The Tour Heads to Utah

May 27, 2017

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the world’s last untouched wild places. Now, much like public lands across the Southwest, it’s facing the greatest threats in decades.

Members of the Gwich’in Nation, who have relied on the Arctic Refuge for survival for millennia, are traveling from the Arctic across the desert Southwest to raise the alarm and find common ground with communities that depend on public lands. Isabelle Goodman from the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign tagged along and offered this insight as the group headed to Utah.

As we took off from Reno to head towards Utah I felt a little uneasy. One member of the Gwich’in Nation had left the tour and another would be leaving soon. We were leaving the comfort of a team, of a city that we knew supported us to head into Utah. I’ll admit – I had my reservations about the state. As someone who grew up in New York City, I knew nothing about what Utah had to offer. I hadn’t heard much beyond the LDS church and that the beer had a lower alcohol percentage than the rest of the country. I paused and reflected on how the Gwich’in members of the trip took such care in entering a new place. Bernadette asked questions from the back of the van. “What is the population of Salt Lake City? “Who are the indigenous people that occupy this land?” “What kind of food do people here eat?”These are questions I never ask myself in coming to a new place. It made me think about the ways I am connected and detached to the lands of this country and the people that occupy it.

As the organizer of several events during the tour it was often hard to stop my mind from going a million miles a minute with logistics. “Did we leave anything behind?” “Are all the ipads charged up?” “Are we still under budget?” But as I quickly learned, Utah is a place that is unlike any other and the sheer beauty of this place does wonders to quiet that voice and focus on being present. As you cross from Nevada into Utah, the change in landscape is immediate and dramatic. From the desert of Nevada, the ground turns white. Lexine,the eight-year-old daughter of Gwichi’in Steering Committee Executive Director Bernadette Demientieff, curiously asked, “Is that snow?!” Salt Flats. We drove past the Bonneville flats, past small pools of water that were hard to discern from the patches of salt that speckled the landscape, mountains peaked in the distance puncturing the landscape with snowcaps (yes, actual snow). As we drove past the Great Salt Lake I explained to Lexine that at certain times of the year that lake is her favorite color, pink. I had to show her pictures before she was convinced.

There was a screening of the film The Refuge at the Patagonia store in Salt Lake which was truly touching. The store managers and employees were humbled and excited by the presence of the Gwich’in and were honored to receive the Caribou picture that Bernadette presented them. Despite the fact it was a beautiful memorial day weekend the crowd of over 40 settled into their seats. As the film ended and Bernadette began to talk, the crowd listened intently.

After the event, Dave John, who sits on the board of PANDOS talked in depth with Bernadette about the fight for Bears Ears National Monument and the challenges of the local tribes. PANDOS, or Peaceful Advocates for Native Dialogue and Organizing Support, is a Utah-based, Native and environmental rights organization that began in September 2016 in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests at Standing Rock. Recently they have been working on the fight to protect Bears Ears and sacred Native lands across Utah. We learned about the fight to protect Bears Ears National Monument, home to more than 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites, considered sacred by many tribes. A recent “review” of this monument and others was issued by the Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke. While the word “review” may seem mundane, we know that it will threaten the hard-fought protections for this sacred place.

From there we continued down to Moab where we were welcomed by the local Sierra Club group. It was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend and 25 people piled into a small theatre in the Moab Arts and Rec Center. Attendees boasted membership of Sierra Club of 20+ years and in that time had engaged in fights across the West for public lands, some had even taken trips to the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but I don’t think attendees anticipated the deeply emotional reaction elicited by Bernadette and the Gwich’in story. One woman approached Bernadette after the film and explained she was planning on stepping back from leadership in her local group, but after hearing the story of the Gwich’in people she could simply not sit down. We were reunited with long-time Sierra Club member and Alaska Wilderness Guardian, Phyllis Mains who explained that prior to meeting Bernadette she had learned about this issue as a wilderness issue and was deeply inspired by the human rights aspect of this story.

The next morning as we piled into the van, we were ushered out by stunning views of Red Rocks National Park and breathtaking landscapes ranging from mountains to Mesas. I was overwhelmed by the kindness of those we had met in Utah and found myself pausing to observe the landscape. As we began our drive to Colorado, all of our phones started buzzing as we learned Secretary Zinke had issued a Secretarial Order that included a review of the Coastal Plain for dirty fuel development, the biological heart of Alaska, the Sacred Place Where Life Begins. To ask the questions of what that all could mean in a time of “reviews”, how cold and callous that sounded, how incomplete that review would inevitably be. I put my phone down and began to think about the people that were here before and the people that are here now and what it means to protect these places that we call home.

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