The pure, round, silica variety that runs along a wide band from the Mississippi River in the northwest through the heart of south central potato country.
What’s up with the sand?
Wisconsin sand supports native lupine, the only food source known to nourish the caterpillar stage of the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly. Although the adults will nectar on a variety of plants, it’s lupine exclusive for its young. No coincidence that the butterflies follow this sandy band, sharing space with prairie smoke, puccoon, western slender glass lizards and thousands of other species that call dry prairie, oak and pine barren communities home.
Wisconsin is the number one producer of endangered Karner blue butterflies.
Wisconsin’s unique sand is also coveted by frac sand miners racing to meet the demands of the hydraulic fracking industry. Durable and crush resistant, it’s added to a high pressure cocktail of water and a dash of chemicals and blasted from existing wells into shale buried deep beneath the soil surface; creating fractures. Once the water runs off, these mighty grains remain, propping the fractures open like miniature Herculeses, unlocking precious petroleum fluids; oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids, from its former shale vault. Fluids and gases that fill our insatiable need for energy.
So, can Karner blues and frac sand miners share the love?
Although it seems there’s a lot to go around at the moment, Wisconsin sand has become a hot commodity the last five years, turning the heads of a BOOMING fracking industry. Since our deposits sit at or near the soil surface, mining is easy and relatively inexpensive. Based on a recent article in WisconsinWatch.org, Wisconsin ships 26 million tons of the stuff per year from 125 mines, tripling production since 2009.
This isn’t the best news for Karner blues and other members of Wisconsin’s xeric soil communities. It’s pretty easy to connect the dots.
I jumped on the haters bandwagon at first, obsessing about everything that I heard or read about the frac sand mining industry. Focusing on the increasing number of mines, how the vast majority aren’t in compliance with stormwater permits, how air quality isn’t being monitored as it should be, how toxic wastewater is being handled. The list goes on and on. All of my concerns, shared by many other Wisconsin natives, are exhaustively summarized in the Petition for a Strategic Analysis of Frac Sand Mining.
I’m reminded of a talk by Ed Begley Jr at the Lake Home & Cabin show a few years ago, where he told a story about how he was complaining about the state of the world to his Dad. How his Dad turned it around, asking Ed, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” Ed went on to talk about making changes within his own life to become more energy efficient; to reduce his carbon footprint. Remember the three R’s? Reduce, reuse, recycle? Jack Johnson’s song comes to mind. But how many of us really live that way? Every day? I think we all have good intentions, but sometimes lose track of balancing our wants with our needs.
It’s easy to point fingers. It’s easy to think you’re doing the right thing and everyone else needs to get it together. I find myself in this same self-righteous position. But, I’m a hypocrite. I take airplanes to go on vacation. I haul my horses hundreds of miles to endurance events as entertainment. I throw food away and buy new clothes even though I don’t need them. So, when I find myself turning a critical eye to the fracking industry, I ask myself, “what am I going to do about it?” What AM I doing about it?
Here’s the silver lining. It’s never too late to dust off the three R’s and put them back into play. Evaluate and revise your personal use of fossil fuels and invest in/use alternative energy sources. If you own property on Wisconsin sand, use it to its full potential instead of complaining as it’s sold to hydraulic frackers.
Secure a future for Karners and other species that depend on sandy soil communities. Reduce your lawn and plant a prairie-heavy on the lupine. It’s tough to grow turf on sand without adding topsoil and tons of water anyway. If you have acres to play with, plant a grove of oak and jack pine with an understory of Pennsylvania sedge and blackberry patches. Add some old field juniper, sand cherry and goat’s rue. If you’re lucky, your neighbors will follow your lead and you’ll have done your part.
Wisconsin sand is precious and there’s a finite amount.
How long can we support the fracking industry? As a famous witch once said as she turned over the hourglass, “It isn’t long my pretty, it isn’t long.”