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Know the West

A slice of life for the average EJ organizer


Many people wonder what keeps a Sierra Club environmental justice organizer busy. We could ask my fellow EJ organizers around the country and most would tell you that the times around and after Earth Day are frequently the busiest. As spring melts the last of the snows (it snowed in Flagstaff just recently), and flowers start to bloom, people start to get active with hosting events and work that has been waiting all winter to begin. I have been busy with outreach events and in our ongoing work to better understand and work with tribal communities to find environmental justice on their terms.

On my most recent adventures, I have been joined by a great local Sierra Club leader also based in Flagstaff, Cynthia Pardo. Cynthia helped last year with the Hopi Water is Life (Paatuwaqatsi) Prayer Run, a 50k race, and is helping with this year’s run on September 10th. While organizing ultra-marathons may not seem like typical Sierra Club organizing, this race is a uniquely Hopi event that educates attendees about the traditional connections Hopis have with water by connecting the runners with the traditional Hopi trails. At one race, I remember overhearing a Hopi mother tell another, “I didn’t even know this trail was here but now that I know, I’ll bring the kids down here.”

Last month, the two of us also worked with the Hualapai Tribe’s Cultural Resources Department in starting a Heritage Trails Program for their lands within the Grand Canyon. We were invited to do this by the tribes, and believe it is important for environmental groups to respond to invitations for engagement with diverse communities. This project was one example of an invitation we accepted, and hopefully it will result in stronger relationships down the road on tougher issues.

For this project, we led a group of Sierra Club volunteers working along side a team of Hualapai volunteers to build rock cairns along canyon washes where guided tourists and local residents will be able to explore the side canyons of the Grand Canyon within the Hualapai Nation. A recent graduate of Northern Arizona University and previous intern at our office, Cynthia helped get this project off the ground, saying,”It is an honor to be working in partnership with the Hualapai volunteers and staff on a solid project that will benefit the local community of Hualapai and tourists with a respectful and natural connection within these beautiful canyons.”

One of our Hualapai Tribe’s staffers, Carrie Cannon, an ethnobotanist with the Tribe’s Cultural Resources Department described the project this way:

The project involves preserving and promoting 5 existing Hualapai cultural heritage trails for the local tribal community and visiting tourist population.  The primary objectives of the Hualapai Heritage Tails program includes cultural interpretation, site monitoring, and promotion of tourism. 

The trails are enormous resources for cultural heritage, education, and tourism.  The hikes parallel lithic scatters, agave roasting pits, rock art, pre-contact Hualapai habitation sites, water ways, and are in locations which are tied to important oral histories and legends of the tribe.

As I worked on the trail, I got to travel with an amazing brother, activist and volunteer for the trip who travelled from the Havasupai village of Supai to help with the trail work. Supai Waters, as he is known, rode down with me, kept me awake during long drives with amazing stories about Havasupai legends, and did some amazing cairn work for his neighboring tribe, the Hualapai. He is a well known activist who walked across the country with the Longest Walk and sang Havasupai songs protesting uranium mining in the shadow of the U.S. capitol.

To attest to Supai Waters’ fame, when we stopped in Peach Springs to pick up lunch one day, several people called out to him and hugged him with the kindness of seeing an old relative.  After several days of tough and sweaty work, everyone celebrated with a barbeque by the Colorado River. Several Hualapai kids, after chowing down their share of the feast, swam in the cold river and managed to drag several Sierra Club volunteers into the cold and sacred river to purify a dusty trail hand. It does not get much better than that, folks….

I mentioned Earth Day kicks off the organizing season -- as it did this year, when, as is local custom around Flagstaff, AZ, we celebrated Earth Day and then some. Over 1,300 people turned out, and my son helped out by modeling condors wings at our education table, where kids could make their own condors.

This ear “tabled” (for the Sierra Club, it is a verb) collecting postcards until, in another Flagstaff tradition, a cry of protest was heard from the streets. My family and I marched in a protest rally to remind all that the best way to celebrate Earth Day in Flagstaff is to “Save the Peaks.” Despite over a decade of opposition for valid EJ concerns of surrounding tribal communities, AZ Snowbowl, the local ski area outside of Flagstaff, is closer to construction of their plan to make snow with reclaimed sewer water pumped from the City’s treatment plant onto the San Francisco Peaks, a sacred mountain to the tribes of the Southwest.

There are valid ecological and cultural concerns over this plan, as we have argued for over 10 years in court but have not persuaded the courts to prevent it. For many tribal members, the Peaks outside of Flagstaff are a holy and sacred wilderness, just as sacred as any church, synagogue, mosque or any other place of worship. While the US Forest Service allows this plan to move forward, there is still a voice calling out from the streets of Flagstaff to stop this irresponsible plan. On Earth Day, over 130 people marched in the streets of Flagstaff to cry out for justice and to save the Peaks.

As the struggles for protecting sacred lands continue and we work hard each day to foster better EJ partnerships with tribal communities, I try to catch my breath and hope everyone gets out there and does something to be part of the solution before the snows fall again.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Image: Supai Waters (in red shirt) stands with Hualapai and Sierra Club volunteers on one of the rock cairns for the Hualapai Heritage Trails Project. Photo courtesy Andy Bessler.

Andy Bessler is a Field Organizer for the Sierra Club based in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he raises his two kids Noah and Ruby with his wife Erin. Andy represents the Sierra Club in the Southwest on the nexus between environmental justice and a clean energy transition for local and regional economies off dirty coal. He is also a sitting board member of several non-profits including Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, The Plateau Chapter of the Society of Conservation Biology and is an adviser to the Black Mesa Water Coalition.