STOCKHOLM, Wis. - In a town as picturesque as a postcard, Alan Nugent sits in front of his general store and art gallery in Stockholm.
"Absolutely gorgeous," he says, surveying the Mississippi River in front of him and the bluffs behind.
Dozens of tourists who stroll between Stockholm's business seem to appreciate the setting too.
"I would say probably 70 percent of the people we have here are [from the] Twin Cities," Nugent says.
Other recent visitors are less welcome. "I think we have to weigh what we're going to lose with what we're going to gain," Nugent adds.
Where Nugent sees tourism - frac-sand miners see a dream combination: near perfect sand for gas and oil fracking just beyond the river bluffs, with ready transportation by rail and the river just below them.
Twelve sand mines and processing plants are already running in four counties - Pierce, Pepin, Buffalo and Trempealeau - along the river. Another 39 mines and plants are proposed, permitted or under construction.
In Buffalo County, concerned residents are now focusing their attention on a proposed sand plant and rail car loading facility on an old farm site a few hundred yards from the Cochrane-Fountain City school.
On Tuesday night, in a packed school gymnasium, residents of several communities heard from Texan Ike Thomas, an owner of Glacier Sands LLC, which wants to build the plant to process sand from a mine it also hopes to open in Buffalo County.
"Most of us really have an issue, have problems with change," Thomas told the county board of adjustment. "We intend to make this a very positive economic impact for Buffalo County and its residents."
Opponents countered that further frac-sand development will scar the river valley, endanger children who breathe the dust and cause traffic hazards on narrow roads as up to 500 semi loads of sand each day are trucked to the processing plant.
"This land is too beautiful to throw away to the greed of a few," James Grant told board members.
Dressed in lime green t-shirts bearing the Glacier Sands logo, but mostly silent, several farm families with signed mine lease agreements sat in a group.
"Well, you got to remember this is a free society," said farmer Dennis Bork before the hearing. . "So, if I can make money on business, then sand is going to be a business for me."
Bork said it's not just land owners like himself who will benefit, but the entire county will benefit through revenue and jobs generated by the frac-sand plant and mine.
Glacier Sands says the plant will employ 30 people as it runs seven days a week and around the clock.
Up and down the river, hundreds of workers are now employed in the frac-sand industry. Yet Nugent fears that tourism, another developing industry, employing hundreds more, will suffer.
"We hear over and over from people that this is a national treasure, and I don't think that should be for sale," Nugent says. "I don't get it."
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