Wiebo's War: The Unlikely Story of the Ludwig Family's Holy War against the Oil and Gas Industry

Jeriah Bowser I Ecology & Sustainability I History I May 16th, 2014

We are all familiar with the stereotypical environmental activist: young, white, affluent, liberal, long hair with beads in it; probably smells like patchouli. This stereotype has been repeated over and over again so many times that, for many who are uninvolved in the world of environmental activism, it is simply taken for truth. As with all stereotypes, this one is patently false, as the urge to defend one's land-base from environmental terrorists (Exxon, Monsanto, Weyerhaeuser etc.) is a universal urge that is felt within many different species and different types of humans. From indigenous peoples groups resisting the placing of pipelines on their land to slum-dwellers in Rio de Janeiro reclaiming water rights, from marlins spearing ocean pipelines to cougars attacking urban sprawlers, many animals - human and otherwise - are realizing that they need to fight for survival in a world that is being run by a few sociopathic humans bent on total and absolute destruction of the environment.

One of the last stereotypes that you would expect to be involved in environmental activism is fundamentalist Christians. Especially not fundamentalist Christians that live in an intentional community deep in the wilderness of Canada, led by a deeply patriarchal, racist, homophobic, and stubborn old Dutch man. Yet that is exactly what happened with the case of the Ludwig family on their Christian farm/compound they named Trickle Creek near Hythe in Alberta, Canada. The bearded Patriarch of the family, Wiebo Ludwig, was born in the Netherlands but moved to Alberta when he was a child. Wiebo grew up in a very religious atmosphere, and studied in Iowa and Michigan to receive his pastoral degree and continue the family tradition of Christian leadership. Wiebo had a difficult time being a pastor, as his congregations kept complaining about his authoritarian leadership style and his ultra-conservative viewpoints, so in 1985 he decided that the world was too worldly for his family and that he needed to strike out alone; a prophet in the wilderness, you might say. Wiebo and his wife Mamie, their nine children, and the Boonstra family - Richard, Lois, and their three daughters - bought a 160-acre plot of land near Hythe, Alberta in a wilderness area known as the Peace. When Wiebo bought the land it was a pristine parcel of Canadian wilderness, just what the Ludwig and Boonstra families thought would support them on their quest for spiritual retreat. For the next five years, the families worked feverishly, building a homestead for themselves, setting up a self-sustainable farm, paying off their debts, and making babies, as Mamie produced three more Ludwigs in that span and several of the Ludwig and Boonstra children had married each other and had children of their own. All was well in the utopian, Christian paradise of Trickle Creek until the Ludwigs received a phone call early in 1990.

Phil Prefontaine, a Calgary-based landman (a strongman for the oil/gas industry) politely informed the family that his oil company, Ranchman's Resources Ltd., owned mineral rights to the family's property and that they would be coming by shortly to survey a good spot to set up a well on the farm. Wiebo was very surprised and alarmed at this information, as he had never heard of the concept of "mineral rights" and had no idea that someone else owned the rights to the land he was living on. Wiebo was discovering one of the dirtiest tricks of the oil and gas industry, a trick that hundreds of thousands of rural land-owners in North America have also discovered in the past 60 years - the reality that no matter who 'owns' the land, an oil and gas company really owns all the land, and they will put wells, roads, pipelines, and refining equipment wherever and whenever it suits them, regardless of the effects on humans, animals, and the environment. Wiebo resisted the landmans persuasive efforts to pacify him and buy him off with a $3,000 bribe, as he had already seen the devastating effects of the oil wells on the surrounding wilderness area: by 1990 the industry had laid over 11,000 miles of pipeline, built dozens of filthy and dangerous gas-processing plants, built over 9,000 miles of roads, drilled more than 18,000 poisonous wells, and killed over 3,000 square miles of old-growth forest looking for the ever-elusive oil and gas. Incredibly, most of the tree corpses were simply left to rot, as it was more profitable to just cut them and stack them than to spend time transporting them to a timber plant.

The landman, Phil, was not to be put off so easily by an eccentric old man and his weird family living in the woods, so he went ahead and gave the go-ahead to the surveyors. Wiebo calmly ejected them with a 30-30 in his arms. Phil called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to enforce the survey, but they wanted nothing to do with the armed Patriarch of the Ludwig clan. Phil got a court order to force Wiebo's hand, but the order wasn't valid until it was received by the defendant - and Wiebo refused to receive it. Phil, exasperated, flew down to the ranch in May 1990 to personally hand-deliver the court papers to the Ludwigs. In an event that marked the beginning of a long and fierce battle, Phil dramatically threw the papers down on the kitchen table, Wiebo threw them back in the briefcase, and threw Phil and his briefcase into Phil's car. Phil never came back. The war had begun.

The chief operating officer of Ranchmans' Resources Ltd. decided that drilling on the Trickle Creek property was too much trouble and decided to settle with drilling just south of the property. Despite the Ludwig family's protests against it, the next month 25 semi-trailers full of equipment rolled up onto the property to begin drilling a well. Ranchman's was looking for sour gas, or as they call it, the "smell of money." It is also the smell of death, as it has been responsible for tens of thousands of fatalities within the industry and in communities where drilling is done, not to mention the incalculable level of environmental destruction that takes place or the increased levels of cancer and sickness in areas affected by sour gas drilling. By the end of the year, the well was completed and the drilling had started.

The Ludwig's noticed the effects immediately. The next spring, almost half of the 55 ewes and most of the kid goats born that year were stillborn - a phenomenon unheard of in the livestock industry. Mamie Ludwig, the wife of Wiebo, also had a miscarriage that spring, after 11 healthy pregnancies with no complications. The children began to break out in rashes and coughing fits, some staying sick for months on end. These terrible events were all quite normal for people living near a gas well, as similar livestock and human health problems had been occurring for the past 40 years in Alberta. Of course, the official statement was that H2S (Hydrogen Sulphate, a prominent chemical in sour gas) emissions were "harmlessly unpleasant" and "no studies have proven the detrimental health effects of sour gas flaring" and that the reported problems were "mainly a psychological rather than a physical one." Oil and gas companies are notorious for taking the 'divert, deny, distract' approach when it comes to taking accountability for their actions, while the rest of the world pays the price for their greed and ignorance. Wiebo spent several years pursuing every legal route he could find to end the death and destruction he saw happening to his farm and family. After the family's second miscarriage, this time to Renee Ludwig, Wiebo realized that phone calls and letters were not going to stop this incredibly powerful industry bent on pulling as much oil and gas out of the earth in as short amount of time as possible, regardless of the consequences to humans, animals, and the environment. The time to petition was over, it was time to act.

The first taste of dissent came in the form of nails driven into boards and laid across busy roads where the oil tankers would drive by. After hundreds of flats and endless complaints by the truck drivers, an RCMP officer went to ask the Ludwigs if they knew anything about the nails and to please stop if they were the guilty party. Wiebo responded that, "We don't know anything about the nails, but there have been a lot of rude, oil people bombing past our road lately." Despite efforts to catch the saboteurs in the act, the nails continued and the truckers became expert flat-repairers. This was followed with a string of vandalisms of gas wells and equipment in the area, causing million of dollars in damage. Saboteurs smashed equipment, sealed off a well with concrete and live shotgun shells (to dissuade the removal of the concrete), drilled holes in pipelines, cut electrical lines, and generally caused as much damage as they could to the oil and gas industry. Naturally, Wiebo and his crew were primary suspects, but no-one ever caught them in the act or gathered enough evidence to bring them to trial. With tensions escalating and the damages soaring into the millions, the RCMP dedicated an entire team of detectives, security guards, and special agents to investigate the sabotage happening to Alberta's oil and gas industry. Yet Instead of quelling the unrest, it intensified it.

Over the next few years, a snowbank was marked as being rigged with explosives, shots were fired at well operators and truck drivers, propane tanks were blown up, death threats were left on peoples doors, and the vandalisms continued unabated. Other than some shoddy surveillance camera footage, there was still no real evidence that the Ludwig clan was responsible for any of the actions, although the RCMP was sure it was them as the Ludwigs had maintained a strong and vehement opposition to the presence of the wells ever since their arrival - mailing hundreds of letters to various public officials, meticulously documenting the destructive effects of the drilling on the farm, and pursuing every legal means possible to remove the presence of gas wells near their homestead. Due to the government's continued dismissiveness of the Ludwigs' claims and cries for justice, they had created a radical, bent on defending his family and their livelihood at any cost. With no evidence with which to build a case and with the unrelenting pressure of the oil and gas industry on them, the RCMP decided to take the case to the next level.

Robert Wraight, a local pawnshop owner, became involved with the Ludwig's struggles in 1997, and moved into Trickle Creek in the spring of that year. He was a bit of an outsider who had a penchant for talking about guns, explosives, and various other forms of expressing malcontent. His stay at the Ludwig compound was marked with drama and controversy, as he had many disagreements with Wiebo over his authoritarian leadership style. The RCMP decided that Wright would make the perfect mole, and approached him with an offer he couldn't refuse - a several hundred thousand dollar reward and a plane ticket out of Alberta for him and his family. The RCMP outfitted Wright with a hidden microphone, gave him a crash course on being a good snitch, and sent him back to the farm with a cover story and a plan. The cover story was that he had blown up a gas well in Beaverlodge, a town nearby (the RCMP planted the bomb and made it look like the work of saboteurs.) The plan was that Wright would sell Wiebo some fake dynamite to be used in a bombing attempt, and once Wiebo and crew showed up on scene to plant the bomb they would all be arrested and Wright would be pardoned for his participation in the crime. A foolproof plan except for the fact that Wright was a very poor agent provocateur and Wiebo was not as stupid as they had hoped.

After months of trying to frame Wiebo, the RCMP realized that the old man was not going to be caught that easily. With the increasing pressure to catch the saboteurs and end the costly vandalism and fear campaign, the RCMP jumped the gun and arrested Wiebo on very thin evidence in 2000. The trial was long and dramatic, as the arrest of the supposed bomber had brought much publicity to the little town. Despite the blatant entrapment, public deception, and lack of substantial evidence, Wiebo was convicted and sentenced to 28 months in a federal penitentiary. That day Wiebo experienced another lesson that North Americans had been learning for the past forty years: that the interests of the oil and gas industry are more important than the interests of its citizens, and any attempts to get in the way of profits will end disastrously for the suspected parties.

Wiebo served his 28 months as a model prisoner and returned to the farm to continue the battle to save his farm and family from the disastrous effects of drilling, maintaining a constant stream of letters, phone calls, and petitions to anyone he felt could help him. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2011 and died a year later, no doubt due in part to exposure to H2S and other toxic chemicals released by the wells. His family still lives in Trickle Creek, and is still fighting for their rights to live without fear of being poisoned.

Wiebo's story is important because it defeats the lie that environmental radicalism is only for young idealistic anarchists or lone hermits living in cabins. Wiebo had no roots in Deep Ecology, no connection to any environmental movement, no notions of defending Earth for later generations or simply because of its inherent worth. He was a rigid Christian fundamentalist who simply didn't want to be poisoned, and who realized that his government wasn't going to protect him from those who would poison him and his family. Throughout his struggle, he never called for the total abandonment of drilling in Canada or a move to more sustainable forms of energy, he simply saw the horrific destruction of life happening all around him and felt that it was very wrong. Wiebo's story is also not unique, as there are hundreds of similar stories across the Earth, as normal, everyday, uneducated, and nonpolitical people realize that they and their families are being killed in order to perpetuate a destructive and unsustainable way of being. This can be seen in the "Cowboy Indian Alliance" where ranchers and indigenous groups are coming together to defend their land from the oil and gas industry, the "Rednecks Against Resource Extraction (RARE)" which is a group of ranchers and rural farmers who are organizing to resist environmental exploitation, and hundreds more groups all over the world who are trying to defend their right to live on this planet along with the rest of us.

The incredible story of the Ludwigs shows that anyone, regardless of their political or religious background, can become an environmental activist once they witness and experience the totality of destruction that is being wrought upon the Earth. Environmental terrorism committed by the oil and gas industry, along with hundreds of other industries, is unacceptable and must not continue if we want our species to continue living on this planet. If you are not horrified and angry over environmental issues, it is because you are insulated from them in cities, busy with jobs, and distracted with electronic gadgets. It is time to uninsulate yourselves and realize, like the Ludwigs, that our world is being destroyed before our eyes, and those in power are doing nothing to stop it. It is up to you, no matter your religious, political, or ideological background, to defend our planet, or it will not happen. [1] [2]


[1] "Saboteurs" - Andrew Nikiforuk (2002)

[2] "Wiebo's War" - a 2011 documentary