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"I grew up at a time when I thought that things could get better, environmentally and socially. I think young people like you are going to face things getting worse for the rest of your lives. I don’t know how I would’ve dealt with that. I certainly wouldn’t have given up. During the years when it seemed possible that there might be nuclear war between Russia and the U.S, this one man who was an anti-nuclear activist was asked ‘what would you do if you knew tomorrow nuclear war was going to start?’ and he said, ‘I’d plant a tree.’ I think that’s the only thing you can do. I think you know nuclear war is going to happen and not literally but climate losses are going to happen. It makes it harder for people to think about restoring something if they think climate change is going to get it anyways. I think of my grandson who is eleven, what’s he got to look forward to if he lives seventy years from now? How hot? How many species will be lost? How many coastal areas drowned? But as far as pessimism goes I just always feel like you’re either working for making things better or you’re not. And that’s not much of a choice."
Mary lives in Castle Valley, Utah and is the Utah Forests Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust. She believes in the power of consensus-building for long term conservation gains.
Thelma is an elder in White Mesa who has resisted the White Mesa Uranium Mill since the ‘90s. The White Mesa Mill is the last active uranium mill in the U.S. and has been in violation of the Clean Air Act for radon emissions, a radioactive, cancer-causing gas.
She said, “This place is dangerous for us. We’re inhaling the dust when the wind blows towards us. The young ones have allergies and diabetes and asthma. The water doesn’t taste good. We don’t drink it. We used to have a lot of good herbs. Native tea. The sagebrush was nice and green. And the yucca, my mom used to get lots and lots. She used it to wash and brush our hair so it would be nice and long. We used to get willows to make baskets, now there’s nothing there.”
In May, 2017 the community led a spiritual walk from the community center to the mill a few miles up the road. When asked how she felt that day, Thelma replied with smiling eyes, "We were strong, and we were brave."
Kate is a writer and organizer with Wasatch Rising Tide in Salt Lake City. She organized the action camp at the PR Springs tar sands mine in 2016. She first learned about the Book Cliffs when she was five years old from her father who had a "Save the Book Cliffs" sticker on his Mormon bishop's binder.
"I don't have the courage or stamina or resources to do any of this alone. If we live in a megadrought we need some strong fucking relationships to take care of ourselves and our communities. Plan A is stop the tar sands mine and stop all other mines and pipelines. Plan B is we trust each other with our lives and have each other's backs. We know and love each other. And we know the land.
I think we’re experiencing a crisis of creativity. People think so uncreatively about how we could live in the earth. And when you spend more time in it, when you do something just a little bit different, a little bit odd on the earth, suddenly you recognize that we evolved to live here. We’re animals that belong to this planet and we don’t have to panic so much about it."
Jayne is an expert on soil crusts and has been a research ecologist with the Department of Interior in Moab since 1987. She refers to herself as the “president of the Slut for Science Club” because she has studied everything from invasive plants to nutrient cycles. Jayne started studying soil crusts because she “thought they were cute.”
"It’s not all about science, and it shouldn’t be. I do wish it was a little more about science, but I get it," she said.
On the topic of hope, Jayne shared the following advice: "I say this to all youth, so I’ll give you the same speech. It’s not that there’s no hope to make change, it’s just that you can’t be attached to the outcome of an individual action because you never know what that outcome will be. We’re sitting here talking and maybe there’s a senator’s wife at the table behind you that goes home and says ‘you know honey I heard this really interesting conversation and I think we should do something about this.’ You don’t know the outcome of your actions, so you just do it because that’s the best thing to do and you sleep better."
Adrian Herder is from Black Mesa (Dził Yijiin). He is an organizer of Tó Nizhóní Ání, a group working to protect the environment, land, water, sky, and people and advocate for the wise and responsible use of the natural resources of Dził Yijiin.
While peacefully demonstrating in protest of coal mining on their homelands, Adrian said, "We are not only speaking for our families, but the future generations and all walks of life that we share this land with and most importantly the water."
Marcel is the Animas River Keeper with the San Juan Citizens Alliance. In 2015, the Gold King Mine spill turned the Animas River bright yellow. He grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and organizes for climate justice across the Colorado Plateau with Uplift.
"The Colorado Plateau, since it’s where I was born and raised, means home. It’s the geography of home for me. It’s a place to get my head straight. It’s the first place I went after the most recent presidential election. It’s where I feel safe. There’s something about the canyons that speaks to me in a spiritual way. I think anybody who has studied water in the West knows that the Colorado River is the hardest working river in the U.S. Most of the West could not exist as it does right now without the Colorado River system. With snowpacks diminishing, with us in an almost seventeen-year drought, we need to start thinking about how we’re using water and what it’s going to look like in fifty years. The fact that the Colorado River doesn’t make it to the ocean anymore should scare people. Seeing that water creep back up in the desert is a scary, scary thing.
I’m also very concerned about the region’s dependence on fossil fuels. I think on the Colorado Plateau there needs to be a focus on a just transition. It will be easy for these companies to pull out and leave the mess behind and leave communities without jobs. As badly as we need those coal power plants to close down, I feel guilty that I’m excited about that happening because there is not a plan in place for those people and there needs to be. People say when the coal power plant closes they can just move to where there’s jobs in solar or wind, but that’s not fair at all. These people were born and raised here and they should get to stay here."
Isaac Vigil is the Maintenance Manager of the Latigo Wind Park in Monticello, Utah. He has spent his whole life in Monticello and is a hunter with deep connections to the land in southeastern Utah. For many years, he moved from job to job in construction and extraction. The wind farm has finally given him stable employment.
Isaac grew up feeling the impacts of the uranium industry. He told us, "I worked at the uranium mill south of Blanding for several years. I learned a lot there. There was an old uranium mill just south of Monticello that was there back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Nobody knew anything about the tailings and the bad stuff they used to produce uranium. That was my playground, all that contaminated dirt was my playground. We lived right next door to it, just a barbwire fence separating us. This whole town has had a high rate of cancer victims who have passed away. In the early ‘90s they started cleaning the whole place up. I guess my family’s been lucky because we don’t have any cancer."
When asked what the wind farm has down for the town, Isaac choked up a bit and replied, "The wind farm has done a ton of good for me because I don’t have to be on a construction highway anymore. I’m the only one in San Juan County who has the job. I got lucky, thank the Good Lord. I say that every morning I get up."
Wayne is a retired Bureau of Land Management Ranger and an environmental advocate based out of Vernal, Utah.
He said, "I think the real turning point for me getting involved in the environment was Vernal’s drinking water. I didn’t think much about the water until the mine was going to go in over Vernal’s water source. I own a well, why should I worry about it? But I did. I used to hunt and fish a lot, I’ve always been out in the environment and I understood the environment from my schooling. But the water issue in Vernal made me an activist. And I haven’t stopped."
When asked about local opinions about climate change, he responded, "Climate change? Yeah they don’t believe in it. Pure and simple that’s the short answer. They don’t. They think it’s all a rouse to stop oil and gas."
Anna Frazier is the previous director of Diné CARE (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment), a Navajo organization that preserves and protects the Diné way of life. Diné CARE originated in 1988 when they successfully prevented a toxic waste incinerator from locating in the Navajo community of Dilkon, Arizona.
"You’re going in there with all that you have. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and then the people you work with in the community are all stressed out and upset. All these things are happening to us emotionally. It’s the way that our people were treated. A lot of injustices have been going on for years and years. I think that’s what drives me. It gets you angry. It’s very frustrating to know the injustices are still going on. When you come to the table you have to say what you have to say. You can’t hold back. You have to say it although it might hurt. The prejudices, you don’t want them to continue happening. You’re thinking about your people back home. The way of life up here is very different than Washington D.C. or Phoenix, Arizona. I think once you start doing what you have to do there’s prayers. We have prayers done for us, traditional prayers. And one thing that I learned from the beginning, Navajo people, we like to tease one another. We’re always laughing. When we’re out there like in Washington D.C. and people are really sad, we have that sense of humor that’s built in us. And I think that’s what really helps."
"I try to find a connection to any landscape. I feel like I found southern Utah at a formative time, when I was really searching out things. Each place I come to know brings out a certain part of me. So I feel like the desert, the canyons and the bold, clear skies, it grounds me, I think more than any place. It requires you to leave any superficial anything behind. The ground, the geology that’s just exposed, anything is windswept and taken away from it. For me spirituality is about recognizing that you are a small part in a whole. That changes how we interact with people and a landscape."
Alisha is an artist whose work has explored threatened and sacrificed landscapes—from the Oquirrh Mountains near the Kennecott Copper Mine to the Bears Ears region. She is a Spiritual Ecology Fellow and her project will create paths meant for meditation in communities and places in need of healing. The paths will be based on the waveform of a spoken prayer.
Herm is a leading figure in the river running community. Some years he spent over 200 nights on the river. He settled in Vernal because of his love for Echo Park.
"In 1972 I got over to Dinosaur, Colorado and I drove on this road into the middle of the national monument and there was an overlook at Echo Park. I started down this road at sunset, and by God I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I said to my then wife, ‘I’d like to be a ranger in the national park service and work in Dinosaur National Monument and move to Vernal, Utah.’ I began running rivers in the desert, Desolation Canyon, Westwater Canyon, Labyrinth Stillwater and Ruby Horsethief. All building up to that Grand Canyon trip.
When it comes to climate change, I see what’s going down. In my life I haven't had that kind of calamity. But if you have grandkids, you better goddamn well begin to think about it. My friend Ed Abbey once made the comment that the free market system doesn't care about the future because the future is not its job. And that's really what it comes down to."
Sarah grew up in Castle Valley, UT. She supports social justice movements across the Colorado Plateau with Seeds of Peace and is part of the regional resistance to extreme energy projects.
"We’re all united by this limited water supply of the Colorado River and there’s this strong community across the Colorado Plateau. We have it all, we have uranium, coal, oil and gas, tar sands, oil shale, solar, wind. There’s all of the energy demons. Not that I think solar and wind are always demons. I’ve found a lot of gratification in getting to know folks in different struggles, like Black Mesa where they’ve been fighting coal mining for forty years and there are elders still resisting and teaching people about their struggle and encouraging total rebellion against the United States government. Resistance on the Colorado Plateau is continuing that legacy. We’re out in the middle of nowhere, there aren’t many people out here and there aren’t many people keeping tabs on the land. I draw strength from knowing that we’re all united in this mutual struggle."
Kendra Pinto is a Diné woman from Twin Pines in the Greater Chaco area of northwest New Mexico. She organizes against the fracking in her community and has shared her story in hearings on the EPA Methane Rule in Washington, D.C. 91% of the public lands in Greater Chaco have been leased to oil and gas. In June, 2017, indigenous youth ran 80 miles across the region to raise awareness.
"The people who will assure you that everything is fine, peachy keen out there are industry people. These are people who want that resource, who want that money. This area made about twenty million dollars last year, but driving through here could you tell that? Could you tell that millions of dollars are made here? No, because that money isn’t put back into the community like they claim. We have to start looking out for the good of the people instead of just thinking about our wallets. I don’t like when they start throwing that ‘well drilling has always been out there.’ Drilling hasn’t always been three hundred feet from houses, OK?! Stop throwing that in our face. I literally live on one of the parcels that they sold. I live on tribal trust lands and maybe seventy-five feet from where the house ends the BLM public lands start. Why do they say we are unimportant?
I think the hope is to have people remember that this is where their roots started. I’m just hoping that everyone will realize that this all they have. How do you not take care of a place that has taken care of you? That’s taken care of your parents, that’s taken care of your grandparents? It’s about making sure home remains home and it doesn’t just get sold to WPX or Western Mining. You’re supposed to be appreciating Mother Nature, that’s what it’s there for."
Bill Anderegg is climate scientist and professor in the Biology Department at the University of Utah. He is from Cortez, Colorado and studies the aspen die off in the San Juan National Forest where he grew up camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing.
"During the first summer of grad school I came back to these areas where I’d grown up camping as a kid and saw a lot of aspen mortality. Even some of the campsites where we had family pictures from were just completely dead. And that was probably one of the biggest triggering points in realizing, wow there’s something big going on here, it’s visible and it’s visceral and it’s during my lifetime. There was not a lot known why aspens were dying off in mass. One forest service team was zeroing in on this really severe drought and other people were realizing that this drought had a huge climate change signal. It was two to three centigrade hotter than past droughts.
There have been a few stories on pre traumatic stress disorder, following certain environmental scientists who see the catastrophes unfolding but are mostly powerless to stop them. And it’s a pretty pervasive thing among my colleagues and me as well. It feels a little bit like the plot in a Hollywood movie where there’s a scientist who sees something coming towards earth or knows that something is going to happen and is trying their best to scream it to the government officials and nobody is listening. And the climate change story to me feels like that but you know there’s tens of thousands of scientists trying to make the case."
"I’ve lived in Vernal my whole life. I grew up in Dry Fork Canyon. It was the kind of place you worry about your kids not being hurt by strangers but eaten by mountain lions. It’s the most beautiful place in the freaking world, I swear. My dad has been a white water rafter his whole life so I was on the river my whole life. The water has changed flavor, it’s not the same as it once was, we have unhealthy levels of ozone in the air. It used to be that you could have a discourse with people. You could say the most reasonable thing in the world like ‘I don’t think we ought to put arsenic in our drinking water’ because you know arsenic will kill ya. And they’d be like, you know I don’t like to drink arsenic and it would be OK. And now you say ‘let’s not put arsenic in our drinking water’ and they say ‘you’re anti job.’ And I’m like no, I’m pretty sure I’m anti arsenic. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. I’ve attended town halls. I write my senators and my congressmen almost every day. I have been hung up on a lot. I need my woods, and my forests. I would greatly appreciate if people would stop ruining it. Because it’s the only reason why I’m here. We have everything from snow covered mountains to deep deserts and rivers and lakes. I guess it’s on oil shale so let’s blast it all down."
Jessie Pye grew up and lives in Vernal, Utah. She is a mother of two, a massage therapist, and is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology.
"Moving out here and seeing big wild country that just goes on for hundreds of miles was a total revelation, and then realizing you can just go fishing, and get a Christmas tree, and camp wherever you want to, it was just amazing. I think public lands are a treasure. It’s not perfect, but we have an ideal and we’re moving in that direction. The public lands are a manifestation of shared ownership and this sense of freedom and possibility. Public lands can be an accessible entry point. We’ve taken to referring to it as common ground. Public lands seem like a feasible place to begin conversations about what we have in common. We have enough fossil fuels on public lands to basically decide the climate change question one way or another. The water for 83 million Americans comes off of Western public lands. Everything is under assault right now. But I see young people who are so much smarter. That I think is very hopeful as long as you can control your machines. You can’t lose all contact with the natural world."
Bill recently retired from serving as the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust. Under his leadership, the Trust helped clean up emissions from the region’s coal-fired power plants and remove radioactive wastes from the bank of the Colorado River. He lives in Castle Valley, Utah.
Ephraim grew up in White Mesa and organizes the resistance to the White Mesa Uranium Mill just a few miles north of his family’s home. The White Mesa Mill is the last active uranium mill in the country.
"The mill is dangerous for us, my people, my community. At least three people I grew up with have cancer. The young people say the water doesn’t taste good. The water tastes like metal. And we’re not going to drink it. It’s really hard for us here in the community. If a crisis happened at the mill, they would contact Blanding, not us. We’re five miles south of the mill and the wind usually blows south They don’t care about us; all they care about is money. If there was a crisis, where would we go? My only place is White Mesa."
Carol Davis lives in Dilkon on the Navajo Nation. She is the director of Diné CARE, working to protect the environment and culture on the Navajo Nation.
"For me this work gives me an opportunity to seek justice and equity for my relatives. Even as a kid I always found myself trying to protect the people who couldn’t protect themselves. This work allows me to continue that, for my own people, my relatives. I get this strong sense of accomplishment that I’m also in some way preserving language and culture because it allows me to go out in my community in my Native language, and I also in return gain a lot of cultural knowledge. I have grandkids. I also feel like I’m doing this for them and future generations. Making sure there’s a foundation for them to have pride in who they are and where they come from. There’s times when we probably work eighty-hour work weeks. I’ve been known to send out emails at 1:30, 2:00 a.m. We make time to restore our balance through ceremony. We make sure we do self-care. We take care of each other and look out for one another. There’s sometimes when we’ll just all be upset about something that didn’t go the way we had hoped but somebody will say something in Navajo that’s just hilarious and it’s just infectious. The actual sense of humor is somehow constructed in our language. It’s always good to have a sense of humor."
Easton organizes in Salt Lake City with Wasatch Rising Tide and Showing Up for Racial Justice. He has been involved in the resistance to the PR Spring tar sands mine in eastern Utah since 2013.
When reflecting on organizing strategy, he said, "I don't believe in dogma and I don't believe there's a formula besides that people need to be together in the same room and do things long enough to fuck up together and move on. And probably kill a lot less animals while we do it."
He also reflected on the evolution of the tar sands resistance, "We have had to incorporate hopelessness into our work. The first action camp I went to we were like 'how do we shut down the mine' and the action camp last year we were more like 'how do we heal our dying souls.' It's particularly strange because this mine never starts. It starts and stops and starts and stops. Which feels like a microcosm of the whole issue of climate change. It's always looming, and it's always approaching, and it's always here, but I don't always feel it. It just kind of feels like a myth but clearly it's so real."
Emily is the founder of Community Rebuilds, a sustainable build program in Moab, UT. Their mission is to build energy efficient homes, educate about sustainability, and improve affordable housing.
hen I asked about the affordable housing crisis in Moab, she responded, "I'd like to say Moab has a unique affordable housing crisis but unfortunately we’re all experiencing an affordable housing crisis. This idea of the American Dream and home ownership is so 1980s. Someone said right after the election, when you find yourself in the darkest place remember that the womb is a dark place and the soil is a dark place and from both of those dark places grow amazing thing. So I’m OK with a crisis because the system needs fixing. I want to refocus how we look at shelter because homes are meant to protect us and shelter is a basic need. Community Rebuilds is trying to define green construction and we’re trying to define affordable housing."
Community Rebuilds not only focuses on creating nontoxic affordable housing, but also creating community. Emily said, "This program is the opposite of alienation. You live and work with everybody all day long and you have to get along. Everyone said that was the one thing that was going to fail with the program. And I’m like, bullshit, this is my dream. To have a house full of friends that are like-minded, going together to solve a problem every day and then cook meals together, that’s a dream."
Don is a rancher in northwest New Mexico and founder of the Open Space Pilot Project which seeks to consolidate drilling to existing well pads. He became more outspoken about the fracking boom in the region out of a desire to secure a healthy future for his grandchildren.
"The boom really did boom. It became a huge, active natural gas field beginning in the late 40s. It made a huge contribution to the entire country. The San Juan Basin is not recognized very widely, it’s not very well known, it’s not always part of the conversation. Unfortunately, now you find that it’s a footnote as a sacrifice zone. This is now the fastest depopulating county in the country. The first eight years we were on Devil's Spring Ranch, they probably drilled 13 or 14 wells on us. We were hard core ranching back then, and at the end of 2007, we received nine notices to drill. There are so many well locations everywhere you can’t go anywhere without seeing a well. We’re trying to build a ranch that will be intact for our grandkids. Out of desperation, I threw myself into looking into solutions and admitting that we’ve just been failing for years. So that’s how our Open Space Pilot Project was born."
"Canyoneering is my jam, that was my first introduction to technical recreation. My first time canyoneering was in Zion National Park. We drove all night and when we woke up the next day, I was like “WOOOAAAH!” We went to this Zion adventure company and they started fitting me for a wetsuit, and I was like ‘what is this for?’ And they were like, ‘don’t worry about it.’ They gave me a crash course in all the gear and it just completely blew my mind. I saw people doing it on TV and I never saw myself doing this. And I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life."
Marshall Massayesva is the founder and director of Adventures for Hopi, providing outdoor recreation opportunities for Hopi youth across the Colorado Plateau.
"I want to commit to knowing this place really deeply, which means the earth and the people. Even though I’ve lived here for my whole life, twenty-four-years, I still don’t know the mountains. I go to the mountains, but if I was to spend like a month alone in the mountains, I wouldn’t have any idea what I was doing. And at the same time I don’t really know my community. I know my community of white middle-class students. I remember one of the first times when I started thinking about environmental justice I was a teenager. I was at the doctor, and I was in the waiting room, and this Native American person walked into the front desk and was like ‘so do you do cancer screenings because everyone I know has cancer and I’m guessing I do too’—from uranium poisoning. And that moment was so shocking to me, I realized the northern Arizona community is having very different experiences on the same beautiful land. Environmental justice is very important to me because the parts that are being most impacted are kind of invisible. For a long time, I didn’t even understand that my electricity comes from the reservation where people are being poisoned by coal mining. How could I not know that? That’s why I feel committed to being here and continuing to learn these things. Which is going to take forever."
Danielle grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona. She is pursuing her master’s degree in Sustainable Communities from Northern Arizona University, studying issues of climate migration.
"The biggest thing is water and the rising temperatures. My corn this morning around 9 was starting to almost curl like when it needs water, but at 6 in the morning they were just wide open enjoying the cool air. We don’t use pesticides or herbicides. We’re out there every day. The biggest thing I struggle with personally is the invasive plants. I’m very concerned, you can see the changes in the climate. I remember when we actually got snow in December when I was a little kid. Now we’re lucky if we have sleet. The world set you’re given as a Navajo, especially as a grower, you don’t get too worried about providing water to your plants, because if you’re out there every day and you pray for your plants, the Holy People will come and bring moisture. I’ve seen it happen, the little dew that’s on my corn. But on days like this when you have a heat warning, I’m pretty sure I won’t see dew drops tomorrow. It’s kind of a bit of faith. It’s important to have a good local food system, especially here on the reservation where we’re food insecure. Having people realize that there are people within their own community that are growing food for themselves, that they can do it too, that it’s not such a big daunting task. Our elders did this with not nearly as much technology that we have today."
Alicia works for food security and food sovereignty on the Navajo Nation. She grows her own food in Tuba City and coordinates farmers markets in the community.
Forrest Cuch of the Ute Indian Tribe runs a 40-acre horse ranch as a place of healing. He ran for the Ute Tribe’s governing body twice. He lost both times and believes his people aren’t ready for his ideas.
"We were put here on the basis that it was good for nothing. They had no idea it had oil and gas. It's been a blessing and a curse for our people. You have American capitalism versus an egalitarian socialist culture that has been colonized and is struggling to keep its identity. A large number of our people have lost their culture. I don't blame my people for this because I see the greater society suffering the same problem. I see the United States in decline morally and culturally. And I don't see it benefiting anyone. Oil and gas has not only produced greed and selfishness and corruption but it has polluted the air, the land, and the water."
Climate stories from the Colorado Plateau, collected over a 1,500 mile journey across the high desert landscape.