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Year in Review: Rupprecht leads charge to ban frac sand

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Johanna Rupprecht, in the green blouse, is policy organizer for Land Stewardship Project in Lewiston. Here, she and others attend a meeting to present Gov. Mark Dayton with a petition to ban frac sand mining.
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LEWISTON — On Nov. 22, the Winona County Board of Commissioners did something no other county in Minnesota — likely in the nation — had done. On a 3-2 vote, the board approved final language of an amendment to the Winona County Zoning Ordinance that effectively banned the mining, storage, processing and transportation of silica sand for fracking.

In the public gallery, as she had done for most board meetings, sat Johanna Rupprecht, the Lewiston native who was a key player — if not the key player — in making this historic moment happen.

After about 17 months of work focused on a ban in Winona County, Rupprecht said it took a moment or two for the final vote to sink in.

"It had been such a long process," she said. "In spite of the threats and pressure from the frac sand industry, just the fact we built something so strong, that people built a case for it."

Passing the ban showed an example of democracy working the way it should, she said. That means people expressing their opinions and policymakers listening to their constituents to act upon their wishes. "For the vast majority of the people involved in this, it's about the big picture," she said -- the beauty of the land, the reduction of the use of fossil fuels and the environmental degradation both in Winona County and where the hydraulic fracturing occurs.

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Her commitment to the cause was key in her selection as the Post Bulletin's Newsmaker of the Year.

Ban beginnings

Rupprecht grew up in Winona County on the family farm just north of Lewiston and has lived in Winona County most of her life.

"I'm just like everybody else who lives here," she said. "This is my community, and I didn't want to see this kind of harm happen here."

After college, she found herself back home. She began working for Land Stewardship Project in 2012. She took up the frac sand issue beginning that fall but did not turn her focus — and LSP's focus — on Winona County until the spring of 2015.

"She was involved in this as a young college graduate," said Bruno Borsari, an agronomist and biology professor at Winona State University. Borsari and his wife, Julie Chiasson, volunteered with LSP, and he recalled seeing a shy Rupprecht turn into a confident advocate for ending frac sand mining in Winona County. "She was the primary mover and shaker."

During a meeting of LSP staff, volunteers and other interested parties, the group came to the decision to try for a ban in Winona County, said Bobby King, policy program director for LSP. "Johanna brought the members together 17 months ago," he said.

Rupprecht said the first step was setting that goal. About 90 people came together and made the decision to fight for what they believed in. Once the decision was made, LSP, with Rupprecht leading the way, began to engage the public about the issue.

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Campaign worker

King said Rupprecht worked with a steering committee of nine LSP members, engaging with hundreds of community leaders and rallying thousands of people to get their voices heard to help pass the ban.

"This was a big campaign and an ambitious goal, and she took it on," he said. "She really stepped up to get this done."

That meant attacking the issue on several fronts. A drive around Winona County reveals hundreds of yard signs and bumper stickers supporting the ban. That, King said, was Rupprecht at work.

"They set ambitious and large goals toward outreach," he said. That included placing 450 yard signs throughout rural Winona County.

From organizing meetings and rallies ahead of public hearings to encouraging county residents to make their voices heard, Borsari saw Rupprecht taking the lead on many fronts.

"She had the materials ready and available," he said. "At meetings, she'd have postcards ready for people to write the county commissioners."

Marcia Ward, who voted against the ban, said she had a stack of the postcards. Behind that stack, she said, was Rupprecht. "She was the lead on it."

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Not that Ward agreed with everything Rupprecht did. Ward disagreed with the facts presented by LSP, and she questioned the change in the organization from helping farmers better take care of the land to trying to set policy.

"Their focus over the years has changed," she said. "Their next policy is health care. So they've gone from small farms and small landowners to where now they're getting involved in public policy."

But that, said George Boody, executive director for LSP, is all part of working with farmers to care for and better manage their land.

"We do quite a bit of work with getting farmers to participate in policy at the local, state and federal levels," he said.

The organization's 3,900 member households consists mostly of rural landowners in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Boody said. The nonprofit's budget comes from memberships, individual donations and government or foundation grants.

Writing a ban

Perhaps the best strategy LSP employed in making the ban happen was writing a sample ban to show how one could survive a legal challenge, one of the complaints often cited by those opposed to a ban.

That sample ban — which was the outline followed by Winona County in writing its own ban — helped lay the framework for the commissioners to vote yes, King said.

"It showed the county does have the right for doing this," he said. Working alongside the attorneys who wrote the ban language, he said, was Rupprecht.

"That came from seeing problems in other places," Rupprecht said. "That legal report we worked on with an attorney said, yes, it is allowed under Minnesota law. Here is an option for how you would do this."

It was the LSP's ban that was first forwarded to Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman. Sonneman made some adjustments that made LSP's example even stronger, Rupprecht said.

Borsari said the whole process was a classic example of the public letting lawmakers know how they felt, with Rupprecht leading the way.

"She played a pivotal role," he said. "And with all great grassroots movements, nothing can happen without the role of the team."

Rupprecht said she she was just leading a cause in which she believed.

"The land has inherent value, not just to be used for profit by a few," she said. "Frac sand mining is too destructive. People see what it does to the land and the local communities, and they did not want that."

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