Starting last May, a small group of radical climate activists, mostly from Salt Lake City, spent five months camped on the East Tavaputs Plateau, a jumble of conifer-choked canyons and broad sandstone and shale ridges in eastern Utah commonly known as the Book Cliffs. In the beginning, they adhered closely to Bureau of Land Management rules: They moved camp every 14 days, packing up tents, sleeping bags and camp chairs; the makeshift toilet, nicknamed “dirty Herbert” after Utah’s governor; and a hanging sweater rack repurposed into a lending library, which included literature by Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich along with nonfiction on oil, imperialism and anti-coal activism. Flies found them quickly at many new spots, and they’d spend a couple of insufferable days swatting thin air. Then, the bugs seemed to dissipate, perhaps thanks to bats.
As the months wore on, their diligence about relocating exactly on time faltered slightly. But in theory, it was important to do so, and generally to keep everything about camp aboveboard, because the things they did outside of camp weren’t always, and they didn’t need additional scrutiny.
The activists called their camp a “permanent protest vigil,” its purpose to monitor and impede construction of what could become the first tar sands mine in the U.S. They have stood in front of and locked themselves to heavy machinery. Once, they dressed up as chipmunks and chased road graders around a construction site. At least one woman trespassed regularly into the mine’s test pit, to see if there was anything worrisome worth documenting.
The September weekend that I dropped in, the activists were hosting a special campout to encourage locals to “connect with the land.” After a long drive on winding backroads, I found the camp on the shoulder of a sweeping ridge, hidden among a stand of pine and fir. Tents pincushioned the forest floor on either side of a slim spur crammed with cars and pickups and ending in a tight turnaround — a cul-de-sac in the woods. The days I was there, activists wore jeans, T-shirts, fleece, clogs and hiking boots. People read books around the fire-pit, and lounged in the kitchen, an elaborately tarped affair with a spice rack and serving buffet. They slept in, brewed endless pots of coffee, and told camp tales: of encounters with bears, hikes gone awry, epic meals prepared and eaten (one involved cashew cream sauce). It felt pretty laid-back for a hotbed of radicals intent on revolution. Then again, it was the weekend.
On Saturday morning, with the wind calm and temperature pleasantly climbing, I joined the “morning circle” –– around 15 people, sitting in camp chairs or on five-gallon buckets or in the dirt around smoldering coals. Each person introduced themself, and gave their preferred gender pronoun — he, she or they — which everyone was asked to respect. Vigil stalwart Raphael Cordray, who once owned a gift shop for radicals in Salt Lake, volunteered to lead a tour of the test pit. Chad Hamblin, a high school science teacher, offered to lead a nature hike. Kathy Albury, a member of the environmental ministry at Salt Lake’s Unitarian Church, wanted to march on Sunday, the same day demonstrators would clog Manhattan for the People’s Climate March. Rachel Carter, also from the Salt Lake area, agreed: “These sources of extraction are where people should be marching,” she said, and suggested a hashtag: #comeherenextyear.
Then it was on to explaining “camp norms,” which were scrawled in colored marker on a cardboard sign hanging from the food trailer: Don’t talk to the cops; no racism, sexism, transphobia or other forms of bigotry; no violence of any kind. Also, “no pants at the fire pit” –– code for no cell phones, which could be tapped by police, the FBI, or other Big Brothers. Welcome to the resistance.
I first heard of the vigil in July 2014, after reading a newspaper story about one of its rowdier moments. It came after a weeklong campout, when 80 or so people came to the Book Cliffs to learn about community organizing, nonviolent direct action and “climate justice” –– the idea that climate change solutions must alleviate the social and environmental burdens our energy economy disproportionately imposes on the world’s poorest, usually non-white, people.
Before dawn on July 21, a group of activists had made their way to a fenced lot where U.S. Oil Sands, the mine’s developer, kept its heavy machinery. Their goal: to stop construction for the day. Though sheriff’s deputies were camped out there, a few activists slipped in and locked themselves to the equipment. Around 20 others linked arms and stood or sat outside the fence, blocking the road. By the end of the day, deputies had carted 21 people off to the Uintah County jail.
Reading about it brought me back to a crowded theater in Paonia, Colorado, where in 2013 I watched the documentary Bidder 70. It tells the story of Tim DeChristopher, a University of Utah student who, in 2008, made bids at a BLM oil and gas lease sale, driving up prices and winning 14 parcels he did not plan to drill, worth $1.8 million he could not pay. DeChristopher spent 21 months in federal prison, becoming a minor folk hero in the process.
I remember being impressed by DeChristopher’s eloquence and unbending adherence to his principles. He deliberately broke the law to keep the oil and gas in the ground –– to prevent the greater crime of more carbon pollution, he said –– and refused a plea bargain. But there was something disquieting about his story and the images of his comrades storming the Interior Department in Washington and getting arrested; weeping outside the Salt Lake courthouse after his sentencing, sitting in the street, refusing to move, getting arrested. Climate change stirred something in him –– in them –– that it had yet to stir in me. Anger, maybe? Passion? I wasn’t sure. But it was an emotion I didn’t recognize in myself, or in most of my friends.
Which left me feeling conflicted. I’m an environmental journalist, well informed on climate change. I write stories about the science, which keeps getting worse, and the policy, which keeps standing still. I write about irrevocable changes to the mountains and deserts I love, and about how drought and heat could render some of them uninhabitable. I know the climate crisis is big and bad. And yet I don’t get angry about it, not really angry. Neither do most of my well-informed and idealistic friends. But shouldn’t we?
Reading about the U.S. Oil Sands lock-in, and remembering DeChristopher’s story, made me curious about what was brewing in the Book Cliffs. Did these people know something I didn’t? More to the point, did they feel something I didn’t?
After Saturday’s morning circle, I piled into a big white van with seven others to tour the mine’s test pit, a few minutes down Seep Ridge Road, which was in the process of being widened and paved for future industrial traffic. At the pit, vegetation had been cleared, a berm cut into the ridge, and a hole dug, exposing brown, gray and ebony rock layers. Rainwater had created a pond the color of dark tea, where Raphael Cordray said she had seen cows drinking. She suspected it was toxic.
The tour was for outsiders (mainly me) and visitors from the nearby Uinta Basin who opposed the mine but came up only occasionally. There was Stagg, who goes by one name only, along with David Bell and Lori Savage. They all lived around Roosevelt, Utah, population around 7,000, some 90 miles away. Hamblin, the science teacher, also from the Roosevelt area, was up for his third campout and brought his dad. He was excited to meet like-minded neighbors; environmentalists are few in the Uinta Basin, home to Utah’s top oil and gas producing counties. Still fewer are those willing to speak out against energy development. “It feels like the Lone Ranger out there sometimes,” he lamented.
U.S. Oil Sands, a Canadian company, had secured permits and leases on state trust land, leaving environmentalists without legal leverage to stop it. Now, the company was clearing a building site for a processing facility, aiming to begin commercial production in 2015. CEO Cameron Todd told me the company respects the activists’ right to voice their opposition, but that their tactics sometimes crossed the line and posed safety risks. He said his company is willing to engage anyone interested in figuring out better ways to do things, but added, “There’s not much of a dialogue (you can have) with people who just don’t want things to happen.”
The construction activity was at the building site, but there were actual tar sands to see at the test pit. A future mine was easier to imagine here. On the south-facing slope below the pit, thick, jet-black goo oozed from rocks, forming drip patterns like coagulating blood, with the dry, oppressive smell of fresh asphalt.
As others scrambled downslope to check out erosion and fossils, Hamblin and I lingered on the rim. A tall, solid man with a full beard and lively eyes, Hamblin had an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and animals. Zeal for nature burst from his lips like light from a sparkler. He snapped photos, calling out that he had casting equipment if anyone found animal tracks.
The night before, he’d sported a “Bidder 70” baseball cap –– a nod to the DeChristopher film. Like some others, DeChristopher was part of the reason he was here. In 2011, he spent a weekend camping around Dinosaur National Monument, where he ran into an acquaintance who said that his camping spot would have become a “big oil well” if not for DeChristopher. That inspired him to later drive two-and-a-half hours to Salt Lake to see the movie, which is where he met some of the activists and learned about the tar sands development.
Hamblin bemoaned what he saw as the loss of public-land access to energy development. He recalled a university lecture about permafrost thawing: “I was the only member of the public who came,” he said. “It was like, ‘Wow, she’s saying a lot of what’s going on is not reversible.’ I like to cross-country ski, and climate change is making it so there’s less snow and more rain. I’m concerned on a lot of levels.”
Soon, we climbed back in the van, and bumped down the road to see the scar of a failed 1980s mine. I asked why they called the camp a “vigil.” Lionel Trepanier, co-founder with Cordray of Utah Tar Sands Resistance, one group behind the protest, explained that “vigils” were considered by courts to be constitutionally protected free speech. “Although there are tents and a kitchen, this isn’t camping,” he said. “The vigil is the presence.”
“So is it like being a witness?” Hamblin asked. Yes, several people replied.
“If we’re here and witnessing what’s going on, then we’ll know other ways to respond,” Corday said, adding that their presence draws attention to the little-known mine. “And it creates a place people can come and learn about the issues. It’s a safe place if they want to show their discomfort and not be arrested.”
The number of people willing — even eager — to risk arrest trying to stop fossil fuel developments is still small. But it seemed notable to me that they existed at all.
The same month Tim DeChristopher went to prison, in 2011, 1,200 were arrested in Washington, D.C., protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Keystone helped galvanize the national climate movement, thanks to organized opposition from the tribes, ranchers and farmers whose land it would cross, and from prominent activists like former NASA scientist James Hansen. Protests small and large, in Washington and elsewhere, have followed the 2011 demonstration. Getting at tar sands and making the oil takes a massive amount of energy, making the fuel hugely carbon intensive. “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing,” Hansen wrote in The New York Times in 2012, “it will be game over for the climate.”
But there are mini-Keystones all over — smaller pieces of less politically and environmentally significant infrastructure that are the foundation for a rush on fossil fuels right here at home, including tar sands. Grassroots activists have taken notice, loudly opposing developments of all sizes and consequence.
In Massachusetts, a coalition aims to stop all new fossil fuel infrastructure, including three gas-fired power plants and one pipeline expansion. Massachusetts activists were among those who blockaded the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s offices for a week in the fall. More than 100 were arrested in D.C. and related protests, according to organizers. A Michigan man was recently given a suspended two-month jail sentence and one year of probation after being convicted of a felony for skateboarding inside an unfinished pipeline and refusing to leave. In upstate New York, locals have blocked the entrance to a gas storage facility since October, protesting a FERC-approved expansion. At press time, 170 had been arrested.
My question was not whether the activists in Utah or these other incidents were right, wrong or somewhere in between, or whether in each case their tactics were justified or strategic. I wanted to know what motivated them. Civil disobedience involves some level of personal risk, and people wouldn’t engage in it, I assumed, without feeling a powerful emotional involvement; the kind of intellectual response many of us have to the climate crisis is simply not enough.
“Be as frank as possible,” an editor at High Country News advised before I began reporting. “They’re not like regular people. They’re not just saints. They have a certain personality.”
“Nature walk departing!” crowed a few not-just-saints in unison, standing by the campfire, lit despite Saturday evening’s lingering warmth. Hamblin led a group down a trail and into a stand of Doug-fir, piñon and juniper, carrying a shepherd’s crook in one hand, a camera carabineered to his shirt. He wondered aloud if finding threatened or endangered plants might help stop the mine.
We lingered on a southerly slope, under a haggard old piñon, its roots snaking out from the tan soil as though coming up for air. Among them, we discovered an antlion, an insect whose predatory larvae bury themselves in sand, awaiting prey. We poked its pit with a twig, which it attacked, provoking oohs! and more pokes.
I wandered back uphill to camp with Rachel Carter, a dedicated member of Peaceful Uprising, a Salt Lake climate justice group sponsoring the vigil. It was co-founded by DeChristopher after the BLM auction and has continued working locally, though he moved out of state to attend Harvard Divinity School. Carter wore a shaggy pixie cut and army-green pants. Her black T-shirt with its cut-off sleeves proclaimed: “I Am The Carbon Tax.”
Though Carter didn’t spend all season here, she frequently delivered food that Salt Lake supporters donated and foraged from suburban grocery dumpsters, and joined for special campouts. I asked her why she joined Peaceful Uprising and was surprised to learn she was relatively new to environmentalism and radical activism, if not unfamiliar with it. Her Mormon parents were members of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, which fought communism and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. She joined at 15 and was raised believing Joseph McCarthy was a hero. But as she grew older, she became uncomfortable with her family’s politics. She moved to Seattle and “was liberalized but not activated,” as she struggled to sort out her feelings on Mormonism. “My approach for a long time was just no involvement with anything,” she said.
In 2008, she moved back to Utah, right after Proposition 8, which sought to ban same-sex marriage, passed in California with hefty support from the Mormon Church. Carter, who had left the church, was incensed that it had entered politics “in a way that fucked a lot of people over.” A rare protest was held outside the Salt Lake Mormon Temple just before she moved home. Then DeChristopher went to the BLM auction. “There was a lot happening, and it was exciting,” she told me. “There’s something about being an underdog that engages me. Democrats being an underdog in Utah, I was interested in trying to help change that.”
She volunteered with LGBT advocacy groups and worked with the Utah Democratic Party. In 2010, she got involved with people in Peaceful Uprising after DeChristopher posted an ad on Craigslist seeking a “courageous congressperson” for Utah’s 2nd District. He and his cohort were fed up with conservative Utah Democrat Jim Matheson, who had voted against health-care reform and cap-and-trade. So they decided to “hire” his replacement. “Must have solid moral values and a resistance to selling out to corporate interests,” the ad said. Job responsibilities included “stopping catastrophic climate change” and “ending imperialistic wars of aggression.”
At a local library, Carter watched while select “applicants” answered questions. That night, a candidate was chosen. “There wasn’t a ton of overhead and bullshit and bureaucracy,” she said. “And it was just a lot of fun.” She worked on the campaign (it failed after forcing Matheson into a runoff), and about six months later, helped prepare for DeChristopher’s trial.
“The climate end of it was not one of my main reasons for getting involved with Peaceful Uprising,” she said, as we stood on the edge of camp. “It was more about the culture of the group and what they were creating. It was a really creative, energetic group of people.”
I heard a similar story from Jesse Fruhwirth, a member of Peaceful Uprising and vigil keeper, who was among the 26 in court this month. In early 2011, he was a reporter for City Weekly, Salt Lake’s alternative paper, covering criminal justice, homelessness, DeChristopher’s trial, and a 2011 effort by the Utah Legislature to gut open-records laws. It was the first time his editors allowed him to “throw objectivity to the wind and be blatantly biased toward open access,” he told me in a phone interview. “I felt like in real life I was a polarizing firebrand, but that journalism snuffed that out. Not everyone has that, and I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve got.”
By the spring of 2011, though, Fruhwirth was feeling burnt out, and thought his body was showing signs of stress. Once, when someone hugged him, he said, it broke a rib. He quit and bought a vegan hot dog stand in downtown Salt Lake. But though he’d gotten a taste for polemics, he wasn’t sure how to satisfy it. He thought a lot of activism lacked a winning strategy. When a friend dropped by the hot dog stand to tell him about planning meetings for Occupy Salt Lake, late in the summer of 2011, he remembers mentally rolling his eyes. But once the Occupy encampment was established, in early October, he stopped by. He was surprised to see a homeless woman he knew from his reporter days running the welcome booth. “It didn’t match my stereotype of what an activist was,” he said. “I was very inspired to see homeless people acting politically with non-homeless people.” He joined the camp.
Occupy Salt Lake lasted a little more than a month before the city police dismantled it. Both Fruhwirth and Carter were arrested during the eviction. Some activists returned to their day jobs, Fruhwirth said, “but some of us joined the revolution and never looked back.” He found Peaceful Uprising one of the few refuges for the newly radicalized in Salt Lake. Climate change was not his top priority, but neither did these seem like typical environmentalists. “I’d heard Tim DeChristopher question capitalism,” he told me. “Hearing an environmentalist talk about capitalism was not quite as awesome as seeing a homeless person running the welcome booth at Occupy, but it was one of those moments.”
Peaceful Uprising members told me their goal at present is to stop “extreme energy extraction” on the Colorado Plateau. Grassroots activists across the country are converging on a similar aim: No new infrastructure for the extraction, transportation or burning of fossil fuels. “Not here, not in Fort McMurray, not in Mobile, Alabama,” Lauren Wood, an early Peaceful Uprising member who just left the group, told me. “Not fracking, not oil, none of it.” It’s a tall order; stopping even one Utah mine will be tough unless tumbling oil prices change things for the company. Yet the activists’ ultimate goal is even more ambitious: to end growth-at-all-costs capitalism and oppression in all forms — to fundamentally restructure the entire economic and social order.
“Of course it’s too big,” DeChristopher told me, when I reached him by phone and inquired about the grassroots movement’s ambitions. “If we’re going to create any kind of change, it’s going to have to come from a mass movement. And to effectively mobilize people you need a big vision,” he said. “Every successful social movement in our history has been unrealistic. Even people who were anti-slavery thought abolitionists were completely nuts. There had literally always been slavery until it was banned. Why not aim for something we actually want? Why not aim for the kind of world we want to see?”
On Saturday night back in the Book Cliffs, I crawled into my tent and opened The Monkey Wrench Gang. I’d brought it with me, guessing that Abbey’s environmental call-to-arms had helped inspired the activists. If so, it never came up.
Late Sunday morning, under a pocket of blue sky, some 30 people climbed out of vehicles onto Seep Ridge Road. One man wore a colorful clown mask; another played “This Land is Our Land” on a saxophone. A brown-and-white teacup of a dog scampered about, its fur ruffled by a whiplashing wind.
A couple of people unfurled a banner — “Together and Everywhere We Rise Up for Climate Justice” — and the group marched toward the test pit. The banner was a nod to the People’s Climate March, now underway in New York, where hundreds of thousands jammed the streets in an event Politico described as “a coming-out party for a new breed of environmentalism — one that’s louder and rowdier than the old-school greens.”
The Utah activists hoped the New York march would accomplish something but were disappointed with its tame approach. It was planned in cooperation with the police and did not confront any specific threats. They were more jazzed about Flood Wall Street, a more aggressive, unpermitted sit-in planned for the following day. Its slogan: “Stop capitalism. End the climate crisis.”
Here, though, things were pretty tame, too. When the marchers arrived at the test pit, about half of them scrambled through an opening in the fence, past “no trespassing” signs, some with bandanas or scarves pulled up like bandit masks. They stood beside the pit’s brown pond and posed for pictures. The clown climbed atop a pile of excavated rock and thrust a “No Tar Sands” sign in the air. Others stayed on the legal side of the fence, either not interested in breaking the law, or seeing little value in it in this instance. The cops never appeared; I was the only reporter. There was scarcely anyone out here to witness it. Nevertheless, the protesters were here to say “no” to the mine because, as a white-haired woman from Moab named Dorothy put it: “These days, if you’re not saying ‘no,’ you’re saying ‘yes.’ ”
I drove home after the march, where on and off for the next couple months, I tried to figure out exactly what I had learned about the climate activists and about myself.
I was surprised by how little they resembled the environmentalists I usually interviewed. There was little talk of the finer points of renewable energy policy, little time spent lamenting the death of trees, or the troubles of pikas and polar bears. But immigration reform came up. The legacy of colonization for Native peoples came up. Capitalism and its sins came up –– a lot.
Radicals, more than one person told me, try to attack the roots of problems. The word “radical,” they said, means “going to the origin.” And the members of Peaceful Uprising have come to believe that the root cause of climate change and other massive problems, like income inequality, is the profit-hungry capitalist system we’re all part of, and especially the people at the top of it.
“This isn’t just about CO2 in the atmosphere and parts per million,” Carter told me. “The various oppressions that have led up to this have been going on for centuries. All of these things are feeding the same system of overlapping and self-reinforcing problems.” To Carter and her comrades, climate change represents the last, worst example of the unjust relationship between rich and poor, white and black, colonist and Native. “The refugee crisis we’re going to be seeing will affect the most marginalized. Wars –– that is real.”
I got some of what they were saying about the climate fight being not just about the environment, but a web of “intersecting oppressions.” I understood that poor communities of color had long shouldered an unfair share of pollution, and that climate change promised to punch them hardest again. But was the climate fight really of a piece with the immigration fight? The struggle against police brutality? The connections weren’t always obvious, and in any case, was it possible or practical to take on everything that was wrong with the world at once?
Then, on a December evening, after wrestling with writer’s block in my Santa Fe office, I tackled what seemed like a more manageable task: applying for health insurance through the new marketplace. I’d left my staff job at High Country News about seven months earlier, to see if I could make it independently. My husband, a potter, had also recently started his own business. I typed in our unimpressive income, and up popped our options. The cheapest plan would cost around $225 a month. If we had a baby, a brochure informed me, it would cover $1,240 of average delivery costs, and we’d pay $6,300. This was insurance, new and improved? None of it was affordable. None of it. As I drove home, I cried alone in my car, then a little more in my kitchen. I felt ashamed. And then I got pissed.
The healthcare law had been carefully designed to win support from private insurance companies, but it still resulted in crappy options that squeezed scrappy people like us. It was hardly surprising, but it didn’t seem fair. Then it occurred to me that maybe in that moment, I was angry about climate change, too. My basic complaints about the healthcare reform sounded pretty similar to the critique the activists I spoke with made about the failed 2010 federal climate bill: It tweaked a broken system at its edges, appeasing polluters for political viability rather than proposing the kind of changes the crisis actually demanded. It was a false solution, people told me, and many didn’t care that it failed. I thought about their argument about “root causes,” and recognized twinges of their anger in myself.
A lot of things started converging in my mind: Occupy. The fast food workers’ “Fight for $15.” The outrage and despair over the killings by police of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner. All had one thing in common: the sense that our society is designed to work for some and not for others, with the balance tipping ever more in favor of those who need the least help. When I applied for health insurance, I felt something similar: The deck was stacked, against me.
The New York Times recently ran a story about the fight for $15 an hour, profiling one of the campaign’s leaders, Terrance Wise, a father of three who worked at both Burger King and Pizza Hut and still had trouble paying rent and utility bills. When he asked his manager at Pizza Hut for a raise, she showed him the pay policy, saying she could boost his pay at most 25 cents after three years, even though he made less than $8 an hour. “If I gave you 25 cents,” he recalled being told, “that means you’re perfect.”
“It makes me angry, and you should be angry, that these billion-dollar corporations are robbing from my kids and your kids,” Wise said in the story. “So we’re going to have to stand up and fight back.” It was the same sentiment I’d heard in the Book Cliffs. People wanted a society with a little more humanity, one whose outcomes are less determined by corporations that serve only their shareholders, valuing profits above the stability of the atmosphere or the dignity of their workers.
When I first arrived at the vigil, I imagined the activists as agitators on the fringe of the environmental movement. They saw themselves, instead, as one twitchy muscle in a much broader and building unrest. I was starting to see them that way, too.
Be as frank as possible. They’re not like regular people. That may be true, but these are not regular times.
Cally Carswell is a High Country News contributing editor and freelance science and environmental journalist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her work has recently appeared in Science and Modern Farmer. Follow @callycarswell
This story was originally titled "Occupy the Book Cliffs" in the print edition.