Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Who is telling today’s conservation stories?


Lost in endless rhyme of the Hillary, Dillary, Donald in daily news coverage is a conflict over a planned crude oil pipeline that will cross Lake Oahe on Missouri River in North Dakota, downstream of Bismarck and upstream of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The Lakota people of southwestern North Dakota are questioning aspects of the Dakota Access Pipeline Project, such as the risk of polluting the river (and their water supply) from a pipeline failure to whether the planned route compromises burial sites and other places of cultural significance.

The Dakota Access Pipeline will be a new 30-inch diameter pipeline carrying approximately 470,000 barrels of Bakken crude per day from western North Dakota 1,172 miles across four states to Patoka, Illinois. From there it can be piped or shipped to refineries in the Midwest, on the Gulf Coast and in the East. The pipeline can handle about half of the Bakken oil production. Proponents say it will greatly reduce the demand for rail transport, freeing up rail carrier capacity for grain and other agricultural commodities. The multibillion dollar project will create thousands of construction jobs, stimulate the regional economy and contribute many millions to state tax coffers.

To raise awareness of Standing Rock’s issues, native people from across the country, calling themselves “water protectors,” have peacefully gathered near the site where the pipeline will cross the Missouri River, which is less than a mile upstream from the reservation. A couple of weeks ago, company bulldozers began work in an area considered sacred by the Lakota. When protesters challenged the dozer operators, they were met by a private security team that deployed pepper spray and vicious dogs to deter them. Google the incident and you can find extraordinary live video coverage of the confrontation.

A few days after the confrontation, a federal judge denied the tribe’s request for an injunction against the project. However, immediately after the decision, the Departments of Justice, the Interior and the Army temporarily halted pipeline authorization for crossing Lake Oahe to review the government’s decisions. In a statement, the tribe called the government’s action a “game changer” and is planning to mount a legal challenge to halt construction.

Given the scale of the project and demand for domestic petroleum, it is difficult to predict what the eventual outcome will be for the tribe. The degree to which tribes from across the country have coalesced in a show of support for Standing Rock signals this may be a watershed moment for tribal involvement in environmental issues. More importantly, the tribe distilled complex pipeline issues to a simple common denominator: clean water.

Protecting or improving water quality is the central theme of several ongoing, yet disparate environmental struggles. In Minnesota, both the efforts to prevent copper mining and control agricultural runoff are focused on clean water. Nationally, efforts to fight fracking are based on protecting groundwater supplies. In the West, foreign interests such as Saudi Arabia are buying up farmland in order to secure valuable water rights. Clean water, as others have wisely noted, is the world’s most valuable resource. We can’t live without it.

Interestingly, the aforementioned water wars are largely separate battles. From experience, I’ve learned that many opponents of copper mining simply glaze over when you mention the many Minnesota waterways that are polluted with agricultural runoff. I’d wager a guess the same would be true if you tried talking with pipeline opponents about the need to restore grasslands to protect water quality in the Missouri River. But you can’t really blame people if they fail to connect the dots between related water issues. In our divisive, us-vs-them society, it is often difficult to see the big picture.

In the past, it seemed the environmental and conservation communities were better able to keep their troops focused on the big picture, which is why we have landmark legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. That was an era when overarching groups like the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the Izaak Walton League could deliver the conservation message to large mainstream audiences. Over time, the environmental/conservation movement splintered into many smaller groups focused on special interests. Their messages are mostly delivered to a small corps of true believers. Has the broader conservation message suffered as a result?

When the company goons pepper-sprayed protestors and let loose the dogs, the Dakota Access Pipeline story received the national media attention it had previously lacked. But the coverage focused more on the conflict than on the underlying water quality issue. Again, the media delivers the message through a prism of us-vs-them. The environmental story is lost in translation.

While most Americans once listed “the environment” as among their top concerns, this is no longer the case. Perhaps that’s why media coverage of environmental issues is scattered, often less than thorough and, unless it is a catastrophe on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, rarely considered top news. Yet the threats to the environment loom large.

Is it the media’s fault for not telling us environmental stories? Or has the environmental/conservation community splintered into so many factions that it lacks the broad-based, national-level voices to tell them? Perhaps, in this era of political divisiveness, some voices are reluctant to tell stories for fear of being painted red or blue by critics and then vehemently shouted down.

While the issues of conservation and the environment have always been political, they nearly always are solved through compromise and collaboration. This is due in part to the fact that very often there is a middle ground upon which everyone can agree. As an example, anyone who gets thirsty appreciates clean water, so protecting clean water is a value nearly all of us share. And because of that, we ought to be able to find ways to make it happen. But first, someone must tell the story in a way that convinces mainstream America that it needs to happen.

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