We went to jail for our great-granddaughters

Protesting the Jordan Cove natural gas facility and its pipeline brings an environmental writer and a rancher together.

 

Every year, the same bald eagle appears in the same tall Douglas fir, just across from Sandy Lyon’s window at her house in the foothills of the Oregon Cascades. That’s how she knows the coho are back.

In 1990, long before I met Sandy, she and her husband, Russ, bought 306-acre Fate Creek Ranch in Douglas County, Oregon. The creek ran cold all summer and was shaded by big old trees. It was perfect salmon spawning habitat, but there weren’t any fish, thanks to a culvert and irrigation dam that blocked their way. So the Lyons removed the barriers, fenced cattle out of the creek and replanted the banks, adding boulders and logjams to create areas for salmon to lay their eggs.

The Lyons saw the first spawning coho in the winter of 2001-2002, their scarlet bodies battered from making the same trip their ancestors had for thousands of years.

Protesters rally at the state capitol in Salem, Oregon, to demand that the state reject proposals by energy giant Pembina for the Jordan Cove Energy Project. If approved, a natural gas export terminal would be constructed at Coos Bay, fed by a 229-mile pipeline.
Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa USA via AP Images

Sandy told me much of this story in November, while we were sitting together on the carpet in the ceremonial office of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. We had never met before, but we were thrown together because we were both protesting a proposed gas pipeline, part of the Jordan Cove Energy Project. It would start near my home in Klamath County, slice through the middle of the Lyons’ salmon restoration on Fate Creek, and continue to a proposed liquefaction and export terminal on the coast, in Coos Bay.

The company behind the project, Pembina, would dam Fate Creek, rip up all the trees and vegetation along a 75-foot swath, dig a huge trench across it for the pipe, and then “restore” it. “We can’t trust that they would do a good job of putting it all back right,” Sandy told me. And the permanent removal of shading vegetation means the stream would inevitably heat up, which could kill the coho. “It is a double whammy. We are already fighting global warming,” she added.

Climate change is, broadly speaking, what brought me to this sit-in. I began fighting the pipeline because of the millions of metric tons of greenhouse gases it would emit each year. But as I worked with ranchers, members of the Klamath, Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes and others, I came to see the infrastructure itself as dangerous and destructive. The company would clear a swath up to 95 feet wide to bury a 36-inch-diameter pipe across 229 miles of mountainous, forested land, crossing more than 300 waterways and risking each and every one. And it would do so against the objections of tribal governments and landowners like Sandy. The whole project seems like a too on-the-nose allegory of how capital is allowed to crash through our communities and nonhuman ecosystems alike — how the metal tentacles of the rich are allowed to go anywhere and do whatever the hell they please. 

SANDY AND I WERE NOT ALONE in the governor’s office; nearly 100 of us stayed for eight hours. To pass the time, we told stories, sang and shared meals. Sandy and I agreed to keep track of each other, to watch out for one another as the day unfolded.

At around 8 p.m., Gov. Brown walked into the office, flanked by police. She listened to several individual pleas, but said she could not come out against the pipeline while state agencies were still reviewing permits, adding, “I believe Oregonians are best served by knowing there is a fair process and that I’m not putting my finger on the scale one way or another.” As she left, some people started to boo, while others began to sing. A few minutes later, state troopers told us we had to leave too, or risk arrest.

While some protesters gathered in Gov. Kate Brown’s office, others rallied outside the capitol.
Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa USA via AP Images

Twenty-one people decided to stay. We sat and held hands as police removed us one by one. Sandy and I were both nervous; we chatted to keep calm. I told her about explaining to my small children that sometimes getting arrested was a good thing. She told me about her son, now in his late 20s, who grew up on the ranch and isn’t sure he wants to have kids of his own in a warming world.

A fellow protester taught us a short song with a sweet melody that a friend had written. She changed the words just a bit to fit our situation: 

Gentle heart, gentle soul, gentle mind, mind
Life is strange, love remains, all the time.

 Like an eagle in the sky,
Like a fish in the sea,
Like my great-granddaughter watching over me.

That last line got both Sandy and me in the throat, and we started to cry. Neither of us had been arrested before, but with our great-granddaughters watching over us, we felt a surge of determination. 

Eventually, we were cuffed with plastic zip-ties and led to a paddy wagon. This was hard on Sandy, who is in her 70s; the stiff plastic cuffs bruised her wrists, and she got a pretty wicked migraine. She wept, but with her hands cuffed behind her, she had to wipe her tears on the shoulders of the young man cuffed next to her, an activist younger than her son.

At the jail, we were unloaded, searched and tossed in a couple of holding cells — one for the women and one for the men. It was by now long after midnight, and Sandy was in pain and exhausted. There were no chairs or benches in our cell, just thin plastic mats on the floor. She curled up on one and tried to sleep. Finally, at around 5 a.m., we were released.

The next morning, several of us had breakfast at Denny’s. We learned that our story had been picked up by the Associated Press and several Oregon newspapers. Our goal had been to put very public pressure on the governor to take a stand, and now thousands of people were reading about the pipeline and her refusal to oppose it. Sandy looked radiant. She said she had made a bigger difference in one long, scared and miserable day than she had in 15 years of writing comments to federal agencies and attending permit hearings.

Sandy and I will stay in touch. The fight is not over. We are still waiting for Brown to oppose the project and pledge to fight it. After all, she herself has said that “climate change isn't looming — it's here. How many reports must the U.N. issue, and how many warnings must global scientists give before we listen and act?”

I hope Brown herself will listen. And I hope she will act. And I hope that when our great-granddaughters are grown women, eagles will still feast on coho in Fate Creek every winter.

Emma Marris is an environmental writer in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

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