On social media, public lands defense looks like fun—like frolicking on mountains trails and through desert canyons or sipping hot tea before sunrise from the open door of a van. Carefree and cozy in a sleeping bag in a preposterously beautiful campsite—don’t forget to bump the saturation filter.
It turns out a lot of the real conservation work is long meetings in fluorescent-lit conference rooms with bad coffee. Impossible agendas wrapped up in emotions, livelihoods and complicated histories. People hammering out differences and finding ways to move forward to protect something we all love, the actual country beneath our feet, the soil, geology, forests, sagebrush, waters and wildlife—in most cases all of this entangled in Indigenous heritage and painful pasts. America’s public lands include Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, national forests, national parks and monuments, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, national conservation areas, national recreation areas, national wildlife refuges, national seashores and lakeshores, national historic and scenic trails and national battlefields totaling 640 million acres of some of the most loved, beautiful, wild and controversial land on earth. The fact that these lands still exist at all is testament to the hardworking and dedicated people that have come together to champion them.
These notes, which were taken over the course of a year and a half while working on the film Public Trust, are a deep nod of respect to the unsung heroes sitting through all those meetings and doing the work to protect our public lands.
June 12, Gwichyaa Zhee, Fort Yukon
The days are long in Fort Yukon, Alaska, 8 miles above the Arctic Circle. In fact, they never really end. There is a moment late at night, or maybe it’s early in the morning, when the sun drops to its lowest point—slanted magic hour light shining through the scruffy boreal forest, fireweed and wild rose bushes surrounding my tent. The midnight softball game has ended and most of the humans have gone to bed, if only for a couple hours. A palpable stillness sets in for just a moment. Soon the day will start again to the sound of people whipping around on four-wheelers, heading for coffee and getting ready for the day’s events as the sun begins a subtle path back upwards again.
We’re staying in a makeshift tent city on the banks of the Yukon River for the first-ever Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit. Gwich’in and Athabascans from the Yukon River system, Inupiat from the Beaufort Sea, and other tribal representatives and conservation groups from all over North America are gathered to discuss the drastic changes that are taking place in the Arctic due to climate change, as well as to talk about the renewed threat of oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In the middle of all of this, Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, is taking care of every detail of the summit—making calls from the back of a moving pickup or giving rides to elders and summit speakers on a red Honda four-wheeler. Bernadette is tall and lean, with long black hair. She is in her early 40s and it’s hard to believe she is a grandmother. Bernadette is the gravitational center of the resistance to drilling in the Refuge. She feels that her ancestors, her children and grandchildren, her culture, the caribou, the Arctic, and our collective future are depending on her.
The Refuge, which encompasses 19.3 million acres, is one of the last healthy Arctic ecosystems on earth. It’s home to musk ox, polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves and migrating birds from all 50 states, and is the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, upon which the Gwich’in depend for subsistence hunting. The coastal plain, the so-called “1002,” is the most contentious area, with potential oil deposits making it a political football for decades.
Bernadette reminds everyone that the Gwich’in name for this area is “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” or “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” The Gwich’in have followed and carefully hunted the Porcupine caribou herd for thousands of years, never setting foot in the coastal plain. Entering the calving grounds is anathema to traditional Gwich’in stewardship. These caribou still make up at least 70 percent of the Gwich’in diet—a relationship that becomes particularly important when you learn that staples like a gallon of milk costs $15 in the small grocery store in Fort Yukon.
Advocates for drilling claim that their development footprint will only impact 2,000 acres in the calving grounds. But this number does not include the roads and hundreds of miles of pipelines and feeder lines to oilfield facilities. More accurate maps based on the BLM’s possible development scenarios show the potential development disrupting most of the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain. Some studies have shown caribou rerouting hundreds of miles due to a single road crossing.
This impact also doesn’t account for the likelihood of seismic testing with massive 90,000-pound “thumper trucks” before any drilling even occurs. This would crush polar bear dens, a finding that the Trump administration was caught red-handed trying to hide. The coastal plain is home to our nation’s highest density of polar bear land dens. Pregnant mothers dig their dens in the early winter and give birth to one or two cubs in December or January. The thumper trucks, slamming the ground like giant tamping rammers, send a seismic signal down to bedrock and back to the truck to record potential oil deposits. These operations would have to occur in winter months when the dens are occupied.
Bernadette and the Gwich’in here in Fort Yukon are incredible hosts. In the community hall, every night after a shared meal of caribou ribs, or moose steaks, or goose or some other delicacy provided by local hunters, the traditional fiddle dancing parties start, going as late as people can dance. During the day, folks from all over the Arctic region share stories about early river ice break up that is making normal hunting patterns dangerous. People and animals are falling through the ice. They talk about abnormal salmon runs and silting rivers. About walking kids to school in rain, in February, when it should be minus 40 Fahrenheit. Scientists say the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.
The fight over the Refuge has lasted decades, but drilling the coastal plain is closer to a reality now than at any point to date, with fast-tracked lease sales arbitrarily required by 2021, according to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski and other GOP members of Congress snuck the Refuge into the tax bill with a rarely used process called “budget reconciliation.” Attaching the Refuge to the tax bill meant it could be passed with a simple majority of 51 votes. The debate over the tax bill consumed so much of the media attention that few people in America even noticed we had also just given this critical habitat in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge over to oil development.
That all seems far away from the community hall porch in Fort Yukon where Bernadette and I sat this morning watching chickadees and juncos flit in and out of tall black spruce and birch. She has been back and forth to Washington, D.C. more times than she can remember, bringing different Gwich’in elders and youth leaders to testify or meet with congresspeople and their staff. Some of these people have never been in a city before, seen traffic or had to navigate public transportation. Bernadette is helping guide them through more than just cultural barriers to get them in front of decision-makers to speak about their land and their lives. There is understandably a lot of fear of speaking out in a congressional hearing, or in front of strangers in House Committee on Natural Resources meeting chambers, especially that far away from home. She is inspiring, organizing and building the next front of Gwich’in leaders who will carry this fight forward.
A Wednesday in February, Challis, Idaho
There are seven ranchers gathered around a conference room table in a US Forest Service double-wide here in Challis, Idaho. These ranchers are part of the Central Idaho Rangelands Network, a group of nine ranches that collectively grazes on 1.5 million acres of some of the wildest public lands in the country. They are here to discuss the Forest Service Revision Plan, a collaborative process to work out recommendations for the management of grazing in the Salmon-Challis National Forest. One of these ranchers, Merrill Beyeler, owner of Beyeler Ranches in the Lemhi Valley, has been essential in moving big conservation efforts forward.
After watching the Bundy family skate out of federal court for their deranged armed takeover of public lands in Oregon, I wanted to get a sense of how ranchers in this part of the world viewed public lands, and how they interacted with the federal agencies managing them. I also wanted to see that there was more to the narrative of the rural-agricultural West than this image of welfare-ranchers waving guns and flags around, clamoring for the transfer of American public lands to the states and counties. Conservative north-central Idaho—where big conservation initiatives seemed to be gaining ground, rather than completely falling apart in bitter culture wars—seemed like a good place to start.
I wasn’t traveling with a film crew then. I was scouting alone, sleeping in the back of my truck near hot springs on BLM and Forest Service roads in the high sagebrush steppe where I could look out across at some of the wildest contiguous landscapes in the Lower 48. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and windows into the Salmon and Lemhi River corridors. These are vast wilderness areas connected by rivers and creeks like seams holding the whole complex together. In the Lemhi Valley, dirt roads and buck and pole fence line grow tiny in the distance, leading the eye into places where the imagination takes over—mysteries, wildlife and adventure filling the darker timber. Dark clouds move behind soft, approachable, snow-dappled mountains. Juniper spills down dry khaki hillsides toward the wide-open range where the river valley starts to flatten out.
Sitting on my tailgate, watching dust roll behind a trailer full of hay on the ranch below, I started to feel like I was wasting my time. I wasn’t having much luck making inroads with ranchers that grazed on public lands in the area. Everyone was too busy calving, or branding or just not returning calls. I was seriously considering packing it all up and heading to Galena Pass to ski with some friends when my phone started buzzing and Merrill Beyeler invited me over to his ranch to chat.
We sat at the dining room table, a painting of a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints temple on the wall above his head. Merrill speaks softly and considers what he wants to say before he opens his mouth. He told me about the 15 minutes his dad gave him to decide whether he would continue the family ranch while a willing buyer stood in the driveway with a check in hand. He kept the ranch in the family. “I’ve never felt comfortable outside of a mountain valley.”
He told me about his 21 years as a public-school teacher and coach, his eight years as a Mormon bishop and his time as the Republican state legislator for the eighth district of Idaho.
Several bills attempting to transfer public lands to the state came up in the House during his last term as an Idaho state representative. Merrill was opposed to these transfer bills. “For one,” he said, “large wildfire regimes like those that are common in Idaho these days could wipe out the whole state budget if we were on the hook for these lands.” He doesn’t see how the state would not sell them off if it were put in that position. The simple cost of maintaining these public lands is more than any Western state could manage. “If those lands end up on the auction block, they’re going to go to people with huge resources,” said Merrill. “Rural communities don’t stand to benefit from that at all. We will lose.”
He understands why some people are tempted by the idea of land transfer. Rural communities in Idaho are hurting. Populations are declining and people are looking for answers. “And to lose that sense of community, that’s a real feeling,” he said.
But Merrill is doubtful about long-lasting economic benefits touted by those who favor land transfers. “To me, to lose the treasure of our public lands would be sacrificing wealth for some promised increase in money in our pocket,” he said. For Merrill, hiking out to the rock outcropping in the high sage with his grandkids, or looking for returning salmon in the oxbows in the tributaries of the Lemhi aren’t things that we can put a dollar value on.
For three decades Merrill and other ranchers in the Lemhi River corridor have been working to restore salmon habitat and mitigate impacts from cattle ranching. They have been working on their own properties to reconnect tributaries—some that have been disconnected for 150 years—have made important adjustments to irrigation tactics and are keeping cattle away from important riparian zones at certain times of the year.
Chinook, steelhead and cutthroat are once again making their way to these mountain valleys from the Pacific Ocean. “We aren’t out of the woods yet, but we’ve seen some improvements,” said Merrill. He and the other ranchers hope to restore native wild salmon populations to their historic spawning areas. This is a colossal task considering the dwindling salmon populations across the state, the eight dams that stand in the way for spawning salmon on the Snake River, and all of the other variables, including climate change and changing oceanic conditions. Merrill says the only way to move forward is to make sure no one is left behind, to bring everyone into the conversation. This conversation is the reason he takes the time to drive up the Salmon River canyon to Challis to meet with other stakeholders every month.
The third Tuesday in April, San Juan County, Utah
I woke up this morning wondering what was going to happen in the two-story stone building on Main Street in Monticello, Utah, at today’s county commissioners’ meeting. There is so much tension in this southeast corner of Utah right now. The Bears Ears National Monument is still in limbo after President Trump’s legally questionable reduction of protection for 85 percent of it. And these meetings are where it all comes to a head.
The districts of San Juan County were un-gerrymandered by court order in 2018. The previous boundaries were unlawful—drawn in order to marginalize the Diné (Navajo) and Ute vote, despite the fact that these populations make up the majority of San Juan County. For decades, the board of county commissioners was made up of a white, conservative, Mormon majority. Now the board includes two Diné Democrats—Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes.
The third commissioner is Bruce Adams. A year earlier he was a special guest in the capitol in Salt Lake City when Trump announced he was going to slash Bears Ears National Monument, opening it up to oil and gas and uranium interests. Adams had the president sign the brim of his big white cowboy hat, “Make San Juan County Great Again.”
The meeting starts with the easy business first: approve the budget to address noxious weeds on county roads, make a decision on whether or not to upgrade the oil to synthetic in the county maintenance vehicles, approve the minutes from last meeting. Then the two Diné commissioners absorb an hour or two of condescension, abuse and anger as they invite citizens to speak.
The rest of the agenda includes a resolution to oppose the monument reduction, a resolution to oppose conservative Utah legislators’ attempts to undermine the Roadless Rule that helps protect federal roadless areas from development, and a decision to have meetings in more rural areas of the counties where more people can access their county government and more Native people may actually be able to attend.
Maryboy is in his 60s. He is wearing his nice Wranglers with a collared long-sleeved shirt tucked in, his jet-black hair neatly combed. As the new chair of the board, he commands the meeting in a friendly yet stentorian way. Grayeyes has long grey hair and an avuncular mustache. His eyes are soft and he listens and speaks carefully, weighing each word.
A large, white, middle-aged lady from Monticello shakes with anger and suggests the new county commissioners aren’t representing the majority of San Juan County. She says she is “dumbfounded that this is the way people are treated by their commissioners”—apparently oblivious to the decades of absent representation that Diné, Ute and other Native groups have enjoyed. Another Monticello local explains that “the majority of the Anglo population does not want this monument.” And this population is “clearly the majority of the county based on who is in the room.” An older man sitting next to me in overalls and hearing aids, who was struggling to control racial slurs under his breath through most of the meeting, stands up to state that the two Diné commissioners are simply puppets of outside environmental interests.
The county commissioners calmly and patiently hear everyone out through all of the hostility. Maryboy and Grayeyes will vote to support the original boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument that five tribes came together to recommend. Ninety-eight percent of Americans who filed public comments also support the original monument. Adams is a predictable “no” vote. The Diné commissioners are the new majority. They will do their job in representing the people who elected them and the many Americans who care so deeply about the land they represent.
Meanwhile, out on Cedar Mesa somewhere, in the heart of all the controversy, in a canyon not yet exploited by pothunters, oil and gas rigs, uranium tailings or too many enthusiastic outdoor recreationists, a raven swoops above spring cottonwoods, the sound of the wind in her feathers. In this canyon, the dwellings and petroglyphs tucked into sandstone walls, the presence of ancestors and the creative powers of the universe still remain undisturbed.
September in the Boundary Waters
We paddle through a quiet, perfect lake about the size of two football fields. It’s one of three before our take-out today to leave the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness here in northern Minnesota. There is a light, lacy convective fog gently lifting off of the still water in the morning sun and dense forest on either side of us. Last night we grilled walleye and grouse over the fire and laughed hard and drank too much whiskey in between thunderstorms and eerie loon calls.
We take out pretty early in the day. Time to stop for a milkshake on the way back to Ely.
Ely, Minnesota, is a former iron-taconite mining town turned outdoor recreation hub. It is a launching pad for Boundary Waters expeditions and experiences—from paddling, hunting and fishing, to dog-mushing, cross-country skiing and winter camping. Inside the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters office downtown, regional organizer Levi Lexvold shows us on a big map where the Chilean company Antofagasta Minerals has recently been awarded leases to mine for sulfide-ore copper on the Kawishiwi River in the Superior National Forest, right on the border of the Boundary Waters.
Sulfide-ore copper mining is nothing like the traditional iron and taconite mining that the Iron Range is famous for. The steel that came out of the Iron Range is a source of pride in Minnesota—it helped the United States win World War II. No one we speak with has a real issue with those old mines. However, mining copper ore has never been done here and the waste rock and tailings are entirely different. It’s also never been done in such a wet, connected watershed without serious impacts to the water system. In 2016, the Obama administration withdrew the mineral leases from the proposed Twin Metals mine, citing the thousands of public comments in support of protecting the area, and the potential for acid mine drainage that could last hundreds of years, harming the ecological systems of the pristine Boundary Waters. In 2017 the Trump administration reversed this decision.
Levi is in his early thirties, with red shaggy hair under his ball cap. He shows me a picture of his beard, which was a runner-up in the Ely beard competition the year before. He had shaped it into a Viking ship. Under his wire frame glasses he has one black eye—the result of a late-night disagreement in a local watering hole. Apparently, an acquaintance felt that Levi’s advocacy for the Boundary Waters was an affront on his culture and identity. Some area residents support the copper mine, touting their long history of mining in the area.
Levi laughs off his shiner but acknowledges that the community is split on the issue. On the same block in downtown Ely we see yard signs that say “We Support Mining, Mining Supports Us” and ones that say “Save the Boundary Waters!” Still, Levi isn’t afraid to speak his truth. Day in and day out he cheerfully manages the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters office where visitors pour in to look at maps and learn about the area and the issue.
A Thursday in November, Along the Rocky Mountain Front
Today we are bucking up fallen timber for firewood on USFS land bordering the Bob Marshall Wilderness with Hal Herring, America’s finest public lands journalist. He is reporting about our land and water from the perspective of someone who is fully immersed in a life lived on public lands. Whether it’s heating his home, hunting and fishing to fill his freezer and feed his family, walking coulees and tributaries looking for ancient buffalo skulls with his daughter or working on crews to restore native habitats, Hal has designed his life to be near public lands and give his family opportunities to grow up close to the inspiration that comes from the mountains, foothills, rivers and creeks of the Rocky Mountain Front.
In Hal’s house there are piles of books on every available surface. This modest home in Augusta, Montana, is a repository for one of the most impressive conservation libraries I have ever seen. To complete the picture, Hal has to be there drinking Jack Daniels with you, maybe watching YouTube videos of violent African warlords as you drift into disturbed sleep on his futon. Why are we watching videos about cannibal warlords in Liberia you may ask? I think it in part explains Hal. He has a genuine curiosity for everything, especially for people’s motivations.
When he speaks, his growly Alabama drawl disarms any pretense, but then he’ll proceed to spout some unfathomable brilliance. His recall is uncanny. He can quote from Matthiessen in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, or maybe he’ll rattle off the important lines in the Clean Water Act, or paraphrase the entire script of Matewan, the 1987 film about the 1920s coal industry’s brutality toward laborers. Or maybe he’ll just remind you of lessons learned at the Battle of Stalingrad. Listening to Hal makes you feel like maybe you haven’t read or seen anything. He listens with complete absorption and sincerity to everyone who speaks with him.
Hal told me that growing up, school was nearly impossible for him. All he wanted to do was be outside. He left high school early to go work on an orange farm in Florida, saving up money to travel and climb. He worked all kinds of jobs that kept him outside—from fishing rigs in the Gulf to tree planting for Weyerhaeuser and mine reclamation on Black Mesa in Arizona. To this day he still runs sagebrush planting crews and works collecting white pine pinecones to supplement his modest writing income.
Hal is doing the largely thankless work that this country depends on—writing about the greatest threats to our public lands and giving us the tools to know what is actually happening with our land, air and water, then letting us decide what we are going to do about it. He often says, “You can’t hold it against someone for not knowing what they haven’t had the opportunity to learn. It’s my obligation with this public land stuff to share what I can.” Hal’s tenacity for the truth reporting on these issues is a testament to American ideals at their best—opportunities for an informed public to hold decision-makers accountable on these American lands held in trust for us all.
We load the back of Hal’s old green Chevy Sierra pickup with a heaping cord of nice pine rounds, and his black lab, Booray, somehow finds his way back to us after running amuck for an hour along the river. Bouncing down the Forest Service road back toward town, I ask him what is it that public lands actually mean to him. He has a one-word answer: “Freedom.”