Movements, waning and waxing


Ten months ago, when a small group of anti-federal agitators occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, HCN produced a package of stories about the seemingly revitalized Sagebrush Rebellion. Armed with guns and cellphones and backed by political forces eager to put federal lands in the hands of state and private interests, these new “insurgents” looked formidable.

Yet now, anti-federal activity in the West seems to have calmed down, and a jury in Portland will soon decide whether seven of the Malheur occupiers conspired to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs. The land-transfer fever is also cooling: Utah’s governor has balked at the legal fight pushed by hardliners in his Legislature, and the issue largely has been sidelined during this brutal election season.

Instead, a different kind of campaign is gaining momentum in the West: a modern amalgamation of the civil rights and environmental movements of the 1960s, buoyed by a new generation of climate and social justice activists and led by an emboldened Native American community.

You can see it in North Dakota, where representatives from Indigenous tribes around the globe have joined members of the Standing Rock Sioux to protest the construction of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which would carry Bakken crude within a half-mile of the tribe’s reservation. With supplies pouring in from across the country, many plan to brave the coming winter in tents and trailers, hoping that their stand, along with a legal challenge by EarthJustice, will get the pipeline re-rerouted away from revred sites and water sources.

Already, the protest has caused the Army Corps of Engineers and Interior Department to temporarily halt construction and start a series of listening sessions to assess whether there should be “nationwide reform” on how tribes are consulted when infrastructure projects affect their homelands.

Executive Director and Publisher Paul Larmer

The five tribes that have asked President Obama to create a 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument on sacred lands in San Juan County, Utah, have their own ideas about consultation: They want a permanent seat at the table. As Jonathan Thompson reports, the proposed monument would give tribes a majority vote on a management committee, a federal land first.

Predictably, San Juan County’s largely Mormon and politically conservative majority, which has periodically clashed with land managers and environmentalists over the past 50 years, strongly opposes the monument. More surprisingly, so do a number of tribal members, many of whom are also Mormon and do not trust the federal government. Thompson’s story is a good reminder of just how complicated Western issues can be.

Still, if Obama decides to protect the Bears Ears, it will serve as a powerful affirmation of the claims of those Americans with the longest and deepest ties to the land. And it will signal that conservation and social justice can go hand-in-hand in the modern West.

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