Sand County, the Sequel

Art: Richard Hamilton Smith

ALDO LEOPOLD was a righteous man — in a midwestern sort of way. When it came to nature, he disapproved of “tinkerings,” as when domestic species are substituted for wild ones, and he advised against “readjustments” of the land’s circulatory system. In fact, he insisted calmly, the land should be appraised not as a commodity but as a living community that commands our respect because it is the source of both human culture and human freedom.

To narrate the message, the father of wildlife conservation took us to his own beloved plot of land on an abandoned farm in Sand County. Which, as all good students of Leopold know, is really Sauk County, but his larger literary and geological point was that west-central Wisconsin is essentially a sandbox, and that when you clear the forest and try to plow in the usual extractive way, ruination and defeat are the likely results.

Cease being intimidated by the argument that right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits.

Well, sensible Aldo, I was with you for years. Unintimidated. Right up until I interacted with the interactive map (source: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) captioned “Counties With Frack Sand Mines And/Or Processing Facilities” that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provided as a sidebar to the story “Fracking Expanding: Mining for Sand Used in Oil and Gas Exploration is Booming in Western Wisconsin, and the DNR Has No Plans for New Regulations.”

Basically, Sand County is being loaded into rail cars and hauled away, metric ton by metric ton. Bluffs, hills, coulees. They’re all going.

Every day, at least one full train of mined sand leaves Wisconsin for gas fields in Pennsylvania or oil fields in North Dakota. The number of operating sand mines in the state has doubled over the past five months. Each one is five hundred to one thousand acres in size, which is ten to twenty times larger than the average gravel pit. “It’s huge,” says a mineral commodity specialist quoted in the Associated Press. “I’ve never seen anything like it, the growth. It makes my head spin.”

So, there you have it. Even the commodities guy — the commodities guy, Aldo — is intimidated.

Meanwhile, Sand County streams are filling with silt, rural roads are filling with 24/7 truck traffic, and rural air is filling with the noise of loading rail cars and crystalline silica.

Crystalline silica causes cancer. More specifically, crystalline silica dust is listed by both the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Toxicology Program as a known human lung carcinogen. Unlike tobacco smoke, silica dust does not provoke tumors via genetic mutations. Instead, its method of injury is to trigger inflammation and suppress immune functioning. It also causes silicosis, a disabling and sometimes fatal condition in which fibrous nodules fill the spongy pulmonary chambers, prompting infections and heart failure. For both reasons, crystalline silica is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. There are legal limits to how much silica dust a person operating a sandblaster can inhale.

Before midwestern sand counties were turned inside out — and towering, windblown dunes of powdery silica began appearing within view of people’s kitchen windows — the general public was not thought to suffer appreciable exposures. There are thus no standards for us. No research program has ever addressed the possible impact of silica dust on, say, pregnancy outcome or the lung development of children. Lack of study on public health effects means that the occupational carcinogen crystalline silica is not regulated as a hazardous air pollutant. At least not in Wisconsin and not at this writing.

A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC was published in 1949. In the same year, an oil-field service company called Halliburton fracked its first commercial well and so ushered in a new method for extracting oil and gas by using pressure, water, chemicals, and sand to blow up shale. The function of the sand is to hold the stone doors ajar so that the hydrocarbons can flow out and up.

But the shale boom didn’t really take off until 2005, the year that fracking received exemptions from most major federal environmental regulations (the now-famous “Halliburton loophole”). By 2008, Wisconsin sand had become a highly prized quarry. The Samson of silica, its grains were the ideal size, shape, and strength for propping open cracks a mile or more below the earth’s surface. And that’s how the nation’s Devonian bedrock became the new destination spot for Sand County. That’s how Aldo Leopold’s farm in central Wisconsin could end up fracking Rachel Carson’s childhood home on the Marcellus shale of western Pennsylvania.

In 2009, the last year for which data are available, 6.5 million tons of U.S. sand were mined, washed, processed, loaded onto trucks and trains, carried to wellheads, and shot into the center of the earth. Six and a half million tons is the approximate weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza. According to commodities analysts, that figure probably doubled in 2010 and likely doubled again last year.

THE OLD WOMAN PROFILED in a recent news story about Wisconsin’s sand rush is moving away. She admitted to the reporter that she had sold her land to the mining company. Her husband has Alzheimer’s and needs help. She lives north of your farm, Aldo.

IF A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC is about the loving restoration of logged hills and depleted farm fields, Sand County, the Sequel is about turning those hills and fields into open pit mines. It’s about the exhuming of Wisconsin’s sandstone foundation — put in place by the last glacier — and its reburial into fossilized seabeds one or two time zones away. Except that, once wedged into the cracks of shattered shale, the processed and pulverized sand is not really laid to rest. Generations from now, long after the fracked wells are exhausted of oil and gas, the zombie sand will go on, eternally holding open geological passageways. The question remains: what manner of subterranean stuff — methane, benzene, toluene, radon — will thereby find escape routes?

I, too, grew up in sand county — on the east bluff of the Illinois River, which flows through the riverbed of the ancient Mississippi. Just below the streets, fields, rail yards, and playgrounds of my hometown are the original dunes that lined its preglacial shores. As the girl whose name was Sandy, I was pleased to know they were down there. In Sunday school, I imagined talking to Jesus about that parable of the foolish builder whose house was constructed on sand. C’mon.

Last January, my hometown newspaper brought word that the LaSalle County board has approved strip mining for frack sand along the boundary of Starved Rock State Park, which is a marvel of sandstone outcroppings and gorges. The county board was swayed by the promise of thirty-nine jobs, which start at eighteen dollars an hour. So, absent further intervention, the beloved landscape of my childhood may be carted off and shoved into the fractured landscape of my children’s childhood.

We now live atop the Marcellus shale, surrounded by land leased for gas extraction.

By any measure, the gas and oil industry is the wealthiest, most powerful industry in the world. Maximizing profits is what they do. I am intimidated, Aldo. But I am not resigned. And there is a difference.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.


  1. The current issue of Orion landed in my mailbox yesterday, and I was immensely excited to find this article in it. I am an anti-mining activist living in Madison, and am paying close attention to the sand mining issue. Everything Sandra says here is true. Unfortunately, it isn’t a well-known issue outside of the counties where it’s going on. But there is growing opposition, and several townships and some counties have placed temporary moratoria on new sand mines due to the efforts of activists trying to save their hills.

    If you know something about Wisconsin’s mining history, you may know that in the 80’s and 90’s, a statewide alliance of Indian tribes and white environmentalists overcame the racist backlash against treaty rights that formerly divided them and put a halt to the mining of sulfide ores in the state. They halted multi-national mining corporations such as Exxon and forced the state to adopt a one-of-a-kind moratorium on sulfide mining. Because of that legacy, we were recently able to defeat the gutting of environmental regulations to facilitate a massive open-pit iron mine near Lake Superior, a bill that was written by a mining company and pushed hard by the Scott Walker Administration and majority party in the legislature.

    It is no surprise that the DNR, with 1.5 staff members dedicated to mining, under a Walker-appointed secretary who publicly advocated for the law that would have hamstrung her agency’s ability to regulate mining, refuses to do its job on frac sand. But the people of this state know how to push back and win. Sandra, we are not resigned–or intimidated.

  2. I live in Massachusetts but have a dear friend from Wisconsin. She is now in the Peace Corps, helping another country. Looks like Wisconsin needs her. I will forward this article. I am distressed at the shortsightedness of our government and their support of fracking. Those whose water has been polluted regret their lack of knowledge of the fracking procedure and its consequences, prior to signing away their property. We need to educate our neighbors and stand together to stop fracking. I admire Sandra Steingraber for doing just that.

  3. Ten mines in Chippewa County, WI alone tell the story about the mining rush to extract silica…..layer upon layer of sandstone removed from 500 million year old tombs of ancient times. Subsequently vast acreages of hills, bluffs and ridges are disappearing 24/7/365 to be carried into the hydraulic fracturing fields of America to be shoved into the earth at a fast pace for our ever increasing energy demands for oil and gas. Add 4 large processing plants in the county, transloading and intermodel stations, hundreds of trucks and unit trains of 100-110 cars at a time going through residential areas and you have a story of immense and complicated proportions. Citizens are not heard as they research and comment, landowners are being dealt with as though they were puppets, and the potential pollution and gutting of our environment continues with a weakened DNR and governmental decision makers who don’t know how to say NO!

    Counties all over the NW and Central portions of WI are being affected. The mantra of JOBS, JOBS, JOBS continues. Economic development and the creation of a healthy tax basis is used to promote the corporate involvement…….and meanwhile there is little thought given to approving the use of high capacity wells as well as city water supplies! Approval is automatic and without concern for the long term draw on water while the nearby hills are removed that store and filter that supply. The story will continue as new mines and processing plants are being permitted on a daily basis here and in Minnesota.

    We are in the process of forming the Save The Hills Alliance. Additional information can be obtained by going to our website at Please visit and comment if you wish. Your ideas and thoughts are welcomed.

  4. Corporate hubris and greed is destroying the world. Think about it. Do something about it.

  5. Forward this article to everyone you know.
    We must all raise our voices to stop the rape and pillage of our environment, and the poisoning of our air, food, and water.
    We must demand our government act for the public good, not roll over for private industry.

  6. Wake up. Be aware that the world is being destroyed this very moment. Oppose this madness. Do not support it. Stop it.

  7. Here in Poland, there’s a tug of war between ecology activists and the government about whether to explore the country’s recently discovered shale gas. Hydraulic fracing is seen as a false scare and films like Gasland fall on deaf ear. People are simply too attracted to the vision of riches and technology flowing from the whole procedure. And it might be impossible to stop that, alas.

  8. We are witnessing what may be the final struggle between selfishness and compassion. The problem is that most of us are unconscious of what is transpiring. Our lack of consciousness is our fatal flaw, as Greek dramatists long ago realized. Real Love requires conscious labor and intentional suffering. The true spiritual paths to this ultimate understanding are unknown and unused by the overwhelming majority. Without the help of those who have pioneered these methods we stand no chance of survival on Earth. It is deeply saddening that we will perish in spite of the means of our deliverance being available. In an age of selfish materialism, spiritual things are ignored and held in contempt.

  9. The desperate assault on the Earth and its inhabitants engaged in by the fracking industry reminds one of an addict who will stop at nothing to get his fix, regardless of who may be hurt.

  10. (speaking as a former geophysicist) The oil and gas industry is the wealthiest industry on the planet for the simple reason that the population of the planet demands it. We depend on a techno-social infrastructure that cannot exist without the constant input of energy to maintain its high degree of order. For example, communicating on this web-site ultimately depends on the entire global structure of the extractives industry — mining, transport, petroleum, manufacturing, and so on, for the devices we use in our homes to communicate in this manner. Of course we can put the ‘responsibility’ for this on the elites and the military-industrialists, but demand is demand, and you have to take a close look at the device you are consuming network media on as an intimate driver as well…

  11. John Hopkins — A viable future for humankind need not involve the elimination of technology such as computers. A first step would be to reduce global population to a tenth of its present numbers. The elimination of war would also greatly reduce the drawdown on scarce resources. More energy efficient transportation, such as small cities designed to use walking and bicycling. The elimination of 90% of airplane use, most of which is for trivial entertainments.

    In short, there are many simple solutions to our present predicament, but no will or supporting consciousness to make these obviously needed changes. If we find ways to develop a new consciousness, and make that educational practice available to all, there is almost no limit to how wonderful our lives could become. On the other hand, if we refuse to do this, there are no external fixes that will save us from our internal addictions and lack of real intelligence. “A man’s character is his fate.” Achieve ethical maturity or perish. The law is the same for individuals as for societies.

  12. Mike — what can be ethical about eliminating 90% of the human population? (which 90% is the obvious question!). And, at any rate, you will still have, as a result of the level of techno-social development necessary (if you want computers), the devastation of large swaths of land for mining. 10% of what we now have, which is still a massive amount. You cannot ‘distribute’ the effects of mining and other extractive processes, as they are based on material concentration and refinement. Energy efficiency calculations, as an engineering concept, means ‘higher tech’ solutions — and ‘higher-tech’ necessarily means a more intensive and complex infrastructure which means greater energy consumption to maintain that more complex system — it’s thermodynamics! Not sure either how you ‘will’ away the effects of war (evolutionary competition) from human systems, as they are merely another expression of life which is predicated on the need to project itself (Life) into the future which means competition.

    (I’d recommend some of the following texts to illustrate the connection between techno-social development and energy – there are others, to be sure – Odum’s is especially illuminating:

    Odum, H.T., 2007. Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-First Century – The Hierarchy of Energy, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

    Pimentel, D. & Pimentel, M.H., 2008. Food, Energy, and Society 3rd ed., Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

    Lotka, A.J., 1922a. Contribution to the energetics of evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 8, pp.147-151.

    Georgescu-Roegen, N., 1976. Energy and Economic Myths, New York, NY: Pergamon Press.

    Swenson, R., 1997a. Autocatakinetics, Evolution, and the Law of Maximum Entropy Production: A Principled Foundation Towards the Study of Human Ecology. Advances in Human Ecology, 6, pp.1-47.

    etc (also and, for example,

  13. Perhaps some day, someone will explain to me why it is impossible to end war. It’s not like you have to do something to accomplish that; you simply need to stop doing that. How hard can that be? When I was drafted to fight in the Korean War, I simply refused.

    It is puzzling that when I suggest reducing population numbers, anyone would conclude that I meant to do this by “eliminating” people. There are certainly peaceful ways to accomplish this. I have chosen myself not to take part in reproductive activities for ethical reasons, without being coerced in any way.

    The human world we live in today is largely the result of people’s choices of how to behave. Their participation in or initiation of activities is determined by their inner state of consciousness. If the consciousness of enough people changes in the direction of a higher level of ethical/spiritual understanding, then the world they are manifesting will change accordingly.

  14. As a homeowner in the quiet village of Stockholm, I am opposed to the development of the sand washing facility just outside of the Village and adjacent to an historic site. The chief attribute of this scenic area is its humble and awesome beauty.

  15. Screw those darn mining/oil companys. Go Aldo Leopold.

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