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War in the Gulf (No, Not That Gulf!)

 Gulf of Alaska
Photo by Adobe Stock/NoraDoa

[This essay is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.]

It’s war in the Gulf and the U.S. Navy is on hand to protect us. No, not that Gulf! I’m talking about the Gulf of Alaska and it’s actually mock war — if, that is, you don’t happen to be a fin whale or a wild salmon.

This May, the Navy will again sail its warships into the Gulf of Alaska.  There, they will engage in military maneuvers and possibly drop bombs, launch torpedoes and missiles, and engage in activities that stand a significant chance of poisoning those once-pristine waters, while it prepares for future battles elsewhere on the planet.  Think of it as a war against wildlife, an assault on the environment and local coastal communities.

And call it irony or call it American life in 2017, but the U.S. military's Alaska Command has branded Emily Stolarcyk "a troublemaker" for insistently pointing this out.  In a state where such a phrase is the equivalent of an obscenity, some have bluntly called her "anti-military." The office of Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski has termed her a "rabble-rouser," while a Kodiak Assembly member labeled some of what she’s been saying about the Navy "just silly."

As a resident of the tiny fishing town of Cordova, Alaska, the most radical rabble-rousing thing about Stolarcyk may be the passion with which she loves this region of the planet in all its majesty. It’s why she’s taken a fierce and unwavering stand for years now against the ongoing training exercises the Navy carries out in the Gulf of Alaska during one of the largest migrations of birds and marine life on Earth. These exercises, which inject tons of toxic materials into the Gulf and use significant explosive ordnance, are once again scheduled to take place just as Alaska's commercial fishing season opens.

Located in the state’s massive Chugach National Forest, coastal Cordova is nestled between the glacial-clad Chugach Mountains, Prince William Sound, and the Copper River. Fishing is the heart and soul of the town, as well as the foundation of its economy. A rough and tumble place, it regularly lands on lists of the top 10 American fishing ports, whether measured in pounds of fish caught annually or their value. A fish tax pays for its schools and the upkeep of most of its infrastructure. At least a quarter of its jobs are connected to the commercial fishing industry. "Without fishing, the town wouldn’t even be here," says Stolarcyk, who knows the intricacies of the Navy's plans better than most people in the Navy do, as we tour Cordova’s harbor.

It is impossible to overstate how iconic salmon are here. “What we have in Cordova is one of the last wild places left in the world, and one of the last places on Earth where we still have healthy salmon runs," she tells me.  She’s the program director for the Eyak Preservation Council, an environmental and social-justice-oriented nonprofit based in Cordova, whose primary mission is to protect wild salmon habitat.

Her partner is about to start his seventh season as a commercial fisherman. Their apartment building even has a fish smoker. "Salmon bring this town to life, you can feel the energy once the fish start returning, it's palpable," she explains, excitement in her voice. "You can hear the boats coming in and people go to stand on the shore to welcome them back."

However, this year, as in 2015, the Navy plans to conduct its part of Northern Edge 2017 (NE 17), a training exercise, right in her neighborhood. These war games, which occur every other year, include ships, aircraft, ordnance, and the widespread use of sonar across more than 42,000 square nautical miles of the marine environment of the Gulf of Alaska. And it is well known that sonar causes injury and death to whales, dolphin, and other marine life.  It has been shown that whales will even beach themselves to escape the noise, which is more than 100 decibels louder underwater than even the loudest rock concert. Thanks to a major lawsuit against them, the Navy agreed to limit the use of certain kinds of sonar in Southern California and Hawaii, due to its impact on the endangered Blue Whale along with other species. But not in the Gulf of Alaska.

Fishing for an Answer

As in 2015, the Navy's plans threaten an area of the Gulf that couldn’t be more biologically sensitive or rich in wildlife.  Their training area includes a State of Alaska Marine Protected Area, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Protected Area, and both the Gulf of Alaska Seamount Protected and Slope Habitat Conservation areas.

Nevertheless, the Navy is requesting permits to use live ordnance including bombs, missiles, and torpedoes, along with active and passive sonar in "realistic" war-training exercises that could release as much as 352,000 pounds of "expended materials" into those waters including, according to the Navy’s own Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), missiles, bombs, and torpedoes.

These waters support some of the most valuable fisheries left in the United States and the commercial fishing industry is the single largest private sector employer in the state of Alaska, providing over 63,000 jobs. Nevertheless, the Navy's own EIS claims that fish in the area are at risk of chemical exposures of various sorts because the war games will introduce chromium, lead, tungsten, nickel, cadmium, cyanide, and ammonium perchlorate, along with numerous other heavy metals and toxic substances, into Alaskan waters.  According to the EIS, "Little is known about the very important issues of nonmortality damage in the short and long-term, and nothing is known about the effects on behaviour of fish." It adds that “potential effects” include “death or damage” and that "fish not killed or driven from a location by an explosion might change their behavior, feeding pattern, or distribution."

While the Navy itself is aware of some of the damaging impacts of its exercises, others remain unknown and that service is making no effort to learn what they might be. The precautionary principle of do no harm is clearly not operative here.

The Navy's EIS does estimate that, during the years in which these war games are to be conducted, there will be more than 182,000 "takes" — direct deaths of marine mammals or disruptions of their essential behaviors like breeding, nursing, or surfacing. On fish deaths, it offers no estimates at all. 

A partial list of affected species includes blue, fin, gray, humpback, minke, sei, sperm, and killer whales, the highly endangered North Pacific right whale (of which there are only about 30 left), as well as dolphins and sea lions. No fewer than a dozen native tribes including the Eskimo, Eyak, Athabascan, Tlingit, Sun'aq, and Aleut rely on the area for subsistence living, not to speak of their cultural and spiritual identities.

As the May 1st launching day for NE 17 looms, we already have at least some inkling of just what kinds of damage might result.  Immediately following Northern Edge 15, Alaska witnessed the single largest whale mortality event ever to occur in its waters.  Eighteen carcasses of endangered whales were found floating near Kodiak Island within the area in which the Navy had conducted its exercises, attracting national media attention.

Statewide, in the year that followed, Alaska had its worst pink salmon fishing season in four decades.  A federal disaster declaration was even issued to give salmon fishermen some relief, deferring the repayment of loans. That year also saw the biggest die off of Murres, a small seabird, ever recorded in the state.

Human-caused climate disruption impacts had long been noted across the North Pacific, whose climate-change-affected waters were warming to record temperatures that year. While this obviously played a role in such events, what impact the naval exercises had across the Gulf of Alaska remains largely unknown, in part because the Navy refused in 2015 — as it will again this year — to allow independent observers on its ships or to conduct follow-up studies focused on how their war games impacted the environment and marine life.

Local opposition is strong, as 10 Alaskan communities have passed resolutions requesting that the Navy move the timing and location of Northern Edge 2017 and all future training events to the fall or winter months and further offshore to minimize their impact on fisheries and migrations. Furthermore, the mayors of CordovaGirdwoodTenakee Springs, and Valdez sent letters to Senator Murkowski, requesting that she ask the Navy to relocate NE 17.  The senator, hardly a critic of the military, nonetheless wrote the secretary of the Navy last September to "express concern over the manner in which the Navy is approaching its participation in Northern Edge 2017," and called a lack of naval public affairs guidance "extremely troubling."

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Dennis McGinn replied, "I readily admit we could have done a better job reaching out to potentially affected stakeholders leading up to NE 15."

Stolarcyk is truly a David going up against the naval Goliath. Her dedication to this region of the planet has been and continues to be unwavering.

"How could you live in this place and experience all this beauty and not get how precious this is," she asks with typical intensity as we walk near her town’s harbor and bald eagles soar above us. "I love this place so much, and I can't even let myself feel all my emotions when I'm working on this issue, because I wouldn't be able to function."

The late afternoon sun is just beginning to hint at the evening to come as she stares out into the waters of the Gulf, takes several deep breaths, and says, “We have to defend our lifestyle here, because if we don't do it, who else is going to do it? If the Navy destroys the Gulf of Alaska, they can just leave, while we’re the ones who have to live with whatever is left."

“The Navy Is Getting Away With Murder”

My trip to Alaska to report on the upcoming war games began in the small ski town of Girdwood, a 40-minute drive east of Anchorage. There, Stolarcyk and I met up with her colleague, Christina Hendrickson, as they continued their efforts to push the Navy’s schedule for the war games out of prime wildlife season. Hendrickson, who specializes in environmental law, is a former defense contractor. Like two high-octane lawyers before a big trial, she and Stolarcyk instantly begin talking a mile a minute about what their next moves should be.

They bring me up to speed on the latest Navy maneuvers in what is now a publicity war over Northern Edge 17 and the way its officials have officially opted to "work with the stakeholders." On the other hand, as Hendrickson points out to me, “they have refused to meet with Emily and myself" — and, as it happened at that point, me, too.  I'd recently contacted Captain Anastasia Schmidt, director of public affairs for Alaska Command in Anchorage, to arrange a meeting and my request had been denied.

Unfortunately, as Hendrickson points out, the permits the Navy requested from both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service allow them to war game their hearts out in the Gulf for the next five years without taking the slightest responsibility for analyzing the potential impact of their actions or dealing with the myriad species migrating through the area during the training period. While those who fish here must adhere to environmental standards, the Navy doesn’t have to.

"Imagine that you have a friend who is a subsistence fisherman,” Hendrickson says, “who is looking at his nets each season, and on the seasons the Navy trains, there seems to be less fish in them, and there are less whales returning, and then there’s a huge Murre die off.  There are sick sea otters or sea otters not returning at all. It's obvious to me that the Navy is not connecting these dots."

I ask her what exactly drives her on this issue and she stares out the window at the still snow-covered trees, then looks me dead in the eyes and says, "The Navy is getting away with murder and that upsets me."

“If It Walks, Swims, or Crawls, I’ve Fished It”

Stolarcyk and I fly on to Kodiak Island where we meet up with Tom Lance, the natural resources director for the Sun'aq tribe. We’re there so that the two of them can make a presentation to the island’s Borough Assembly in hopes of inspiring another Alaskan community to pass a resolution against the timing of the exercises.

Lance and I sit down in a café on the outskirts of town and he immediately begins describing the massive whale carcasses floating in the Gulf of Alaska after Northern Edge 15, many of which washed ashore on Kodiak.  As he points out, just before those war games began, the Sun'aq and Afognak tribes "admonished the DOD [Department of Defense] for not respecting their people and their resources, and demanded that NE 15 not take place. The Navy told the tribal council representatives, basically, 'thank you.'"

After essentially being blown off, the tribes requested another meeting, which only happened after the exercises were over. At that time, they insisted that the Navy change the season for the next set of exercises to late fall or winter and the location as well. "Another condition was for them to account for fish take [that is, the disturbance or destruction of fish populations], as if it were a commercial fishing operation where they are given a total allowable catch. To this they responded that they don't harvest fish, so why should they have to track that?"

"From my observation,” Lance says, “I see an undercurrent of frustration within the tribes and the community of fishermen that the Navy is going to do what they are going to do no matter what we say." He takes a last sip of coffee and concludes, "Everybody is so focused on the short run right now, they’re forgetting about the long run. If we don't save the ocean as a potential place to farm, we're not going to be able to feed ourselves in the future."

Later, I visit with Alexus Kwachka, a Kodiak commercial fisherman for the last 30 years. A bear of a man, he shakes my hand vigorously while welcoming me into his home, which overlooks Kodiak's massive harbor.  When I ask him what he’s fished for, he responds, "If it walks, swims, or crawls, I've fished it."

He wastes no time going after the Navy. “I question their timing. They say they don't want to train in the winter and instead they plan it for during the largest migratory period of marine life and birds here." Fishermen on the island, he assures me, are increasingly apprehensive about the Navy's plans and its impact on their livelihoods, even though "folks here are patriotic and support the military.”

Prior to Northern Edge 15, Kwachka lined his boat up with dozens of others in the harbor in protest. Now, he’s concerned again and feels slighted that the military doesn’t consider his voice worth listening to.  He says emphatically, "We’re worried about the fact that they are allowed to bring in a load of boats and blow shit up all over the place."  If they do that, he tells me, the ill effects "start out with the little guys then go up through the whole food web, which is another reason not to do it in the Spring when the forage fish are both reproducing and traveling.  It’s just not a good time to be introducing toxins and blowing things up on top of them. The chemical fallout from those explosions goes down through the food web and is eaten or absorbed by the fish."

“Food Security Is National Security” 

That evening, Stolarcyk, Lance, and I head over to the Kodiak Island borough building for their meeting. In a small, cramped basement room, several members of the assembly are around a table, while the rest of us are seated on chairs along the walls.

The two of them give their brief talks with a slide show.  As soon as they’re done, Councilman Matt Van Deale indicates that he’ll sponsor the resolution they want, adding, "Food security is national security and we are a fishing town." A second councilperson responds favorably to the resolution as others nod.

Suddenly, Councilman Kyle Crow speaks up, questioning the threat of toxic wastes. "I know about how hazardous waste is defined and I've seen folks declare a block of concrete with a chip of paint on it as hazardous waste." Stolarcyk promptly projects a slide she’s already shown that displays a chart taken from the Navy’s environmental impact statement indicating that more than five tons of toxic materials could be introduced into the fertile fishing areas of the Gulf each time the Navy conducts a training event.

Crow also questions the dangers of the Navy's use of sonar, comparing theirs to what he uses on his own fishing boat. Again, Stolarcyk pulls up a slide showing that the Navy's sonar generates audible blasts up to 235 decibels — humans begin to suffer hearing damage at 85 decibels — that travel for thousands of miles across the ocean. Crow nods in response to the new information, given that it is straight out of the Navy's own documents.

Councilman Larry LeDoux then requests that the assembly hear the Navy's side of the story and insists that such war games are necessary, as is the missile testing already happening on Kodiak, because of North Korea's ability to reach the United States with a missile.  (Not that it can yet.)

Despite these bumps, the majority of the assembly appears to favor the resolution.

The next morning Lance shares an email he sent to councilman Van Deale, thanking him for volunteering to sponsor the resolution. "It is hard to understand,” he wrote to Van Deale, “how some people in Kodiak's local government (and outside) distrust others who work to protect the sustainability of the very resources that have built the same Kodiak Archipelago economy and heritage!"

Two weeks later, Kodiak became the 10th Alaskan community to pass a resolution opposing the timing and location of the Navy’s exercises.

A day after that, in a letter to the commanders of the Navy's Pacific Fleet and U.S. Pacific Command, Senator Murkowski, who is also the chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, requested that the Navy “give serious thought” to changing the timing of the 2019 war games and moving their location due to impacts on marine life. “I expect to address these issues with senior leaders when the Navy appears before the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee next month,” she wrote.

“We Just Don’t Know How Bad It’s Going to Be”

Cordova is the image of what coastal Alaska once was. There are no cruise ships and the fishing industry still dominates the town, although some of its fisheries were wiped out in 1989 when the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled at least 11 million gallons of crude oil and they have never recovered.

Two years ago, I met James Wiese here.  He is an engineer on an Alaska Department of Fish and Game research vessel. A third generation Cordova mariner, he’s also a local city councilman. At that time, he was already expressing his fears that someday his children might not be able to eat the food that comes out of these waters.  He returned to the subject recently, telling me, "Anyone trying to consume seafood here knows how fragile everything is and is very concerned about what is going to happen to it because it's part of their everyday life." He adds that, within his department, the bulk of his colleagues support the resolutions calling on the Navy to alter its plans.

Cordova, he assures me, is "very much in opposition to the training" and still can’t believe the Navy is unable to find a time for their exercises when the salmon and the rest of the sea life in the Gulf aren't at their height.  "It's a food web and if salmon get tested and show contaminants from the Navy, everything is at stake. There are safer places for these Navy drills to happen. They need to be conscientious about what they are affecting."

Clay Koplin is Cordova’s mayor. "It's pretty simple," he tells me. "The Navy has the whole span of the year to practice and they picked the absolute worst time to do their exercise. We asked for a conversation in hope of changing the timing," he adds, turning his hands over in a gesture of puzzlement. "That's how a conversation works. We hoped to find some middle ground, but thus far there's been nothing to indicate they are willing to find that middle ground."

That same day, I meet Kelly Weaverling, the first Green Party mayor ever elected in this country.  He took office in Cordova in 1990, right after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. A former naval navigator in nuclear fast-attack submarines, he is now a Zen Buddhist monk as well as a fisherman.

Sporting a shaved head and dressed in a black Zen robe, grey turtleneck, and sandals with wool socks, Weaverling strides in quietly, yet purposefully, having come straight from leading a three-hour meditation for the community. "What the Navy is doing, we know it is going to be bad," he begins calmly. "We just don't know how bad it's going to be. It's pretty easy to figure out.  Anybody can do that."

I ask him to explain and he responds, as though instructing me before one of his meditation sessions, "Is something positive, negative, or neutral is the question. Anything you do is going to have an effect, even if it’s a non-action... So the question is, what effect is it going to have? The Navy's action will not have a positive effect on the ocean or any of its creatures. It's going to be a negative effect, we just don't know how bad."

“In Your Backyard?”

In the end, I even received a response from Captain Schmidt of the Alaska Command, who agreed to answer some of my questions by email.  I asked her what measures the Navy had taken in the wake of NE 15 to mitigate impacts on marine life. She responded by claiming flatly and without qualification that the new exercises would have "no significant impacts to marine life," and that the Navy had already gone through "an extensive and comprehensive permit process" with the National Marine Fisheries Service (as they are, in fact, required to do by law).

Why then, I wondered, do its commanders refuse to allow independent wildlife observers aboard their vessels during the training exercises?

To do so, she insisted "would result in unacceptable impacts to readiness," an odd response given that the only “impact” would assumedly be the use of binoculars.

As Northern Edge 2017 approaches, one thing is clear enough.  Despite growing opposition in Alaska, the Navy continues to do just what it wants in the state’s once-pristine, biologically rich Gulf waters.  Who knows how long it will be before parts of its vast marine web begin to test positive for the Navy's toxins?

As a journalist, I’ve spent time in Iraq and seen the devastation the U.S. military can visit on a society firsthand.  But I must admit that I never expected to see it in Alaska, whose tallest mountains I spent a decade of my life climbing — where, thanks to Denali (the highest peak in North America), I fell madly in love with this planet. As someone who now regularly reports on climate disruption, I wonder daily how many more decades whole areas of the biosphere will even remain habitable. At a purely personal level, that makes the Navy’s ongoing war against Alaska’s waters and the wildlife in them unconscionable to me.  And in the age of Trump, it’s unlikely the Navy high command will spend much time worrying about the environmental damage its war games are likely to cause.

For most Americans, Alaska is, of course, a distant, almost mythic place. But don’t be fooled.   In Alaska, there’s a broader lesson to be learned from these war games.  Christina Hendrickson makes the point in a way that speaks vividly to my own life experience. “If the Navy is able to come up to this pristine, biologically, ecologically and economically important area and train for war across three training cycles spanning six years and not engage local communities,” she says, “and if we're allowing this to happen in areas where subsistence is carried out by people who have relied on it for millennia, why couldn't this happen in your backyard?"


Dahr Jamail, a TomDispatch regular, is a recipient of numerous honors, including the Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for his work in Iraq. He is the author of two books: Beyond the Green Zone and The Will to Resist. His next book will be The End of Ice (the New Press). He is a staff reporter for Truthout.  This is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Dahr Jamail

Bob Inglis Takes a Stand on Climate Change

Bob Inglis
Photo courtesy Republicen.org

This piece was originally published by Sierra. For Bob's reaction to Trump's election win, read Andrea Cooper's interview with him here.

On a steamy June morning, a golf cart festooned with Boys State signs points the way to the auditorium at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Inside, against a backdrop of red, white, and blue, a Republican apostate is pacing. There's a podium and a stage, but he avoids both, using a walking mic to get close to the crowd.

"Who loves North Carolina?" Bob Inglis cheerfully calls out, scanning an audience of several hundred high school seniors in search of a few to invite up.

The American Legion created Boys State in 1935 to counter "socialism-inspired Young Pioneer Camps," according to its website, and though one kid at this weeklong governmental leadership program has lilac-streaked hair, the cohort is largely straightlaced and right-leaning. That makes it perfect for Inglis, a former Republican congressman who is determined to transform the way conservatives think about one key issue.

He beckons a few boys to the front to say what they love about North Carolina—the mountains and beaches, the state's natural beauty—and then he pounces. "If I say 'clean energy,' what does that mean to you?" 

They mention wind and solar, and Inglis launches into a short version of the stump speech for his new career and his dramatic defection from Republican climate change orthodoxy.

During Inglis's first six years representing Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina—"the reddest district in the reddest state in the nation"—he thought climate change was a bunch of hooey, Inglis tells the boys. That was 1993 to 1999, and Vice President Al Gore was pounding the table with a dark vision of environmental collapse. If Gore was for it, Inglis was against it.

He pauses and smiles, trim in black jeans and a checked suit coat. "I didn't know anything about it." 

The room goes quiet. 

For the next 30 minutes, Inglis describes his new view: not only that climate change is real and human-caused but also that free enterprise can address it better and faster than big government and regulations, that conservatives are poised to be the innovators, and that people who love God can be a powerful force in conserving His creation.

The boys ask savvy questions about Inglis's support of a revenue-neutral carbon tax and other issues, but it is clear that Inglis has reached them on a deeper level. One student bounds up to the standing mic and waits patiently in line to speak, shifting his feet a little. "Just so you can go home feeling good," he says, "when you talked about loving God and everything, you changed my views on climate change." The boys applaud. "I'm extremely conservative," he says, giving Inglis a serious nod, "but you have enlightened me."

Pay dirt. Energized, Inglis crosses the hall to hand out cards promoting his organization, RepublicEn.org. He takes an impromptu poll. "Raise that card if you think climate change is real." Nearly every card is raised. "Keep them up if you think it's human-caused." A few go down. "Now keep them up if you think free enterprise can fix it." Almost all remain up.

"Hold on—this is a great picture." He snaps a few shots for social media and urges the boys to upload selfies on RepublicEn.org's community page to "help us show members of Congress that you exist, that you have a greater claim on the future, that you want a solution." He steps forward and opens an arm wide, almost as if to begin a cheer. "Whether you are liberal or conservative," he says, with a sweep of the hand that takes them all in, "you want a solution." 

As one of five siblings growing up in the 1960s in Bluffton, South Carolina, Inglis thought pollution was a necessary byproduct of earning a living. His dad, an industrial engineer, made paper at Union Camp Corporation in nearby Savannah, Georgia. His mom, a good company wife, made excuses about the ghastly stink from the plant. It smelled like bread and butter, she joked. It kept the family fed. The Inglises enjoyed time outdoors, but they never dwelled on the effects of the industry that supported the family. They were practical people.

Inglis went away to college at Duke University and then to the University of Virginia School of Law, but he was soon back, along with his wife, Mary Anne, to practice commercial real estate law in Savannah. The Union Camp paper mill still produced the familiar stench he remembered from his childhood—inevitable, he thought. But when Paul Schierl, the chairman of Fort Howard Corporation, a paper manufacturer that employed Inglis's firm, came to town to discuss a planned new recycling mill, Inglis encountered a different attitude. 

They stepped out of a bank building in downtown Savannah and wham! The odor hit them. "How do they get away with that?" Schierl wanted to know. "No community in which we operate would let us do that to them." 

Fort Howard went on to build a plant nearby that emitted no appreciable smell. Union Camp constructed a new plant near Eastover, South Carolina, that didn't smell either. Inglis realized that Union Camp could have cleaned up emissions at his dad's factory long ago. It was all a matter of expectations. As long as the Savannah area was willing to put up with the funk, the funk stayed.

The episode planted the seeds of doubt about the go-along-get-along beliefs with which he'd been raised. Inglis joined a firm in Greenville, South Carolina, and in the 1990s moved with his family to Whiskey Creek Farm near Travelers Rest, where his five kids could view the southern ridge of Duffs Mountain from the pasture. The oldest, Rob, planned and led the family's backpacking trips, lining his bedroom wall with packs ready to be filled a week ahead of time.

So it's not surprising that Rob would also take the lead in nudging Inglis out of his "hooey" period. After six years in the House of Representatives, in 1998 Inglis ran for Senate and lost. He returned to practicing law, then in 2003 decided to vie for his old House seat. This time, Rob was 18, old enough to weigh in: "Dad, I'll vote for you, but you're going to clean up your act on the environment." 

All four of Rob's sisters agreed. So did Mary Anne. 

Suddenly, Inglis had a new and rebellious constituency—one, he jokes, that could change the locks on the doors. While Rob's loving prompt was meaningful to him, however, Inglis didn't mention climate change during his successful 2004 campaign, talking about "energy security" instead.

The next nudge came during a trip to Antarctica in 2006 as a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Scientists at McMurdo Station had drilled deep into the ice in search of a record of Earth's atmosphere; the data revealed not only an uptick in CO2 levels coinciding with the Industrial Revolution but also much more instability and atmospheric damage in modern times. There was the evidence, right in the ice, as legible as a language if you knew how to read it.

Inglis sounds like one of those patient McMurdo scientists himself as we sit on a bench after his Boys State talk and he unwraps what he learned on his trip to Antarctica. "If I go deep into the earth and pull up . . . plants and animals that have been gone eons, and with time and temperature and pressure have turned into fossil fuels"—he glances at me to make sure I'm following—"and I bring those up to the surface and burn them, I change the chemistry of the air. . . . None of that is controversial science." 

On another congressional trip, Inglis and colleagues stopped at the Great Barrier Reef and snorkeled with Australian climate scientist Scott Heron. Among the vivid fish and vibrant coral branching like fingers, Inglis realized that Heron was worshiping God as he interacted with nature. "Scott would show me something, come to the surface, and shout, 'This is amazing!'" Over lunch, they fell into conversation about their Christian faith. Inglis realized that as a religious scientist who recognized the threat of climate change, Heron had built a bridge that Inglis and fellow conservatives might one day be able to cross.

Inglis came home fired up. Along with Art Laffer, a former economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan, he cowrote an op-ed in the New York Times proposing a policy swap: Impose a carbon tax and reduce income or payroll taxes by an equal amount. Then he introduced the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009. It didn't go anywhere.

By then the Great Recession had hit. Fourth Congressional District voters who might once have been open to renewable alternatives to Middle Eastern oil—and the whole concept of energy security—weren't so interested anymore. 

The Tea Party recruited a challenger to take on Inglis in the 2010 race. And while Inglis's support for immigration reform and his vote against the troop surge in Iraq may have made him suspect, climate change was probably his undoing. At some town hall meetings, people booed when he tried to talk. In the end, challenger Trey Gowdy wiped him out in a runoff, 71 to 29 percent.

Inglis is a proud conservative, fond of rattling off his stats: a 93 percent approval rating from the American Conservative Union, 100 percent from both the Christian Coalition of America and the National Right to Life, an A from the NRA. But there's been no turning back for him on climate change.

After his electoral pummeling in 2010, he spent time as a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics and at Duke University, and he got financial support to hire a few people and form a team. In 2012, he founded the nonprofit Energy and Enterprise Initiative, based at George Mason University and known for its catchy branding as RepublicEn.org. A staff of eight is spread out in four states and Washington, D.C. Inglis says one staffer is in Wisconsin, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's territory, "because I know Paul Ryan knows this [taking action to stop climate change] is the right policy." 

Among RepublicEn's core tenets: Eliminate all fuel subsidies. Price fuels so the complete costs are incorporated. If "Inglis Industries" gets to spew its soot skyward, Inglis likes to say, the company should pay a tax per ton on the carbon produced. With such costs factored in, more people and companies will choose competing technologies, and the price of solar and other renewables will decline in relation to that of coal-fired electricity. 

It's an idea that Al Gore has supported for a long time, but Inglis thinks Republicans will own it once they understand that it levels the playing field and encourages competition. To level that field worldwide, Inglis also calls for a carbon tax on imported products, assessing them based on the pollution involved in their creation (compared with the emissions from the production of similar American-made goods). Chinese businesses would get motivated not to pollute, and other countries would follow suit.

Not all environmentalists agree. While the Sierra Club favors putting a price on carbon, it has concerns that a carbon tax could be regressive and fall most heavily on poorer citizens. The Club also prefers tax credits and incentives for wind and solar development, partly in the belief that legislators aren't inclined to make the playing field truly level or eliminate the hidden subsidies for the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries—such as below-market coal and oil leases and exemptions from federal pollution standards for fracking.

No matter the nuances of specific proposals, though, Inglis says change in climate policy will come down to one reality: Conservatives have to lead. Progressives alone simply don't have the votes to push climate policy through Congress.

But that's a tough sell. Only 47 percent of conservative Republicans believe global warming is real, according to a study this year from Yale and George Mason Universities. Just 26 percent acknowledge that global warming is caused mostly by humans. And only 21 percent are worried about it. 

Those figures represent progress. In 2014, 28 percent of conservatives believed that global warming was real. Read that way, Inglis's team is up a whopping 19 percent in only two years. 

Bob Inglis is an incorrigible optimist. He would have to be, given what he deals with every day. His ideal trip starts with a speech or panel discussion somewhere—maybe at a university—followed by a meeting with the college Republican and Libertarian clubs. Next, he'll do an interview on the city's talk radio station—whichever one carries Rush Limbaugh. Then he'll chat with the local newspaper's editorial board and have a one-on-one with the Republican member of Congress.

In other words, he spends a lot of time among climate change skeptics and deniers. He takes some hits—such as the occasional letter writer calling him a traitor. But he is confident that he's changing minds, one stop at a time. When he travels, he hands out cards that say, "Do you believe free enterprise can solve climate change? Dare to be heard @ RepublicEn.org." And he runs Facebook ads assuring other conservatives that if they care about climate change, they aren't alone.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Inglis's group can't lobby for specific legislation or encourage voters to choose a certain candidate. But his team can educate the public and elected officials about free-enterprise solutions to climate change and the potential for job creation. They can introduce the subject, take the initial arrows, get people thinking, and provide an entree for lawmakers to continue the discussion in their district or state. Inglis can help legislators come out of the closet on climate change. 

Because some are in there. Inglis met one House member for coffee early this year at the Capitol Hill Club—a congressman who, on the House floor, is a "coal today, coal tomorrow, coal forever!" sort. It's over, the member told Inglis. Coal is done. We just need to figure out how to ease it down. "I couldn't believe the words were coming out of his mouth," Inglis says. 

Now Inglis is trying to arrange events in the districts of several conservative members of Congress to help them broach the topic with constituents. He envisions a panel that he would moderate. In a calm, upbeat voice, Inglis demonstrates how it might sound to propose a future without coal. "Let's see if we can work this out. Let's do a little vision-casting about what this would look like. How can we care for people in your state involved in coal?" He'll tell them that he gets it—his own childhood was secure thanks to wages from a smelly paper plant. Legislators generally follow rather than lead, Inglis has found, but they can lead when they feel support. 

A naturally skillful speaker, Inglis has worked with communication experts to refine his themes. Among his guiding principles: People respond best to language in keeping with their values. Conservatives believe in individualism and respect hierarchies. Progressives favor egalitarianism and act through community. "If you're talking to conservatives and you lay some communal, egalitarian language on them, it's unrecognizable to the tribe," he emphasizes. An example: Let's all come together under the auspices of the United Nations or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "You can't imagine a worse entry into a conservative congregation than that." 

From Inglis's point of view, the tone of the environmental left doesn't help. Conservatives don't trust people who shame their audiences or write like their hair is on fire. So Inglis doesn't yell. He'll tell people he disagrees with them strongly, but his tone is unfailingly hopeful. What happens when he's miffed? "He looks exactly like himself," says former staffer Catrina Rorke, "except he leans forward instead of backward."

Bob Inglis's colleagues appreciate his courage and his role as point man. Immigration, the economy, public health, national security—all the Republican flash points relate to climate change, says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University who is an adviser to RepublicEn.org and an outspoken Christian. "If you care about this host of things . . . then you have to care about climate change, because it's affecting all those things, for good or for bad. Bob realized that." They aren't alone in their admiration: Last year, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation gave Inglis the Profile in Courage award.

When Inglis feels discouraged, he watches Kennedy's 1962 "moon shot" speech at Rice University, which he calls 17 minutes of "pure American exceptionalism and belief in the people." Though Kennedy admits in the speech that certain materials for space flight haven't yet been invented, he says that, no matter what, the United States is going to do it. 

Inglis wants to stir conservatives to tackle climate change with the same kind of can-do spirit that took astronauts to the moon. I see him look worried only once: when I ask if he ever fears that by the time the nation is ready to act, it will be too late.

We see each other again a few weeks after the Boys State event, at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. Greg Fishel, a TV meteorologist who in 2010 publicly switched from denying climate change to accepting the science, has invited Inglis to be part of the evening's panel discussion. Keep in mind, this is North Carolina: a swing state that Barack Obama won in 2008 and lost in 2012 by slim margins, a place where lawmakers once heard a report that the sea level could rise by as much as 39 inches within a century and responded by banning laws that take that prediction into account.

The crowd at the museum, though, demonstrates its belief in human-made climate change with a show of hands. Inglis takes the opportunity to hold up a "conservative mirror" so that progressives in the audience will understand how conservatives see them: They are grim prophets of an apocalyptic future in which everyone will walk instead of drive, eat bugs, do with less, and follow a godless new religion of climate change. The progressive message could use some tweaking. It's a matter of changing the vocabulary and incorporating a greater emphasis on free enterprise. He offers one other tip: Find a conservative friend to persuade, because progressives alone have gone as far as they can.

To the smattering of Reagan conservatives in the audience, Inglis brings a different message: You don't need to shrink into science denial. You can solve this. Embracing the science of climate change can lead to more energy, more mobility, more freedom.

When the panel adjourns, conservatives and progressives alike approach Inglis as he stands outside the museum theater near a stuffed great horned owl and a blue marlin skeleton, part of the Natural Treasures of North Carolina exhibit. "I'm a progressive," one woman tells him, "but I don't want to eat bugs." They both smile.

By 2022, Inglis anticipates, a carbon tax will have the support of 25 Republican members in the House and 15 in the Senate. That will be considerable progress, maybe enough to pass the tax. Assuming that many of the same conservative players are still in office, they'll have made an about-face, something of which Inglis has intimate knowledge.

When we first met, I asked Inglis how it felt to publicly admit he had been wrong about climate change. Was it embarrassing or painful?

"Not if you have a fulsome notion of grace," he replied. "If you understand grace, it's really possible to be corrected." 

Grace has brought Bob Inglis here. Faith will see him through. 


Andrea Cooper has reported for NPR, the New York Times, and National Geographic Traveler, among other publications. She lives in North Carolina.

Poaching in Africa Becomes Increasingly Militarized

Elephant in South Africa
Photo by Rhett  A. Butler

• Due to skyrocketing consumer demand, particularly from Asia, today’s wildlife traffickers have the resources to outfit their henchmen with weaponry and equipment that often outmatches that of the local park rangers.

• The poachers doing the most damage in Africa today are employed by professional trafficking syndicates, and they enjoy a level of support and financial backing unimaginable during earlier poaching crises.

• The poachers’ arsenal includes the expanding use of military-grade equipment like helicopters, machine guns, infrared scopes, and heavy armored vehicles.

 

On January 29, a 37-year-old Englishman and ardent conservationist named Roger Gower was piloting a helicopter over Tanzania’s Maswa Game Reserve when he spotted the corpse. With safari guide Nick Bester at his side, Gower, who worked for the nongovernmental Friedkin Conservation Fund, slowly circled the hacked and bloody elephant carcass below. Rangers on the ground had alerted them that gunfire had been heard the previous day, and here was the awful result. The men couldn’t see the poachers, but the dead elephant’s tusks were still intact; they were likely still nearby.

As the men hovered over the body, their copter was abruptly rattled by explosive bursts of automatic gunfire from the canopy below. One round came through the floor and tore through Gower’s leg and shoulder before piercing the ceiling. Fatally injured, Gower somehow managed to land the copter before dying, allowing Bester to escape into the bush. Nine suspects were later arrested and four were charged with murder. The rest were reportedly charged with economic sabotage and unlawful possession of firearms; four have received prison sentences up to 20 years.

Roger Gower is only one of the more visible casualties of a recent upsurge in violence caused by the illegal wildlife trade. Dozens of African rangers are killed each year by increasingly well-armed and -organized poachers in a bloody conflict over the continent’s wildlife. The escalation includes the expanding use of military-grade equipment like helicopters, machine guns, infrared scopes, and heavy armored vehicles by poachers who are wiping out Africa’s remaining megafauna for the Asian black market.

The Thin Green Line Foundation, an Australia-based NGO that provides support for the families of rangers killed on the job, reports that worldwide, “it’s estimated that over 1,000 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty over the past 10 years, 75% by commercial poachers and armed militia groups. Park rangers are generally under-equipped, underpaid, and often under-appreciated.”

Meanwhile, in May the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a survey of 570 rangers across 12 African countries highlighting their difficult working conditions. According to the survey, 82 percent of respondents have faced life-threatening situations, 59 percent believe they are ill equipped for their jobs, 42 percent believe they are inadequately trained, 75 percent have been threatened, and 77 percent see their families for 10 days or less per month.

A new business model

What’s happening in Africa today isn’t like the earlier poaching crisis of the 1980s, when mainly destitute poachers were often armed with antiquated bolt-action rifles unequipped with scopes for long-range shots. Due to skyrocketing consumer demand, both from an Asian market eager for everything from ivory to pangolin scales and a thriving domestic African trade in bushmeat, today’s wildlife traffickers have the resources to outfit their henchmen with weaponry and equipment that often outmatches that of the local park rangers.

Rhino horn now rivals gold for value, sometimes reaching approximately $65,000 to $75,000 per kilogram on the black market, while international criminal trafficking in terrestrial wildlife amounts to as much as $10 billion annually. The money to be made motivates the extremes of violence and the growing sophistication of arms and equipment employed by poaching networks, and each dead rhino or elephant increases the worth of the survivors, as in any fading commodity.

This new breed of poacher is armed with military-grade weaponry, often acquired through criminal syndicates taking advantage of the political and social chaos in places like Libya, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Mali, and Somalia. Terrorist groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa often fund their gruesome activities through poaching, and even corrupted national military units have actively participated in wildlife crime.

The Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo “have been identified by independent observers as among the most ruthless ivory poachers in the DRC, where the state military is reportedly responsible for 75 per cent of all poaching in nine of 11 investigated areas with elephant populations in the country,” states a 2015 reportby the Geneva-based, multi-government-funded Small Arms Survey organization.

The result is that ecological gems like Kruger National Park in South Africa have been reduced into virtual warzones. Kruger’s 20,000-square kilometers is home to the great majority of Africa’s remaining rhinos, and it shares a porous border with Mozambique, where governmental corruption and economic incompetence have created conditions of desperate poverty that form an ideal breeding ground for wildlife crime. Last year Kruger lost 1,175 rhinos to poachers, many of whom were Mozambicans. The park’s rangers, now by necessity trained in military tactics, killed approximately 500 poachers between 2011 and 2015, nearly all from Mozambique.

“We are fighting a war,” Johan Jooste, a former army general and now chief commander of anti-poaching efforts for South African National Parks, told Africa Geographic in 2014. Such is the intensity of the war for rhino horn that it has effectively superceded his other duties. “For now my job is all about Kruger and its rhino” Jooste said in the interview. “These rhinos in Kruger are the most valuable cache of environmental assets in the world. Rhino horn is more valuable than gold or platinum. Gram for gram, its the most expensive commodity on the planet. Throughout Africa, rangers are performing military roles to battle poachers. We have to militarize our ranger corps. This problem will not go away.”

South African law prohibits rangers from initiating deadly force, so they are forced to attempt arrests of poachers, which takes time and resources that other poachers use to their advantage. With only around 500 rangers under Jooste’s command, a park as enormous as Kruger can be effectively patrolled only in tiny segments at a time.

Many of Kruger’s poachers are not simply poor people desperate for money to survive on; they’re often career criminals, skilled in outdoor survival techniques and the handling of heavy weapons. “As much as I despise them,” said Jooste, “the poachers can survive well in the bush, and their bushcraft is remarkable. Their tracking is good, and their resilience is of note. They are a formidable opponent with no rules.”

The poachers doing the most damage in Africa today are employed by professional trafficking syndicates, and they enjoy a level of support and financial backing unimaginable during earlier poaching crises.

“We must not forget,” warned Jooste, “that what we are dealing with here is international organized crime, backed up by foreign criminals. These syndicates are so wealthy that they could be a Fortune 500 company on their own. They don’t have any conscience, laws or rules and they have good intelligence, and they have unlimited resources. So they will help poachers out, there will be bail and then legal defense.”

A lack of support

The fighting is taking place nearly everywhere on the continent that wildlife habitat still exists. Another major battlefield is the chaotic Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In April, elephant poachers killed three rangers and wounded two others in Garamba National Park; poachers killed five rangers and three army troops in the same park last year. And in the country’s besieged great ape bastion of Virunga National Park, 150 rangers have been slain by militia seeking revenue from wildlife, charcoal, and other natural resources in the last decade alone. The park is the continent’s oldest and home to one quarter of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei). “We cannot sustain these kind of losses in what is still the most dangerous conservation job in the world,” park head Emmanuel de Mérode — himself shot and wounded by militia in 2014 — told The Guardian this spring.

Being a ranger in Africa is not only extremely difficult and hazardous, as the WWF survey made clear; usually it is also unrewarding, with rangers in Kenya and Tanzania said to be making as little as $50 to $60 a month. And when rangers are killed, their families are often left destitute.

“Governments in Africa give little pensions to the families of murdered rangers,” Peter Fearnhead, co-founder of the nonprofit African Parks, told Equal Times in January. “Funeral costs can overwhelm families; health needs spiral and the dreams of rangers’ children are shattered. Rangers families live in constant fear for the future.”

African Parks rehabilitates and fully manages parks under contract with governments that often lack the resources to capably conduct anti-poaching efforts themselves. The group currently manages ten parks totaling 6 million hectares in seven countries. It pays the widows of rangers slain in parks it manages the equivalent of six years’ salary, a strong commitment given the paltry benefits most African governments extend to their rangers.

Groups like African Parks, rangers in places like Virunga, and individuals like Johan Jooste stand in stark contrast to the corruption, incompetence, and lack of professionalism that too often plague African wildlife management agencies. The New York Times reported that one of the arrestees in Roger Gower’s murder was “a former police officer who used his current position as an intelligence officer with a regional conservation authority to help the poachers travel undetected.” Low pay makes rangers particularly susceptible to bribery by flush poaching syndicates. By one estimate, around half of East Africa’s rangers are corrupt, The Guardian reported.

But even well managed programs place enormous strain on the modern African park ranger and his or her family. Lawrence Munro described the constant state of danger his work has placed him and his young family in to the website Traveller 24 last year. At the time, Munro was director of the Rhino Operations Unit for the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, which abuts Kruger; he has since joined African Parks.

“I am thinking combatively all the time,” he said. “My family and I have had very directed, pointed death threats. Letters addressed to me that say: we don’t want you around anymore.”

Munro said he is constantly armed and on guard, and his family is afraid to travel after dark without him acting as armed escort. He said he works strenuously long hours, carefully mapping out the locations of suspected poachers by day and hunting them down at night. Munro said he feels forced to keep much of his work secret, even to his own family, almost as if he were a secret agent. “It’s such a great feeling to catch a rhino poacher or middleman,” Munro said. “But the job does take its toll.”

And this is South Africa, the continent’s richest and (until recently, at least) most well governed country. The danger posed by poachers makes daily life in poorer countries even worse for their rangers, and in some places authorities even contend that it threatens the very fabric of society.

“Wildlife crime has become a serious threat to the sovereignty and the stability of some of our countries,” said Ali Bongo Ondimba, president of Gabon, in a 2014 press statementput out by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “Poachers do not hesitate to fire upon our park rangers. In some countries they are involved in a bush war as intense as any modern conflict.”

Bright spot

In spite of the extreme challenges there are some bright spots. One is the PAMS Foundation Tanzania, an NGO based in Arusha that monitors and protects elephant and giraffe populations and works with tribal communities to resolve human-wildlife conflict.

Max Jenes, PAMS’s Ruvuma Elephant Project Coordinator, joined the group in 2011. He told Mongabay he signed up “despite being intimidated and warned by my close friends … as I was going to work in a tough and risky environment.”

To combat criminal syndicates that have come to dominate the illegal wildlife trade in the area, Jenes implemented a program to recruit promising young men from the area as rangers, improve his team’s professionalism, and perfect their tactics. His approach relies heavily on gathering intelligence from local informants, asking for police support when required, and judiciously deploying rangers to patrol identified wildlife hotspots. And he said it resulted in a poaching decline of 93 percent over a three-year period in his area of operation.

“The very important secret of success in anti-poaching is to create a good relationship with the community surrounding the reserve or park,” Jenes said. “Good relationships assist with recruitment of honest informants who are the vital ingredient for successful anti-poacher patrols.”

Solid intelligence and the direct involvement of local communities in efforts to predict and disrupt poaching before it happens are common ingredients among successful anti-poaching efforts. Another is the sheer determination and dedication of many rangers against difficult odds and heavy weaponry.

One of Max Jenes’s most promising teammates is James Nchimbi, who started his career with a passion for wildlife and a desire to become a ranger, but no money for school. After a great deal of persistence, he finally managed to get a scholarship to attend Pasiansi Wildlife Training Institute in the northwestern city of Mwanza, he told Mongabay.

Not long after graduation, in 2012, Nchimbi said he had his first taste of the brutal realities of war in the bush when he led a team of rangers in a midnight ambush of four armed poachers. After four minutes of fighting, the poachers fled — fortunately for Nchimbi’s unit, as well as the poachers themselves. But danger is never far away, and Nchimbi said two rangers were recently killed in the area where he works.

Nevertheless the pride of fulfilling a duty that comes from the heart continues to animate people like James Nchimbi, who said he continually encourages local young men to pursue careers as rangers. “I love to encourage young committed people to join us in conservation, especially in the anti-poaching operations,” he said.

In many places, men like Jenes and Nchimbi are all there is to ensure that their children and grandchildren, and yours and mine too, will inherit a world that still thunders under dusty elephant stampedes, that resonates with the lions’ tectonic roar, and that is still capable of offering us at least an evanescent glimpse of the sublime world of beauty and terror from which we all sprang.

Standing Rock: A New Beginning

Standing Rock
Photo by iStock/FrostOnFlower

The times we’re in are bleak. Donald Trump has just been elected. The mainstream media, including, I fear, much of public broadcasting, has abandoned its role as the Fourth Estate and now cleaves to the imperatives of the marketplace: profit-making and entertainment. The neoliberal ideology has both political parties in policy and moral lockdown. Since my first days of social consciousness, protesting the Vietnam War, I’ve witnessed our country transformed from a society into an economy.

If a pipeline company, or a mining consortium, or an oil corporation says that fracking, or risky oil pipelines, or sulfide mines will create jobs, they are handed the keys to the kingdom, and a public subsidy to boot. And if the boom turns into a bust, and the jobs don’t materialize and the pipelines erupt and pollute soil and water, or if the company goes bankrupt and the state has to pay for the cleanup, well, that’s business. Human health and happiness and goodness count for absolutely nothing against economic interests.

How do we confront this now deeply entrenched value system? How do we begin to change the status quo?

We have three options it seems to me — do nothing and hope for the best (denial), give up and become nihilistic (despair), or rouse ourselves in defense of life (bear witness). I say life because I do believe it has come to that, we are looking into an abyss of both eco-system collapse and social disintegration.

But the rousing has started up again and the demonstrations. Or perhaps they were always going on and I wasn’t paying attention. I’ve gone to Washington D.C. on the Earth Train from Saint Paul to demonstrate against the Keystone Pipeline — and at the State Capital in St. Paul. Just recently I joined several hundred people who marched and chanted “Mni Wiconi—Water is Life!” — through the streets of St. Paul to the Army Corps of Engineers building. And it was Standing Rock and what has happened in North Dakota to stop a reckless and crude oil pipeline, a money pipeline, a black snake, that recently roused me again. Standing Rock was no ordinary demonstration.

The native leadership and Tribal Council say that Standing Rock is a “prayer camp.” Using the word 'prayer', rather than 'meditation,’ they say, “You can pray in whatever way is appropriate for you. You don't have to be religious. You can follow your heart. Prayer can also mean taking action on the ground, but in a sacred way.”

The Oceti Sakowin Seven Council Fires Camp, like the Sacred Stones and Red Warrior camps at Standing Rock, insist that all water protectors, whether Native American or not, conduct themselves according to the Seven Lakota Values, as described by camp leader Everett Iron Eyes, Sr.: Prayer. Respect. Compassion. Honesty. Generosity. Humility. Wisdom.

Standing Rock was very local, and yet it was completely global, uniting people from all over the world. It was a breakthrough for humanity, a sacred ceremony of survival, of reunion. As Winona LaDuke said so perfectly, “The beginning is near.”

Today I watched a video of a group of U.S. military veterans asking the Lakota elders at Standing Rock for their forgiveness. Wesley Clark, Jr., the son of retired U.S. Army general and former supreme commander at NATO, Wesley Clark Sr., and himself an Army veteran, said:

Many of us are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. Then we took still more land and we took your children and we tried to eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways, but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.

           

Chief Leonard Crow Dog offered forgiveness, saying, “we do not own the land, the land owns us.” This was a historic gesture. This is what is called for now. Listening. Seeing with the eyes of the heart. Healing.

We cannot fight the vast corporate-government juggernaut with force. We would be crushed in an instant. We will not use their weapons: lies, hate, retaliation, violence. We now have a beautiful and eloquent example provided by the wisdom of the Lakota elders. They have stood against dogs, rubber bullets, water cannons, mace, concussion grenades, and other weapons of intimidation. And they have changed the course of history, by keeping a loving, peaceful, and prayerful vigil on their land. They have engendered love and forgiveness. They have helped us all to remember who we are.

A couple of years ago I attended a program at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis called “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia.” The event was a celebration and reunion for some local, countercultural activists from the late 60s and 70s. During the event a young, Native American speaker caught my attention when he said, “You baby boomers, it’s time to step back up and finish what you started.”

“Right on man!” I thought. “Far out!”

One of the lessons I have learned from Standing Rock is that we must leave aside all that we are against, so that we can defend what we are here to protect. That is the stance of love, and it comes from the heart.

Your Revolution at Home: Radical Fossil Fuel Divestment

 Oil
Photo by Fotolia/PixieMe

Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of people across the country have left their banks in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. American citizens have suddenly become aware that, in the absence of a government that will protect us, we must shift market forces ourselves. The climate justice movement, clean energy, and protests on the streets are critical and must continue, but there’s a missing element. It has been neglected, or at best mentioned but minimized, because it is uncomfortable.

Here’s the unfortunate truth: the climate problem is us. Americans are the biggest driver of climate change, not only in terms of our individual practices but also in the globalized, comfort-centric market we support. DAPL is being drilled for us so we can take road trips and keep our houses at 75 degrees in January.

It is much easier to blame the rapacious practices of fossil fuel companies and to say that individual change does not amount to much. But we are the demand driving the market. We cannot expect the fossil fuel industry to paternalistically deny us oil for our own good and for the good of the planet. They will continue to drill for as long as we pay them to do so. While we must continue to divest from fossil fuel companies, we cannot absolve ourselves from our own participation in the fossil fuel demand chain. If we truly want them to keep it in the ground, we must drastically change our culture of consumption.

The average carbon footprint for Americans is 20 cubic tons per year (calculate yours here at carbonfootprint.com). The average for Europeans is 10. The worldwide average is 4. In order to decrease climate change, everyone’s individual carbon footprint must be 2. This demands not just rallies and protests in the public sphere, but radical fossil fuel divestment in the private sphere as well.

It was easy to be complacent under the Obama administration, to feel like “advocacy” and “awareness” were working and the government was making incremental but important progress. President Obama set carbon pollution standards for power plants, so it’s OK for me to fly four times a year or eat fruit from another hemisphere.

The new administration will not prioritize climate change. And fossil fuel companies are certainly not going to stop drilling of their own accord. The clean energy accord in Marrakesh is important, but we as global citizens must support these initiatives by bringing the principles of climate conservation into our own lives. We need a new environmental ethos along with new forms of energy.

In our globalized culture of consumption, we have unquestioningly accepted a comfort-centric view of our lives on this planet—that we can travel anywhere we want by airplane or car, that we can eat whatever food we desire at any time of year, that temperatures should always be pleasant, and that our own convenience is paramount. To continue believing this now is dangerous. You cannot use oranges from Chile and ginger from China in that recipe. You cannot fly to Thailand for your honeymoon. You cannot drive in a SUV alone across the country to protest oil drilling at Standing Rock. (Carpool, go to a local protest, or send money instead.)

What follows is a list ranked roughly in terms of carbon cost. A few items may seem like things that only the affluent can afford. If you truly can’t afford them, skip them. But people in developing countries and poor people in our own country already have a small carbon footprint. For the rest of us, there’s a tremendous amount we can and must do.

Let us be clear: climate change is causing massive loss of life, livelihood, and home, in most cases for the poorest communities. With this at stake, to be unwilling to make lifestyle changes is unconscionable. And just to take shorter showers or use green light bulbs is vastly insufficient.

The revolution is not just in the streets; it is in our homes. It is not always exciting or emotional. It is also tedious, cold, frustrating, and untasty. We need to shift how we live and we need to do it now. Individual change becomes collective action.

(Note: this list is neither perfect nor complete. I hope others will amend and add to it as we develop this new ethos together.)

 

1. Have fewer children.

Having children in a developed country is far and away the most harm you can do to the environment, no matter how good-hearted or brilliant your child may grow up to be. The climate crisis is in many ways a reproductive crisis. Slowing population growth could provide 16-29% of the necessary emissions reductions necessary by 2050 to avoid a climate catastrophe. By driving a hybrid car, being a vegan, and using clean power, you would save 488 metric tons of carbon dioxide in an 80-year lifetime. By having one fewer child, you save 9,441. This is a personal and complicated question for those who have always wanted children. Many couples have decided to opt for a “one and done” policy and for any further children to come through adoption. 

2. Stop eating beef.

In terms of overall lifecycle greenhouse emissions, lamb, beef, and milk are the most harmful due to their production of methane gas (which is four times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). Pork, turkey, and farmed salmon are considerably better. Chicken and eggs are the animal products with the least environmental impact. Veganism remains the most ethical dietary choice. However, equally important is the role of food transport. The long-distance shipping of one pound of vegetarian food is more detrimental to the environment than one pound of local organic meat. Eating a piece of chicken from your state is better, environmentally, than eating acai berries from Brazil. 

3. Vote.

We must bring the fight to our local and state leaders. Make sure you’re electing officials who support renewable energy and clean jobs, oppose subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, and will work to increase restrictions on oil drilling, coal mining, and fracking. Consult endorsements from the Sierra Club or local environmental groups. 

4. Severely limit or entirely cease air travel.

One transatlantic flight is equal to an average year’s worth of driving. Shorter flights don’t let you off the hook either, since most of the emissions take place during takeoff and landing, not while cruising. The globally affluent travel for work, for pleasure, to visit family and friends, and don’t think twice about it. Sometimes travel is necessary; most of the time it’s not. Consider the train when possible. 

5. Use public transportation.

If you live in a city, you can do this easily. It will take slightly longer to get where you’re going, but this is part of the new ethos. Leave your house a little earlier. If public transportation is not an option, carpool. Every time you get behind the wheel, consider whether you actually need to go where you’re going right now. 

6. Never drink bottled water again.

It takes 1.5 millions barrels of oil each year to produce the plastic for bottled water. The water is often extracted from desertifying states, and it takes 3 liters of water to package 1 liter of bottled water. For nearly all Americans, bottled water is an unnecessary luxury. If you’re concerned about the quality of your tap water, buy a water filter. 

7. Eat local and seasonal foods.

This does not mean “it’s autumn, time to enjoy a sweet potato every once in a while.” This means finding out what fruits and vegetables are in season where you live and letting these be the bulk of what you eat. You do not eat apples in March. Depending on where you live, you might not eat bananas or avocados ever. The carbon cost of shipping food across the country for the whims of our palates is inexcusable. Farmer’s markets, community gardens, CSAs, and food co-ops are the best way to have access to local produce, eggs, and meat. The next level is to look for food from your state or region in grocery stores. We shouldn’t be eating anything from other countries, especially not from across oceans. It’s true that local foods cannot be the entirety of everyone’s diet. There will be some gaps that need to be filled, but we cannot fill them with coconut water from the Philippines or almonds from drought-ridden California. 

8. Eat organic produce.

Organic is not perfect and, yes, has in many cases become corporate. However, corporations have turned to organic because consumers are buying it. Agrochemicals require massive amounts of fossil fuels to produce and pollute our air and water. By refusing to buy products grown with these chemicals, our collective purchasing power forces corporations to shift their practices. There’s no middle ground here: to buy non-organic Big Food is an investment in agrochemicals and fossil fuels. 

9. Cease support for environmentally unfriendly corporations.

Your dollar is your vote. Every time you spend a dollar at a Shell station or on a Coca-Cola or Nestle product, you are voting for ignored oil spills, draining of aquifers, and increased pollution. Corporations follow the dollar. Do your research and invest accordingly. 

10. Decrease energy usage in your home.

Turn your thermostat up ten degrees in summer and down ten degrees in winter. There’s no reason to be wearing a t-shirt indoors in February. Put up double-paned glass and insulate drafty windows with blankets or sheets. Turn off lights when you’re not in the room. Take shorter showers. Unplug appliances when not in use. Use the top shelf of the oven. Buy energy-efficient appliances. Hang dry your clothes. 

11. Invest in clean energy.

If you own your home, install solar panels. Buy renewable energy credits to offset your carbon emissions. Urge your legislators to support investment in green energy infrastructure. 

12. Don’t buy new.

Buy used furniture, clothes, books, etc. in order to decrease dependence on factories and transcontinental shipping. Share what you have.

13. Cease use of disposable items.

This includes paper towels, napkins, to-go coffee cups, paper plates, plastic silverware, plastic and paper bags, all of which require fossil fuels to be produced and are completely unnecessary. Bring your own bag to the store and your own reusable coffee cup.

14. Plant a garden.

This is the easiest way to get cheap local organic produce. You can grow most vegetables and herbs in pots in even the most cramped city apartment. Plant flowers and herbs outside that feed bees; colony collapse (as a result of monoculture and neonicotinoid pesticides) is a crisis that threatens our food supply.

 

This list was personally difficult to write. I love to travel, want children, eat a variety of foods from around the world, own a car and live in a cold place where I’d really quite like to have the heat on right now. I calculated my carbon footprint at 16 metric tons per year. This is not acceptable and I can no longer pretend like it is.

We’re in a new era. As Bill McKibben has warned us, World War III is already happening. It’s not against terrorism, ethno-nationalism, or illegal immigrants. It’s against carbon and methane. They threaten our lives in a way that no other enemy ever has. Complacency is not neutrality. Continuing in your current consumption of fossil fuels is actively allying with the enemy.

But unlike the last world war, there’s no massive government mobilization coming, at least not in a Trump administration. So the responsibility falls to each of us individually, and collectively as communities: to plant our own victory gardens and set our own rations.

There are upsides to the new ethos. More of your life will take place in your immediate community and you’ll get to know your neighbors. Because you’re driving less, you’re exercising more by walking and biking. You’re eating more vegetables and less processed foods, so your health will probably improve. You’re saving money on electrical bills, air travel, and gas. Your life is aligned with your values.

We cannot trust either the government or corporate self-interest to protect the climate. Nor will these individual actions alone be enough. But we can no longer pretend that fossil fuel companies are not intimately entwined with the way we live our day-to-day lives. We are all shareholders in this crisis. We cannot stomp our feet in outrage at fossil fuels while also ravenously consuming them. The list above won’t solve the climate crisis, but it must become the new baseline.


For more from Samara Reigh, visit Living Off the Grid in Earthship, New Mexico.

Psychological Warfare at Standing Rock Reservation, Oceti Sakowin Camp

Water Is Life
Facebook Hill (All photos courtesy John Sheldon)

An airplane, flying low overhead, circling the camp. It comes at any time, dusk, midday, 3 in the morning. It stays up there for a half hour, or one hour, or four. Why? There are rumors that it is spraying chemicals, blocking cell phone service, doing surveillance. Sometimes it is joined by a yellow helicopter, which I am told belongs to DAPL, the pipeline company.

Up on a hill above Turtle Island, an armored vehicle sits among the police cars. It crouches there, among police, some with rifles.

At night, Kleig lights beam white light from the hill into the camp. Now, razor wire has been installed up there, and downslope, on the ancestral burial grounds of a people that were here long before we were. Imagine razor wire snaking through Arlington Cemetery.

We are talking about a law enforcement that has used dogs, mace, pepper spray, sound cannon, water cannon in freezing temps, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and golf ball sized “bean bag” ordinance. We know that they are equipped, and ready to use these weapons.

The result of all this, as I stand in the camp, is psychological. It is very hard to not be afraid.

What will they do? How far will they go? It dawns on me that this is exactly what they want. They want us to be afraid. The pipeline, christened “The Black Snake” by the tribes, has its agenda.

Water Is Life
Water Protectors set up a tent

I have never been to any occupied territories, never felt the cold fish eye of being watched by an army, a force that is suspicious of everything I do. It is deeply unsettling. And this is happening in America.

I stopped trusting the military command during the Vietnam War. But, even as I hated what they were doing to the Vietnamese, the US military’s guns and bombs were pointed outward, at enemies, real and imagined. Here, at this camp full of peaceful people praying over the water and their ancestral lands, I experience what it feels like when those weapons are pointed inward, at our own citizens.

These citizens, I am convinced, are the best we have right now. They are deep in prayer for the water, our water, our earth, our environment. There are prayer circles from before dawn to well into the night. There is no central authority here, no hierarchy. There is no Martin Luther King figure to lead them. It is democracy, true democracy, where every single person is important. I saw a man feed a boy in a wheelchair, I saw kitchens, humming with activity, as volunteers prepared meals for hundreds of people. On the edge of chaos, there was never a discouraging word. I saw building crews working together with no bosses, no foremen. Instead of being a recipe for disaster, the work got done.

Water Is Life
Water Protectors unload supplies

On Thursday, Thanksgiving, as I sat up on the hill they call “Facebook Hill,” where you can get service, I heard an announcement: “All women and children must go immediately to the Dome.”

The Dome is one of the larger structures, a geodesic building where large groups can meet. A woman, running up the hill, was yelling. “Everybody — women and children and elderly to the Dome, men to the South Gate — they are going to raid the camp!” I walked toward the Dome, and saw a procession of hundreds of women and children. One woman was saying to her daughter, “It’s alright honey, you’re with momma, and things will be all right.”

Walking back up the hill, I couldn’t take my eyes off the tan armored vehicle on the opposite hill. Would it start moving? What would they do? I became afraid.

The raid never happened. Later we learned that a voice had sounded an alarm on the network of walkie talkies the camp uses for security: SHOTS FIRED, SHOTS FIRED, THEY ARE COMING IN! This seemed to confirm the rumor that the militarized police were going to change from rubber bullets to live rounds.

Do you see the pattern? It is psychological warfare. I, a white person from the East Coast, have never been subjected to this. Sure, a helicopter was flying around my neighborhood this last fall, looking for pot plants. I thought that was intimidating. This is a new reality. The fear in the pit of my stomach became a cannon ball, as I contemplated what a raid on this camp would look like. Thousands of people, with no weapons, against hundreds of heavily armed storm troopers. The raid didn’t happen, except in my imagination. So, in a sense, my mind was occupied by the dark side — split, confused, and afraid.

Water Is Life
John Sheldon at Standing Rock

I am never going to be the same. Focusing on the light, the love in that camp, the willingness of the people to be there in the first place, and their steadfast adherence to the principles of peace and inclusion, I find solace. Still, the question stands out in bold relief: how can I help my friends?

In this camp called Oceti Sakowin, the place of “water is life,” under the surveillance of a police state that is perfectly willing to use violence or the threat of violence against peaceful people, there is no mention of giving in.

May we find ways to support and encourage the light that is streaming into the world, while bearing witness to the shadow that aims to keep us in fear. We all drink the same water. Aho.


John Sheldon (johnsheldon.com) is a guitarist and songwriter. He wrote “The Same Water” in support of the Standing Rock phenomenon and felt compelled to be part of the movement in person.

Indians and Cowboys

Cowboys and Indians are at it again. 

Indians 

Americans who don’t live in the West may think that the historic clash of Native Americans and pioneering settlers is long past because the Indians were, after all, defeated and now drive cars, watch television, and shop at Walmart. Not so. That classic American narrative is back big time, only the Indians are now the good guys and the cowboys—well, their rightwing representatives, anyway—are on the warpath, trying to grab 640 million acres of public lands that they can plunder as if it were yesteryear. Meanwhile, in the Dakotas, America’s Manifest Destiny, that historic push across the Great Plains to the Pacific (murdering and pillaging along the way), seems to be making a return trip to Sioux country in a form that could have planetary consequences.

Energy Transfer Partners is now building the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion oil slick of a project. It’s slated to go from the Bakken gas and oil fracking fields in northern North Dakota across 1,100 miles of the rest of the Dakotas and Iowa to a pipeline hub in Illinois. From there, the oil will head for refineries on the Gulf Coast and ultimately, as the emissions from fossil fuels, into the atmosphere to help create future summers so hot no one will forget them. Keep in mind that, according to global warming’s terrible new math, there’s enough carbon in those Bakken fields to roast the planet—if, that is, the Sioux and tribes allied with them don’t stop the pipeline. 

This time, in other words, if the cavalry does ride to the rescue, the heroes on horseback will be speaking Lakota.

Last Stand at Standing Rock

If built as planned, the Dakota Access Pipeline will snake through the headwaters of the Missouri River, a life-giving source of fresh water for millions of people who live downstream, including Native Americans. It’s supposed to pass under that river just a few miles from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that straddles North and South Dakota. Protestors point out that, eventually, the pipeline is likely to leak into that vital watershed and the contamination could prove catastrophic. The Army Corps of Engineers, which green-lighted the project’s design, and Energy Transfer Partners have continued to insist that there is no such risk—even though, suspiciously enough, they decided to change the pipeline’s route to avoid the water supply of North Dakota’s capital, Bismark. As ever, tribal leaders point out, they were ignored rather than consulted in the planning stages, even though the project was to pass directly through their lands. 

When the Keystone XL Pipeline, slated to bring especially carbon-heavy tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast, was killed thanks to years of fierce environmental protests, the stakes were raised for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Keystone was a disaster for the energy industry. In its wake, opponents claim, the new project was fast-tracked without the usual environmental reviews so that construction could be completed before a Keystone-style opposition formed. Fast as they were, it turns out that they weren’t fast enough.

Keep in mind that such a project wasn’t exactly a first for the native peoples of the region. In the wake of their defeat and confinement to reservations in the nineteenth century, they lived through a profound transformation of their landscape. Settlers let cattle loose on meadows cleared of wolves, cougars, and bears.  The rude stamp of progress followed: fences, roads, dams, mines, sawmills, railroads, power lines, towns, condos, resorts, and in the twenty-first century, vistas increasingly pockmarked with fracking’s drill rigs and service roads. 

In the Dakota prairies, hundreds of species of grass and flowers were replaced by monocultures of soy and corn, while millions of cattle were substituted for herds of free-roaming bison. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, the neighboring Sioux and Cheyenne lost 200,000 more acres of valuable reservation farmland to dams built without their permission. Entire villages had to relocate. The Dakota Access Pipeline is just the latest of these assaults and yet, in every way, it’s potentially more disastrous. As Lakota Chairman David Archambault puts it, “To poison water is to poison the substance of life.”

Slaughter, internment, and neglect were bad enough, say tribal leaders, but threatening the people’s life-giving water was the last straw. As a result, thousands of Native Americans drawn from 280 tribes across the country and even around the world are now camping out at the construction site where the Dakota Access Pipeline nears the tip of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Almost two million signatures have been gathered on a petition opposing the pipeline; dozens of environmental groups have signed on to the resistance; and tribes nationwide have expressed their solidarity. 

On September 3rd, the private security guards hired by Energy Transfer Partners used pepper spray and dogs on those trying to block the pipeline. This eruption of violence halted work until U.S. District Judge James Boasberg could rule on the tribe’s request for an injunction to block construction while its case was heard in court. On September 9th, while conceding that “the United States’ relationship with Indians has been contentious and tragic,” he denied that request. Then, in a move described even by the Sioux as stunning, the Obama administration suddenly stepped between the protesters and the pipeline construction crews. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and even the Army Corps of Engineers called for a halt to the process until the permitting procedure could be reviewed.

Although putting an oil pipeline under a major river should have triggered an environmental review, the Corps chose not to do one. Now, it will take a second look. The administration also committed itself to finding better ways to include Native Americans in future land-use decisions. 

Where this goes next is anyone’s guess. The construction halt could, of course, be lifted if the protesters were to disperse under a false sense of victory. The Sioux now plan to litigate vigorously against the pipeline. One prediction, however, is easy enough. The unity and purpose experienced by the people in that encampment will resonate powerfully for years to come. A movement has been born along the banks of the Missouri River.

Native Americans have played the crucial role in this campaign to “keep it in the ground,” just as they were leaders in the successful struggle to block the Keystone XL Pipeline, the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline that would have carried dirty crude across Canada to the Pacific, and the building of a massive coal export port on Canada’s Pacific coast. As Native American leader Winona LaDuke puts it, “For people with nothing else but land and a river, I would not bet against them.”

This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the cowboys have been engaged in a not-so-old-fashioned range war over who can best manage 640 million acres of public lands now owned collectively by the American people. Backed by the Koch brothers and their American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, legislators across the American West, where most of the public lands are located, are calling on the federal government to cede control and management of them to counties and states. This would include some of our most beloved national parks.

In Utah where I live, the Republican-dominated legislature has put forward the Public Lands Initiative (PLI). It’s the latest round in a 30-year feud pitting conservationists and businesses tied to tourism and recreation against ranchers and miners. At stake: whether to give the last publicly controlled wild places in the state formal wilderness status and federal protection or (though this isn’t often directly said) let private interests exploit the hell out of them. Every few years the Utah legislature’s “cowboy caucus” has pushed just such a “wilderness bill” filled with poison pills and potentially devastating loopholes that the local conservation community can’t abide. 

Billed this time as a potential grand bargain to settle who controls public lands and how they can be used, the PLI has proven no different. It was, in fact, generated by local fears that President Obama might use his wide-ranging powers under the Antiquities Act to create a new national monument in the state as he left the Oval Office. This was exactly what Bill Clinton did in 1996, establishing the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on 1.9 million acres of land in southern Utah’s spectacular canyon country, already the home of five national parks. 

That 1906 act, passed while Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, gives the president wide-ranging authority to create national monuments from public lands in order to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features. Since activities like drilling for oil and gas, mining, timber cutting, and grazing are barred or tightly restricted on such protected lands, Western politicians tend to regard them as a tool wielded by conservationists to suppress economic development. 

Grave Robbing for Fun and Profit

Sure enough, the nightmare of the cowboys is being realized. A coalition of five tribes, all either presently in Utah or claiming ancestral lands there, is now pushing a bold proposal for just such a national monument—a park co-managed by the five tribes and the National Park Service (which in itself would be a significant first for the Native American community). It would include 1.9 million acres of the ancestral grounds of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain, and Ute Indian tribes and would be known as the Bears Ears after the area’s most famous landmark, twin buttes that are said to resemble a bear's ears.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewel recently toured the proposed monument and was amazed by what she saw, including spectacular cliff-house ruins, as well as paintings and rock carvings depicting clan signs, shamanic visions, and ghostly herds of bighorn sheep and elk. Bears Ears would possess more than 100,000 archaeological sites, including many of the oldest and most spectacular ruins in the United States. Members of the coalition of tribes regard them and the ground littered with their ancestors’ artifacts and bones as sacred. 

A grassroots group, Utah Dine Bikeyah, did extensive groundwork collecting data and interviews to create cultural maps of the region. The extraordinary archaeological and historical record they built effectively made their case that the ancestors of the coalition tribes have relied on that landscape for hunting, gathering, and ceremonial activities for centuries. The Utah conservation community, which had mapped out its own plans for such a monument, stepped aside for the tribal proposal.

Protecting the Bears Ears is considered an urgent matter. A mere handful of rangers currently patrol thousands of square miles of rugged canyons where the looting of archaeological sites for fun and profit is a rural tradition. In remote outposts like Blanding, Utah, Indian grave robbing was considered an acceptable family pastime until agents from the FBI infiltrated the black market for artifacts and busted a prominent local family. Ute leader Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk expresses a motivating concern of the tribal leaders. “Without swift action,” she says, “we fear that the archaeological and cultural riches of the Bears Ears will suffer shameful, disgraceful dissolution and obliteration.”

Her fear is well founded. In recent years, for instance, rural county commissioners have led illegal all-terrain-vehicle rallies on a route through Recapture Canyon that Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rangers shut to motorized traffic because it crosses several key archaeological sites. State and county politicians were not content to challenge the BLM’s closure of that canyon in court. Instead, they openly promoted such rides to defy the feds. The last of these protests in 2014 did, in fact, significantly damage unprotected archeological sites.  The indigenous community saw it as a shocking show of disrespect, like driving directly over cemetery graves. The well-armed vigilantes who rode through Recapture Canyon were led by Ryan Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy and the famous hothead of the Bundy clan.

You may remember the colorful Bundy boys. After all, they became the stars of the “cowboy rebellion” against federal regulation on public lands. In 2014, BLM rangers were dispatched to Nevada to remove Cliven Bundy’s cows from lands on which they had been grazing illegally for 20 years. The feds claimed that he owed the taxpayers a million bucks in unpaid grazing fees. He, on the other hand, insisted that such public lands belonged to the ranchers whose grandparents first grazed them. The rangers sent to enforce the law were met by hundreds of armed cowboys, many of whom took up sniper positions around them. Faced with such overwhelming firepower and the prospect of bloodshed, they withdrew and a range war was on.

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

That retreat in Nevada undoubtedly emboldened the Bundy clan and their militia allies to seize Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016. Well-armed, they occupied the visitor center at that bird refuge, leaning on every cowboy cliché in the book. They dressed the part with chaps, boots, buckles, and Stetson hats, carried American flags, and regularly posed with their horses for news photographers. 

In the end, despite the Marlboro Man look and the Clint Eastwood demeanor, the Bundyites came across as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The “constitutional revolution” they wanted to spark by seizing Malheur fizzled amid a festival of cognitive dissonance and irony: men carrying assault rifles and threatening to use them proclaimed themselves “peaceful protesters” and, while declaring it off limits, attempted to “return” land to the American people—land that they already owned. Federal agents eventually arrested all of the principal players in both the earlier Nevada standoff and the Malheur fiasco, except for one killed at a roadblock when he charged armed rangers and reached for his gun. Trials began on September 7th and are slated to last for months.

Given the open hostility of state and local politicians to the protection of sacred sites, as well as their willingness to break the law and offer tacit support for vigilantes like the Bundys, tribal leaders decided to take their concerns about protecting their ancestral grounds to the top. A delegation traveled to Washington and met with President Obama, while a media campaign was begun to persuade others to endorse the plan. 

A broader coalition of tribes and the conservation community rallied to the idea, especially because it was the first time that Native American tribes had proposed such a monument. The vision of a park to honor sacred indigenous lands, shaped and directed by Native Americans themselves, caught the public imagination. The New York Times and Washington Post have both written editorials urging the president to create such a park and Utah polls show a solid majority of citizens in favor of it.

Peace Pipes, Not Oil Pipes

The genocidal policies that accompanied settlement across North America crested in Sioux country at the close of the nineteenth century. The survivors of the vanquished indigenous nations there were interned on reservations. Their children were taken from them and sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut, and their language and ceremonies banished. This was—and was meant to be—a form of cultural genocide. In the Bears Ears and Sioux country today, however, the culture of Native Americans endures. The descendants of those warriors who died defending their homeland and of those children taken from their families and their native cultures have proven remarkably resilient. They are once again defending their world and, as it happens, ours too, because even if you don’t share the Missouri River watershed, you live on a planet that is being rapidly transformed by the sort of toxic cargo that will fill a future Dakota Access Pipeline.

In the Hollywood Westerns of my youth, Indians were often one-dimensional villains who committed atrocities on good white folks trying to bring civilization to the frontier. As with so many notions I inherited in my youth, reality has turned out to be another story. 

Certainly, before the onslaught of colonialism, the way indigenous people across the planet viewed what we now call our environment has come to seem like sanity itself. The land, as the Sioux and other tribal peoples saw it, was a living being saturated with spirits that humans should both acknowledge and respect. 

The Indians whom the cowboys and bluecoats fought didn’t share European concepts of cash, property, profit, progress, and, most importantly, technology. Once upon a time, we had the guns and they had the bows and arrows, so we rolled over them. But here’s the wondrous thing: a story that seemed to have ended long ago turns out to be anything but over. Times have changed, and in the process the previous cast of characters has, it seems, swapped roles. 

An economy hooked on carbon is threatening life on Earth. The waters of seas and oceans are warming fast; the weather is becoming unpredictable and harsh. Perhaps it’s time to finally listen to and learn from people who lived here sustainably for thousands of years. Respecting Sioux sovereignty and protecting the sacred sites of tribes in their own co-managed national monument could write the next chapter in our American story, the one in which the Indians finally get to be heroes and heroines fighting to protect our way of life as well as their own. 


Chip Ward, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded HEAL Utah and wrote Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon. Returning from hiking trips in the Bears Ears, he long kept his knowledge of the ruins he visited to himself, fearing the vulnerability of ancient cliff houses and granaries to looters. He is hopeful that they will now get the protection they deserve.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Chip Ward

Photo by Zack Frank/Fotolia