The founder of one of Wisconsin’s largest grassroots organizations tells how it all sprouted. (The first of two parts.)
The birth of SOUL
Before June 1999, I was not an activist of any sort and never had been. I lived what I believe to be the average American’s life. Happily married for 14 years, I was working 40 hours a week as a copier service technician trying to make an honest living and get ahead in life. An uninvited visit to my family’s property by a utility surveyor from Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) started me down a path that changed my life and led to the creation of Save Our Unique Lands (SOUL).
I stopped to ask the surveyor why he was on our property without permission. He quickly produced his WPS business card and started describing the new 345,000-volt transmission line that WPS and Minnesota Power (MP) planned to build from Duluth, Minnesota, to Weston, Wisconsin, just south of Wausau. He told me that in the near future WPS would hold meetings to inform landowners of this project and said I would soon receive a letter.
I talked with a few of my neighbors and found out they were equally ignorant of the project. I attended the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair to see if I might find others who could assist me with more information about the project.
By fate there was a workshop titled a “Citizen's Guide to Energy Policy Intervention.” At the workshop, I met other people who had gone through similar experiences with utilities. The companies often use eminent domain laws to build projects against the wishes of landowners. Eminent domain allows utilities to seize private property upon which landowners are still required to pay property taxes.
Two people at the workshop had heard about the Duluth-Weston line WPS was planning. They told me to request two documents from the Public Service Commission (PSC): the Wisconsin Reliability Assessment Organization Report (WRAO), and Advance Plan 8. I made the request the next day.
These two documents revealed that WPS and MP never considered any option other than a huge, new high voltage transmission line to serve Wisconsin’s energy needs. The papers also revealed that utilities falsely assumed that no new generation would be built in Wisconsin after 2000 to justify construction of this new line, and that the area impacted by the line would not receive any benefit from its construction. The purpose of the proposed line is to move bulk energy from point to point as part of the Enron dream of deregulated energy trading; an extension cord from Manitoba to Chicago and points beyond.
After the energy fair, a few of my neighbors and I decided we would attend all the utility “informational meetings” and distribute a one-page handout listing some of the concerns we had. We asked strangers to join our fight against the proposed line. We established a Post Office Box and put together a Web site to share our information.
At these early meetings, we cited numerous health concerns and everything else that concerned us about the transmission line. For example, utility companies’ rampant abuse of eminent domain. At a price based on market values at the time the easement is taken out, the utilities offer landowners a one-time payment for land they might use forever.
In this case, our land would be used to build a transmission line that would mean big profits from the sale of bulk electricity. Landowners would not receive a piece of this pie. The utilities also planned to use eminent domain for fiber optics that would be leased to third parties. This would greatly profit private companies, but would cost some landowners 10-50 percent in property depreciation.
In the fall of 1999, we held a meeting in Tomahawk to create an organizational structure for citizens who opposed the line. A large crowd showed up, including people from each of the 11 counties that would be affected by the line. We elected board members from each county and the Lac Courte Oreilles nation, and then we elected officers. We decided to call ourselves Save Our Unique Lands, or SOUL.
We wrote a mission statement: “Soul is a grassroots organization whose mission is to promote efficient and orderly management of power, based on the needs of Wisconsin, while protecting the natural, social and economic environments and citizens of Wisconsin.”
The initial membership of our formal organization included members from an area spanning 250 miles. We continued to educate others about the proposed project. As a direct result of our educational efforts, using utility documentation to back up our concerns, boards of supervisors from 10 of the 11 affected counties and 59 other local governments passed resolutions opposing the line. No one passed resolutions in support.
But our fight is not over. I’ll tell you why, and how the PSC morphed into little more than a branch office for the utilities companies, in part two.
April 6, 2003
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Tom Kreager is president of SOUL and a FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in the Town of Mosinee.