Changing Currents: Reinventing the Chippewa Valley
A Story from "Waves of Change"
Change is a constant. History doesn't stop. It has been hundreds of years since the Ojibwe migrated to the Chippewa Valley and since the first French explorers reached our region. New people are always arriving. Nowadays, they might be Hispanic, Somali, or Hmong, or maybe they just moved here from another state. Many are college students. Colleges and universities in the Chippewa Valley have expanded greatly in both size and number during the past 60 years. New ideas and ways of understanding our world also arise constantly, and when they appear they often meet with opposition. Protests and movements for social change swept the country in the 1950s and '60s, and from net neutrality to the Tea Party, Americans are still proud to express their opinions on important issues.
The following story explores how new ways of thinking about the environment have shaped the recent history of the Chippewa Valley. This and many more recent changes are explored in the final section of Changing Currents, "Waves of Change."
The Power of Protest: The Lasting Effects of Earth Day in the Chippewa Valley
On April 22, 1970, approximately 4,000 students and community members gathered on the campus of Wisconsin State University-Eau Claire to participate in a teach-in called "Give Earth a Chance." The Eau Claire teach-in was a local manifestation of a national effort called Earth Day, created and promoted by Wisconsin's own Senator Gaylord Nelson. In Eau Claire, topics of discussion ranged from air pollution and land conservation to the potential effects of birth control pills and abortion on a booming global population.
The teach-in was far from being one-sided politically. Rather, it created a forum for civil discussion at a local level. What did Eau Claireans think were the biggest problems? How could local community groups and governments work to solve them? To give one concrete example, people discussed whether Eau Claire needed a second water treatment plant.
The original Earth Day wasn't a success just because of the one-day teach-in, but because it inspired community action that lasted for years to come. The first Earth Day inspired some students to form the Eau Claire Area Ecology Action organization (ECAEA), which led a campaign to get Sterling Pulp and Paper Co. to clean up the discharge its plant dumped into the Chippewa River. In 1971, ECAEA opened the first recycling center in Eau Claire, though it was forced to close in 1973. Later in the 1970s, the city undertook a "beautification program" that sought to reconnect residents with their local environment, especially the Chippewa River.
Top: Eau Claire Leader-Telegram headline the day after Earth Day, 1970.
Above: A photo of Sterling Pulp and Paper pollution in the Chippewa River printed in the Chippewa FallsHerald-Telegram, March 20, 1971.
A few years after the first Earth Day, the spirit of the new movement inspired people on both sides of a debate about nuclear power in the Chippewa Valley. In 1972 and 1973, representatives from the Northern States Power Company (NSP, now Xcel Energy) visited rural landowners in the Tyrone area of Dunn County, purchasing 24 properties (out of 27 they desired) to build "Tyrone Nuclear Park." NSP proposed to build two 1,150-megawatt nuclear reactors on the site.
However, a significant grassroots movement sprang up in opposition to NSP's plans, led by the three families who resisted the threat of eminent domain. Inspired by protests over radioactive emission levels at the Monticello nuclear power plant in Minnesota, local residents—eventually totaling more than 5,000 people by 1978—organized a coalition to fight the plant’s construction. For years, the coalition took on the power company in courtrooms and editorial pages. In 1978, they (illegally) occupied the site itself. In the great American tradition of "higher-law activism" that has brought us things like abolition, prohibition, and the pro-life movement, the Tyrone occupiers willfully broke civil property laws in order “to prevent the catastrophe which could overtake the area" due to "the dangers of radioactive materials and the unsolved problem of disposing of the insurmountable piles of nuclear waste," as one 1979 editorial asserted.
Top: Stop Nuclear Power bumper sticker like those some people put on their cars to protest the proposed Tyrone plant.
Middle: Demonstrators march away from the site of proposed nuclear power plant after a six-day sit-in, September 11, 1978. The banner reads "Better Active Today Than Radioactive Tomorrow." Courtesy Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.
Bottom: A rally in support of the proposed plant, December 11, 1978. Courtesy Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.
The legacy of Earth Day is plainly evident in the environmental activism of these protesters. But it’s important to recognize the same activist spirit among many people who favored the plant’s construction. Several editorial authors explored the merits, economic feasibility, and comparable dangers of alternative sources of power and came to the conclusion that nuclear was the best option available. “I’m not pro-nuclear, but then again, I’m not anti-nuclear. I feel it is the best approach for power until new technology such as solar is feasible,” wrote an engineer, who also touted “the boost to the local economy” the plant would bring.
Those on both sides reflected the spirit of the first Earth Day. For the most part, they had civil discussions about how the plant would affect the greater community, for better or worse. Local grassroots groups organized to take care of themselves and their neighbors. In the end, NSP cancelled its plans for Tyrone in late 1979. The protests played an important part by delaying its construction for so long, but the main reason NSP was forced to scrap its plans turned out to be lower demand for electricity than had been forecast.
More broadly, Earth Day 1970 helped inspire a generation of environmentalists and created the environmental political lobby we know today. Its effects can be seen in current regional debates about frac-sand mining and industrial feed lots and in laws that require environmental impact surveys to precede most new construction. The Earth Day ethic—understanding our need to live safely in and to enjoy the environment around us—underlies our modern desire reconnect with our rivers for their beauty and the recreational opportunities they offer.
Today, college students often float down the Chippewa River through the heart of urban Eau Claire, and parks line the river's shore. This is possible because of nearly 50 years of efforts by political action groups like ECAEA and the anti-nuclear movement raising important environmental issues, by governments enforcing environmental standards on polluters and cleaning up former industrial sites, and by volunteers like boy- and girlscouts whose local projects keep the city safe and clean.
Eau Claire and the greater Chippewa Valley are in the middle of a boom of development. In 2016, no less a magazine than TIME featured the city's recent development. From hotels to arts centers and software companies to music festivals, Eau Claire's economy continues to evolve. None of these new ventures emerged from a void. They have all been accompanied by strident debates about form and function, and about how they will affect the Chippewa Valley for better and worse. Our past is informing our future. The current development is rooted in what people have learned about the local economy, environment, and social habits over the course of the preceding decades if not centuries. And it will continue.
In the past 50 years, the Chippewa Valley has been the site of heated protests and debates about conservation, nuclear power, gay marriage, and Ojibwe spearfishing rights, to name just a few. Some of these are explored in greater detail in the Changing Currents exhibit. As Earth Day 1970 informs current debates about how to balance the economy and the environment, other unknown movements will shape the way we frame the debates about as yet unforeseen challenges in the future.
Meet new arrivals to the Chippewa Valley on the model city bus in "Waves of Change."
Protests movements of all kinds have played important parts in recent Chippewa Valley history. Learn more in this display in Changing Currents.