Carrie James’story ought to sound familiar: She grew up in a small town on the Alaskan coast, fishing for salmon the way her Haida and Tlingit ancestors had for generations. She taught her children, two boys and a girl, how to catch, smoke and put up the fish. And then, as with so many other salmon-based tribes, plans for upstream development began to threaten her way of life.
But unlike some Pacific Northwest tribes, which have lately negotiated with hydroelectric companies to repair some of the damage caused by dams —or tribes in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which at least have the Environmental Protection Agency on their side in the fight over Pebble Mine—James has felt powerless in her effort to stop a handful of mines from being dug in the headwaters of rivers that feed her tribe and economy. That’s because the headwaters aren’t in Alaska. They’re in Canada.
Over the last decade, the Canadian government has expedited a mining boom in western British Columbia by rolling back one environmental regulation after another. The Navigable Waters Protection Act, for example, once protected more than a million Canadian rivers and 32,000 lakes. As of 2012, that number was down to just 66, leaving some of British Columbia’s wildest, richest and largest rivers exempt from environmental safeguards.
It’s hard to find a place more remote than Bettles, Alaska. The village of 15 people lies 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the Koyukuk River, accessible to the outside world only by an ice road, boat or plane. And 69-year-old mayor Gary Hanchett likes it that way. “I love the country,”he says in a slow, gravelly voice. “To this day I don’t see myself ever living south of the (Yukon).”
But former Governor Sean Parnell targeted the region around Bettles for one of a handful of “mega-projects,”huge developments meant to create jobs and tap into Alaska’s untouched resources. In this case, the resource was copper, and the project a 220-mile long mining road that would cross more than 100 streams and rivers, countless acres of tundra and wetlands, and Gates of the Arctic National Park. It would also trundle right past Hanchett’s house, bringing exhaust fumes and possibly asbestos dust to a place where he usually smokes fish.
Hanchett has been doggedly fighting the proposed Ambler Road for more than two years. But the best news he’s gotten came on Jan. 22, when newly-elected Independent Governor Bill Walker unveiled his 2016 budgetplan: All funding for the road had been cut.
Similar controversial developments, including the plan to build a 735-foot-tall hydropower dam across the salmon-rich Susitna River, were also axed...
The La Sal Mountains rise from the slickrock canyons and dry mesas of the Colorado Plateau like a mirage, an island of alpine peaks in a sea of desert. Just 15 miles from the adventure tourism hub of Moab, the mountains are blissfully cool, even in summer, and nearly empty of people.
To Barb Smith, a 52-year-old Forest Service wildlife biologist with striking green eyes and a silvery braid, the upper La Sals are an ecological paradise, one of the few chunks of land in Utah that isn’t grazed, logged or scarred by off-road vehicles. Smith is also a botanist, and as she and a dozen or so volunteers climb above 11,000-foot Burro Pass, she rattles off the Latin names of flowers:Polygonum bistortoides, Tetraneuris grandiflora. There are so many, it’s hard to take a step without crushing one.
We pause on a wind-scoured slope to catch our breaths and everyone crowds around Smith, who has spotted a cute if unremarkable yellow button called the La Sal daisy. She explains how to identify the flower and mark its location on a GPS. “This kind of effort, this kind of documentation, is going to be really helpful,” she says. The volunteers hold out their smartphones to take pictures.
This September, hundreds of thousands of Native Americans began receiving checks in the mail. The money was the final installment of the Cobell settlement, which altogether paid out $3.4 billion in overdue royalties to compensate for more than a century of poorly managed mining on reservations. Two months later, Montana’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes moved a step closer to closing a deal that will make them the first in the nation to own a hydroelectric dam.
Such stories stand out, because though Native Americans have deep stakes in some of the West’s most pointed environmental debates, their voices continue to be more often marginalized or outright ignored by state and federal lawmakers. The past year has been no exception. Last week, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, incensed Native activists when he undermined decades of progress toward sovereignty and told an Apache leader that Native Americans are “still wards of the federal government.”
As we head into 2015, here’s a look back at how Western tribes shaped — or tried to shape — some of the year’s biggest natural resource stories...
Imagine an oil spill off the coast of San Diego. Now imagine the nearest port from which to launch an emergency response is in Seattle, more than a thousand miles away, and that San Diego is suddenly bereft of grocery stores, leaving most residents dependent on the ocean for sustenance. Then take the Southern California ocean in your mind’s eye, increase the biomass, encase it in ice, bathe in darkness for a few months, and sprinkle with polar bears. That’s what an oil spill in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea would look like.
Whether such a spill has a chance to happen is largely dependent on what the Interior Department does with a draft Environmental Impact Statement released this month by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The report examines Lease 193, a controversial sale that, in 2012, enabled Shell to drill the first exploratory wells in the Chukchi in decades. Since then, drilling has been held up by Shell’s own grave missteps and by a series of lawsuits, which prompted an appeals court this January to throw out the previous environmental impact statement because it cited an “arbitrary and capricious”amount of recoverable oil....
Caroline Tohannie is an 84-year-old great-grandmother who raises sheep and weaves traditional Navajo textiles in northern Arizona. On Oct. 22, her sheep were confiscated.
Tohannie has lived her entire life on Black Mesa, an arid, tawny chunk of land once veined with glittering coal and now studded with slag heaps and waste ponds. Both Hopi and Navajo claim it among their ancestral homelands; before Europeans showed up, the tribes’ relationship was “one largely of peaceful co-existence and intertribal cooperation,”writes historian and Navajo activist John Redhouse. The Hopi lived in agricultural villages atop the mesa, while the more transient Navajo grazed their livestock below.
When the U.S. government forced Navajo into internment in the 1860s, those who managed to escape fled to what’s now Hopi land at Black Mesa. Later, encroachment from white settlers forced more Navajo onto the Hopi reservation, and what eventually became an ongoing, century-long land dispute was birthed. It culminated in the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, which drew an arbitrary line down the center of Black Mesa, splitting it between the two tribes. Navajos living on Hopi land were forced to relocate, as were Hopi living on Navajo land.
Ultimately, more than 12,000 Navajos were forced from their homes, compared to just 100 or so Hopis. It was the largest forced relocation since the 1880s.
Matt Isenhower was sick of sitting in traffic. As the 34-year-old Navy veteran from Redmond, Washington, van-pooled 80 minutes to and from his job at Amazon in Seattle each day, he had plenty of time to lament the state Senate’s refusal to invest in mass transit. Roughly 58 percent of Washington’s carbon emissions come from the tailpipes of cars, trucks and other vehicles, and the Republican-controlled Senate had also stymied Gov. Jay Inslee’s attempts to forge a bipartisan agreement to limit greenhouse gasses.
Hoping to end the gridlock, Isenhower decided to run for state Senate. With his freshly shaven good looks, military background and Harvard MBA, Democrats thought Isenhower had a good shot at unseating Republican Andy Hill. And in this election year, that was a big deal: If liberals could take just two seats in Washington’s Senate, Inslee — a clean-energy champion and one of America’s greenest governors — would have a pro-environment majority in both chambers. There’s no doubt what he could do with that kind of opportunity: Next year, Inslee hopes to release a sweeping plan that could make Washington the second state in the nation (after California) to slash carbon emissions across the economy by putting a price on them....