A Look Back at the Fight Against the Arrowhead-Weston Line

by Adam Ritscher, Douglas County Board Supervisor

This winter the switch was flipped on for the Arrowhead-Weston transmission line. It was a sad event for the thousands of farmers, environmentalists and other activists who had fought against the building of the line for the past several years.

The Arrowhead-Weston is a bulk transmission line that was built to allow an alliance of big energy companies, called the American Transmission Company, to transport electricity from Canada’s Manitoba Hydro project to the Chicago area. A for-profit line, built by private companies, the Arrowhead-Weston rolled over popular opposition through the peddling of misinformation, arm twisting and through bribes (they called them “contributions”) to numerous public officials and agencies.

While the corporate interests behind the line, along with the politicians in their pocket, all claimed that the line was necessary to “keep the lights on” in northern Wisconsin, the reality was that the electricity now being transported through the line cannot by accessed by the local communities it passes through. Nor is there even an energy shortage in the Chicago area, where the juice ends up. Since electricity generated at Manitoba Hydro is relatively cheap compared to other regional sources, it can undersell rival electricity generators. In other words, the Arrowhead-Weston was built to allow its corporate owners to make a lot of money by underselling their competitors.

It is for the sake of these profits that over 800 farmers have had their land torn up and massive 120-180 foot poles, that numerous natural areas have been despoiled, and now thousands of local people who live under this line are being exposed to increased risks of cancer due to the 345,000 volts of electricity pulsing overhead. This line carries so much electricity, that even the American Transmission Company has admitted that a farmer who raises a hoe over his head, or who drives under the line with a tractor that isn’t grounded by dragging a metal chain behind it, runs the very real chance of being electrocuted by arcing!

While the struggle against this line went on for several years, the high point of it was when several hundred people turned out at a Douglas County Board meeting in February, 2005 to demand that the Board refuse to allow the line to cross County owned land. Moved by this unprecedented display of popular opposition, the County Board voted against the line, stopping it dead in its tracks since the line could not be built without going through a stretch of County owned public land. But the corporate interests behind the line simply went behind the backs of the people, and got the Wisconsin state legislature and Governor Doyle to pass the Montgomery Bill. This piece of legislation gives private entities the ability to forcibly take over public land owned by local governments.

The passing of the Montgomery Bill unfortunately took most of the steam out of the opposition to the Arrowhead-Weston. There would be further protests, and for a while Governor Doyle couldn’t come to northern Wisconsin without being challenged by outraged farmers and activists, the construction of the line went ahead. By the fall of 2007 the line crossed the southern border of Douglas County – which was the heart of the opposition. Once the line crossed that border, the American Transmission Company claimed that they found a number of primitive bombs at a construction site. The called in the FBI and the County Sherrif announced that they would be investigating local opponents of the line. Nothing further was heard of this investigation – nobody was interviewed – but the presence of the FBI served to deter any further protests.

At the end of the day a lot of good people invested a lot of their time, energy, passion, and meager resources into trying to stop the Arrowhead-Weston. Big money though, and sell out politicians, rolled over their efforts and built the line anyway. While we may have lost the fight, it was still a struggle worth waging. Relationships were formed, questionable politicians and talking heads were exposed, and lessons were learned that will come in handy for the next fight. The Arrowhead-Weston may now by humming with electricity, but so too are the aroused people of the Northwoods – who are determined to fight another day!