

“The youth are being abused and the staff aren’t feeling safe — it seems like a colossal failure to me,” said Laura Abrams, a professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs who specializes in juvenile justice.

Small, dispersed facilities

In Missouri, juvenile offenders can be sentenced to one of more than 30 facilities spread throughout the state. Those who commit the most serious crimes are placed in facilities of no more than 30 inmates, who are placed in treatment groups of no more than a dozen, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services, which oversees juvenile incarceration.

The regional system was created during the 1970s alongside a federal court order challenging conditions at one of the state’s large youth prisons. The juvenile correctional system was divided into five regions and included the construction of a number of smaller facilities.

Like Wisconsin’s youth prison, Missouri’s most-secure juvenile correctional facilities are surrounded by fences and inmates receive educational services. Missouri inmates who have committed lesser property crimes are sent to facilities that don’t have fences or uniforms; some are even located in state parks.

At many of the institutions, the living areas are similar to a college dorm, including bunk beds, dressers, and carpet, Huebner wrote in a 2013 analysis.

“Most facilities also have a larger congregate area with recreational activities,” she wrote. “Youth dress in street clothing and remain in small groups while in the facility. The institutions do not resemble high-security facilities and do not include perimeter razor wire or barred windows.”

While there is little evidence to show the model results in lower recidivism, Huebner reported, she noted that staff in the Missouri facilities rarely use mechanical restraints and solitary confinement.

At the same time, Huebner found few assaults on inmates or staff were reported and no suicides occurred since the model took shape.

Distance major obstacle

Some similar amenities can be found at Lincoln Hills. The 800-acre campus is enveloped by woods and resembles a small college, with two large buildings at its entrance and center full of classrooms, offices for prison administrators, doctors and security staff.

Inside there’s a gymnasium for the Lincoln Hills Eagles basketball team, a computer lab, a garage for shop class, a small library and a cozy room for inmates to discuss with psychologists and each other the trauma they have experience or inflicted on others.

An old chapel and a number of one-story small buildings fill the grounds, boundaries of which are marked with tall fences and gates designed to be difficult to climb. Inmates aren’t kept in prison cells for the most part, but small rooms with doors that only guards can unlock. Light decorations are allowed.

In the facility’s restrictive housing units, inmates are kept in cells with a bed, a toilet and a sink.

But there’s one feature that sets the Wisconsin youth prison apart: It’s nearly four hours away from where about half of its inmates live, a key obstacle to rehabilitation, experts say.

Nationwide, just 1 percent of youth prisons match the size of the Irma campus, federal data show.

Though fewer than 200 inmates are currently at the Wisconsin youth prison, the campus is big enough for 600 inmates — dimensions that can breed circumstances resulting in overworked staff and abused inmates, and an environment made worse the farther inmates are from their families, experts say.

“These large youth prison facilities are still having these types off issues because of the environment itself,” Abrams said. “There are fights between inmates ... there’s fear among staff ... it’s kind of an explosive environment.”

Changes underway

While experts and some lawmakers say moving to a more regional-based model could be beneficial for the inmates, DOC officials say they already incorporate a number of features of the regional model sought by some.

Tristan Cook, spokesman for the DOC, said while the Irma facility is one large campus, because of its layout, “youth spend much of their time interacting with the youth from their housing unit, which typically consists of 10–25 youth,” similar to Missouri’s system for the most-serious offenders.

Cook also noted that Missouri state officials have a larger role in operating the juvenile justice system there. In Wisconsin, the state houses only the most serious offenders — beds for whom county governments rent.

“Wisconsin has a limited role confined to housing youth who have committed very serious crimes, have repeated contacts with the juvenile justice system, have failed in a community-based setting, or received an adult conviction,” Cook said.

He also rejected Abrams’ assessment that the state’s approach is failing because of the unsafe environment reported by staff and by inmates.

“I question how Dr. Abrams can make an informed, let alone accurate, evaluation of DOC’s juvenile corrections model without having ever visited Copper Lake School/Lincoln Hills School,” Cook said. “We take staff and youth safety concerns extremely seriously and are continuing to identify further enhancements based on input we have received.”