Category: Public Lands

Stories about public lands policy and management

The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds

The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds

An oil rig on the Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado (Photo via US Forest Service)

An hour’s drive northeast of Denver and encompassing an area twice the size of the city, the Pawnee National Grassland’s whopping diversity of songbirds and raptors has earned the area a reputation as a birder’s paradise. Some people drive hundreds of miles and fly in from around the world each summer to view mountain plovers and burrowing owls, lark buntings and McCowns’s longspurs.

But in recent years, birders have begun spotting a whole other family of beasts nesting in the Pawnee. Oil and gas drilling has skyrocketed in the area over the past decade, part of a nationwide industry boom that has tapped underground shale formations up and down Colorado’s Front Range. Just as he tracks the birds he sees, Gary Lefko notes the pump jacks and well pads that have sprung up on the grassland. On some outings, he has seen dozens of tall blue flames from flare stacks, burning off unused methane and glowing in the half dark in and around the Pawnee. Along state highway 14, which runs through the grassland, Lefko and his wife count the tank batteries — silos that store oil — and other industry equipment that keeps filling in pieces of the prairie. “There’s more every time,” Lefko says.

Amid the massive grassland, the industry impacts may not seem like much. The Pawnee still mostly looks like an empty, undeveloped canvas of greens and browns. But each new well pad and scraped patch of ground and every truck that rumbles along and kicks up dust from the dirt roads affects this subtly beautiful ecosystem. The piecemeal energy development destroys bird and wildlife habitat and alters the shortgrass prairie in ways that even scientists don’t fully understand. Some compare the impacts to death by a thousand cuts for the flora and fauna of grasslands already in decline.

“The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds”

Westword, July 28, 2015

Counties use a ‘coordination’ clause to fight the feds

Counties use a ‘coordination’ clause to fight the feds

Farm in the Bitterroot Valley, with the Bitterroot National Forest beyond, in Ravalli County, Montana (Via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2011, Ravalli County (Montana) Commissioner Suzy Foss asked American Stewards of Liberty for help. The Texas-based nonprofit trains local governments to use “coordination,” an often-overlooked provision in key environmental laws that govern land management. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act specifically directs the Bureau of Land Management to “coordinate the land use inventory, planning, and management activities” with states, local governments and tribes. The National Forest Management Act includes similar language for the Forest Service.

According to American Stewards Executive Director Margaret Byfield, coordination means that federal agencies must involve counties and states in planning and give them an “equal position at the negotiating table” for decision-making. “It is,” she says, “pretty straightforward.” The nonprofit says over 100 local governments have invoked coordination to fight land-use restrictions since 2006.

Many groups, including environmentalists, try to influence land management with scientific research and alternative management proposals, but policy experts say that the coordination movement has a distinctly anti-federal government flavor — a Sagebrush Rebellion in bureaucratic clothing, with links to state efforts to take over federal lands. Coordination proponents are “essentially arguing a county would have veto authority on federal land decisions,” says Martin Nie, director of the Bolle Center for People and Forests at the University of Montana. And federal officials, who interpret “coordination” very differently, fear it’s stoking more conflicts than it resolves by misinforming locals.

But though critics, including federal land managers, may dismiss American Stewards’ interpretation of coordination, it’s gaining traction among state and U.S. lawmakers and Western governors. “It has no legal basis, but it’s as much about trying to frame things politically,” Nie says.These proposals are pushing way, way outside the mainstream.”

“Counties use a ‘coordination’ clause to fight the feds “

High Country News, May 11, 2015

Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound

Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound

Clint Georg, at Saratoga Forest Management's sawmill
Clint Georg, at Saratoga Forest Management’s sawmill, which reopened in 2013 after a 10-year closure. (JZ)

When the afternoon work break ends at Saratoga Forest Management, an earsplitting ruckus resumes as dozens of sawmill workers return to their posts. Inside the two-story facility, timber is debarked, sawed, sorted and sent to dry in a kiln. By day’s end, the mill will crank out 300,000 board feet of premium studs — enough framing lumber for about 20 average-sized American houses. Not bad for a business that was sitting idle 18 months ago.

All the lumber produced here comes from pine-beetle-killed or infected lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce, with many studs carrying the distinctive blue stain of beetle damage. Saratoga, a small southern Wyoming town of fewer than 1,700, sits in the midst of the state’s most severe pine-beetle outbreak, says Clint Georg, who reopened the mill with partners in January 2013 after a 10-year lull.

The Saratoga mill and another recently restarted stud mill in Montrose, Colorado, are reviving the Rocky Mountain region’s wood-products industry. Both use beetle-killed wood to produce lumber. The byproducts, like sawdust and wood chips, are used by other businesses to make stove pellets, building materials and other goods. Other scraps go to a biomass power plant to produce electricity. Together, these industries are putting beetle-killed trees to use, perhaps reducing forest fire risks in the process. Yet the mills remain hampered by a lack of raw materials.

The Forest Service now sells far fewer board-feet than it once did, as the agency emphasizes new-era forestry that relies less on logging the biggest trees. The stud mills, lacking enough timber, can’t run at full capacity. They need logs and timber sales to stay afloat, Georg says, and the businesses using the byproducts need the mills.

With wood trickling in instead of flowing, Georg and others are worried that the uptick in their business may not last. Neither the industry nor the agency has quite figured out how to restore forest health while guaranteeing a steady flow of timber.

“Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound”

High Country News, November 10, 2014

The Cradle of Wilderness

The Cradle of Wilderness

Trappers Lake, White River National Forest, Colorado (Photo via USFS)

In the summer of 1919, the Forest Service dispatched Arthur Carhart, a young landscape architect, to survey Trappers Lake in western Colorado’s Flat Tops—a remote and rugged corner of the state spiked with volcanic cliffs and lush forests. Carhart’s assignment: Plan a new road that would circle the lake and provide access for 100 homes and a marina. After taking in the pristine setting, Carhart couldn’t do it. He returned to his bosses with an entirely different concept. He called for the road to end before the lake and said its shores and woods should be preserved from development. “There are portions of natural scenic beauty which are God-made,” he wrote in a 1919 memo for a forest supervisor, “and…which of a right should be the property of all people.” The plea won over the Forest Service; it made Trappers Lake off-limits to new roads and logging and mining.

The strict protection for Trappers Lake served as a template for what became known as “wilderness.” Carhart’s vision set in motion a four decade–long political battle to officially preserve many of the country’s natural areas that culminated in the creation of the Wilderness Act 50 years ago last month. “Carhart changed the course of how we manage national forests and other public lands,” says Ken Coffin, district ranger for the White River National Forest’s Blanco District, which includes Trappers Lake.

“The Cradle of Wilderness”

5280 Magazine, October 2014

Busting Out of Boom and Bust

Busting Out of Boom and Bust

Methane flaring from natural gas well (image via Ecowatch)
Methane flaring from natural gas well (image via Ecowatch)

From the growing mountain town of Carbondale, Jock Jacober and his three sons operate Crystal River Meats, processing grass-fed beef that he and other local ranchers raise. Started in 1999, the specialty business has grown to distribute to Whole Foods and Natural Grocers supermarkets. Most of the ranchers rely on U.S. Forest Service grazing leases in Coal Basin and other designated roadless parcels in the Thompson Divide. “For 100 years, guys have been running cattle up there,” Jacober says. “It’s a good place to grow food for the valley.”

Jacober, the son of a petroleum geologist, says, “I’ve watched energy development all my life across the West.” …  In the past decade, companies have employed hydraulic fracturing—the use of chemical-laden fluids to crack open and reach shale-rock and tight-sands formations—to drill tens of thousands of oil and gas wells on private and public lands in western Colorado, and the industry isn’t done yet. This latest boom in the West’s energy cycle threatens the region’s landscape on a scale larger than any other.

While ranchers like Jacober hold grazing leases in the Thompson Divide, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has leased the mineral rights to the ground underneath for oil and gas exploration. Since 2008, Jacober and other locals have been working to protect the expansive public landscape.

“Virtually all of the guys we run with think that if you get development started up there, we’ll eventually be out of business,” says Jacober, who sits on the board of directors of the Thompson Divide Coalition, a group of ranchers, local officials, farmers, river runners, hunters, and environmentalists. “There won’t be range for cattle anymore. It’ll be range for trucks hauling water and fracking fluid and for pipelines.”

“Busting Out of Boom and Bust”

Sierra Magazine, July/August 2013


One Last Look Across the Range

One Last Look Across the Range

Bob Abbey speaking at public meeting in eastern Montana, September 2010

The chief of America’s largest land-management agency sat down to share some parting wisdom with me before retiring and after nearly 3 decades of working on environmental challenges across the West.

My interview with former director U.S. Bureau of Land Management director Bob Abbey, “Abbey’s Road,” ran online for High Country News in October 2012.


Timber Road Rage

Timber Road Rage

Chris Winter, of Crag Law Center, checks out logging- runoff impacts on the Tillamook State Forest.

A battle over the effects of logging and roads on salmon streams and drinking water is moving up to the Supreme Court, with sides disagreeing over just how perilous the problem — or a solution — is. I visited the Tillamook State Forest in Oregon — ground zero for logging runoff — this spring to look into the issue for High Country News.

My July 23, 2012 article, “Oregon ignores logging road runoff, to the peril of native fish,” looks at environmentalists’ concerns over runoff impacts from timber operations in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, and the claims behind their lawsuit.

Read More Read More

Serendipity in the Desert

Serendipity in the Desert

Anti-government Sagebrush Rebels have long ruled local decision-making in southern Utah, but change is in the air with the infusion of wilderness wanderers and animal aficionados.

My January 24, 2011 cover story for High Country News, “Utah’s Sagebrush Rebellion capital mellows as animal-lovers and enviros move in,” reports on the region’s swirling social, political and environmental dynamics, from antigovernment protests over public lands to failed bikini bans to supposedly uphold local, social values.



One hundred and forty-one years after a tragic massacre, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians are reconnecting with their heritage and history in Colorado.

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, December 8, 2005 (republished in Indian Education Today, February 2006)

By Joshua Zaffos

Allen Joe Black Wolf and Steve Brady listen to a soundtrack of traditional Indian songs—known as “49s”—as they drive a rental car southbound on Colorado Highway 71 through the heart of their ancestral homeland. Voices cry and sing, and hands slap and beat drums in the car’s speakers, and the Northern Cheyenne men look out at bundles of hay, small herds of cattle and their tribe’s former territory, which appears to extend forever across the plains beneath stretched-out clouds and the setting sun.

Otto Braided Hair steers a rented minivan just ahead on the highway, and fellow Northern Cheyenne LaForce “Lee” Lone Bear and Floyd “Bucky” Glenmore ride along. The remains of a final member of the tribe—one of about 150 victims murdered at the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864—rest in a cedar box in the cargo space of  the van. The Northern Cheyenne are on a journey from their reservation in Lame Deer, Montana, to La Junta, Colorado. In between, they traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect their displaced relative in order to return the remains to the banks of Sand Creek.

Many historians consider the Sand Creek Massacre the most brutal and deliberate attack on an Indian village in American history, and the raid initiated almost three decades of brutal warfare up and down the Great Plains between the United States Army and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The massacre also marked the onset of the tribes’ cultural decline.

“Our people never did recover from that. [The massacre] completely fractured, broke down the traditional government of the Cheyenne tribe,” says Brady, who occasionally chants with the recorded 49s between sentences. “[By 1890,] it was about to the point where our own people were nearly exterminated.”

One hundred and forty-one years after Sand Creek, the northern and southern bands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho are scattered between reservations and other lands in Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma. They are physically and spiritually  separated from the territory and traditions of their relatives, and trying to reconnect with their history and maintain their identity.

The Massacre

In the dawn light of November 29, 1864, 700 Colorado soldiers under the command of Colonel John Chivington attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho camp along Sand Creek, about twenty miles outside the present-day small town of Eads.

Chivington was a Methodist minister turned Civil War hero, and he had no tolerance for or interest in the tribes. His troops were mostly volunteers who had signed on for 100 days of service specifically to kill Indians. A few weeks earlier, the Cheyenne and Arapaho had followed Chivington’s orders and left the area around a military fort on the Arkansas River, camped along Sand Creek and flew an American flag over their village as a sign of peace.

That November morning, many of the tribe’s warriors were hunting for game — under the instruction of the U.S. military— leaving about 500 mainly Cheyenne women and children in the encampment. As the militia approached, an American flag waved over the lodge of Black Kettle, one of the Cheyenne chiefs.

Black Kettle believed the flag would spare the lives of his people, and he encouraged them to gather around his lodge as he also raised a white banner of truce. The militia fired indiscriminately on the Indians, and the chief and the others fled for their lives along the creek.

“My great-grandparents were still in bed, and they woke up to the sounds of guns and howitzers raining down on them,” says Brady, a former high school teacher on the rez who chairs the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Site Project Committee.

His great-grandfather, Braided Hair, was one of the few warriors in the village, and he lassoed a stampeding horse for his pregnant wife and got her to safety.

The American soldiers slaughtered without mercy. They hacked off limbs with hatchets, and scalped the wounded without killing them. Defenseless groups of women and children who burrowed into pits along the stream banks were raped and shot. One pregnant Indian woman was cut open and her unborn child left lying beside her.

“Squaws’ snatches were cut out for trophies,” wrote Silas Soule, a captain under Chivington who refused to participate in the massacre and positioned his division to prevent more deaths. “You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there, but every word I have told you is the truth.”

About 150 Indians, mostly women and children, died at the Sand Creek Massacre. Black Kettle and his wife, who survived nine bullets, managed to escape up the creek, but many other tribal leaders did not.

White Antelope, another Cheyenne chief, stepped out of his lodge when the soldiers first approached the camp and yelled, “Stop! Stop!” in English. Chivington’s troops shot the unarmed 75-year-old man. One soldier then scalped White Antelope, cut off his nose, ears and genitals, and boasted that he would make a tobacco pouch of the chief’s scrotum—as he still lay dying.

In those final moments of White Antelope’s life, surrounded by the dead and wounded of his band, the old chief repeated the words of a tribal “journey song” over  and over — “Only the Rocks Live on Forever.”

The Repatriation

The soldiers of Chivington’s regiment left Sand Creek with scalps, bones and gruesome tobacco pouches. They paraded through Denver as heroes when they returned. A few days before Christmas 1864, the Rocky Mountain News reported, “Cheyenne scalps are getting thick here as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one, and is anxious to get another to send east.”

Army surgeons returned to Sand Creek in 1867 to gather bones—usually the skulls—for ballistics studies and an “Indian cranial study” in the name of the pseudo-science of phrenology. Those samples ended up in the Smithsonian museum, which eventually housed about 18,500 Native American remains including 4,500 skulls.

This status as souvenirs and specimens has represented a tragic fate for the remains, which the government, museums and tribes have begun to address only in the last fifteen years. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The law established a formal process to catalog and return certain cultural items, including human remains, to affiliated tribes and descendants. Museums across the country have since repatriated, or returned, such artifacts to tribes.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes know of seven human remains from Sand Creek held by the federal government and state museums. The Colorado Historical Society repatriated a scalp lock to the tribes in 1997 through NAGPRA. Representatives of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes took custody of the individual this past October. The widow of Major Jacob Downing, who fought under Chivington at Sand Creek, originally donated the long lock of hair to the state in 1911.

On this trip, the Northern Cheyenne have picked up a skull fragment of a Sand Creek victim from the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln. The museum knows the cranium was donated in 1927 but not much else: A staff member accidentally discovered it in a drawer with some old paper money.

“I think it’s certainly one of the most important [repatriations] because of the historical interest” in Sand Creek, says Priscilla Grew, director of the University of Nebraska State Museum. “Every time we have one of these repatriations, it brings back a lot of history. It’s a very emotional experience, I think, for everyone involved.”

The Northern Cheyenne have brought the skull fragment to Denver where the Colorado Historical Society has stored it for the night. The next morning, before driving down Highway 71 to La Junta, the Indians meet with historical society officials, who invite the men to a basement vault to view a table of artifacts claimed from Sand Creek. There’s a bow and two arrows, a warrior’s buckskin shirt colored with yellow ochre and decorated with beads and scalp locks like tassels. Two war bonnets, lost in the chaos. A single buckskin moccasin.

The Historic Site

The two vehicles arrive at Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta—a National Park Service historic site where Sand Creek remains are being held. This past August, President Bush signed a law officially creating the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Previous laws approved a study to confirm the location of the massacre and O.K.’d the acquisition of private lands for the site. To date, the federal government and the tribes have purchased almost 2,400 acres along Sand Creek, which the Park Service will manage once the massacre site is finalized.

Park Service Superintendent Alexa Roberts says Sand Creek will be the first unit in the National Park system recognized as a “massacre” site. The agency and tribes are now considering a visitors center and interpretive trails and the placement of a cemetery for the repatriated remains before opening the area to the public.

Steve Brady says he’d like to see a simple monument inscribed with the message of White Antelope’s journey song. Roberts and the Northern Cheyenne representatives envision very little development, and hope visitors will recognize the site as a place of life and activity, and not just a historic relic.

The day after the Indians arrive in southeastern Colorado, they head out to the massacre site with Roberts and other Park Service staff, and the connection between past and present is evident in the prayers of Lee Lone Bear, a Northern Cheyenne spiritual adviser.

Like the others who have made this journey from Lame Deer, Lone Bear is a direct descendant of Sand Creek victims. His paternal grandfather married a daughter of White Antelope. His great-grandfather was Lone Bear, or One-Eye, a chief who also died at Sand Creek.

On this November afternoon, Lee Lone Bear is leading a prayer on a bluff overlooking the cottonwoods and dry creek bed of the massacre site. He chants in the Cheyenne language, and Allen Joe Black Wolf, who is learning the spiritual ceremonies from Lone Bear, stands at his side.

Lone Bear later explains that his words are part of an ongoing invocation that began before he left Lame Deer.

“I started the prayer at home and told them [the ancestors whose remains will be repatriated] we were coming and asked them for a good trip,” says Lone Bear. “At Lincoln, I prayed and said, ‘I’m taking you to Denver and La Junta, and we’ll bring you to where you’ve fallen.’”

His prayers include words for the young people of the tribe, and those in the Armed Forces fighting in Iraq. “We even pray for our president, President Bush. We pray that he makes the right decisions, even though he’s not well liked anymore,” continues Lone Bear. (“I even asked the Creator to watch over you,” he tells this journalist, “to make a good report and get it right.”)

“And I asked the spirit world for good health for the tribe and families, and to get a cemetery and reparations.”

The Reparations

Thirteen years before Sand Creek, the United States government and the tribes signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, establishing the first reservation for the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The territory encompassed 51 million acres across four present-day states, including 27 million acres in Colorado. The Indians retained rights to hunt, fish, travel and live on the land, and the tribes and the U.S. both agreed “to maintain good faith and friendship in all their mutual intercourse, and to make an effective and lasting peace.”

The peace lasted about seven years until the 1858 Pike’s Peak gold rush, when 140,000 prospectors flooded into Colorado. Conflict erupted, ultimately leading to Chivington’s aggression at Sand Creek in 1864. One year after the massacre, still reeling from the devastation and violence, some Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs signed a new treaty on the Little Arkansas River in Kansas, surrendering claims and rights to Colorado Territory.

But the U.S. government also accepted blame for Sand Creek. Article 6 of the treaty recognized “the gross and wanton outrages perpetrated” that day, and the government agreed to pay reparations in the form of land grants and “securities, animals, goods, provisions, or such other useful articles” to the survivors and victims’ families.

Fast-forward a century when the U.S. Indian Claims Commission negotiated land-claims settlements with Indians whose territory was taken without compensation. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes gave up any outstanding claims in exchange for just $15 million. But Sand Creek descendants still retained the right to unpaid reparations.

For the 5,000 Northern Cheyenne members who live on the reservation in Eastern Montana, per-capita income is less than $5,000 and unemployment hovers around 70 percent. Similar to other reservations, alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and other poverty-related problems cast a dark shadow over the tribe’s future.

“This is where we [the Northern Cheyenne] always wanted to live,” says Norma Wolfchief Gourneau, over a cup of coffee at her home on the rez. A huge home theater TV towers over the living room, and a litter of kittens bounce around her back porch amid rows of old cars and trucks.

“But there’s not a lot of opportunities for jobs here,” continues Gourneau, a descendant of chief Black Kettle and a former tribal vice president. She now works for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Billings, an hour’s drive away.

The Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho of Oklahoma face similar challenges. The tribes don’t have a reservation; instead, the 11,400 members live within “service areas” in the panhandle, where they’re eligible for government services. Per-capita income is less than $9,000, and the unemployment rate is around 60 percent.

Any compensation or reparations could make a huge difference in the lives of these people, which may be why Steve Hillard, CEO of the Golden-based investment firm Council Tree Communications, approached the tribes in 2003 with a proposition for a casino in Colorado—in the name of retribution.

“It was a departure from what we normally do,” says Hillard, a Colorado State University graduate, whose company has worked mostly with Alaskan tribes on telecommunications deals. “We just did it because we believed it was the right thing to do for the Cheyenne and Arapaho.”

Hillard struck an agreement with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho and then unveiled his proposal to Colorado in December 2003: The Indians wanted to open a casino on 500 acres outside Denver International Airport and, in exchange, would abandon any claims to the 27 million acres of Colorado—40 percent of the state—under the Fort Laramie Treaty.

The supporters of the “Homecoming Project,” as the $150 million casino complex was named, suggested the gaming revenue could serve as reparations. Backers estimated a metro Denver casino would create 10,000 jobs and bring in up to $500 million a year for the tribes, plus $100 million in taxes for Colorado.

Despite the economic potential, Sand Creek descendants among the tribes took offense.

“We don’t care if you build a hundred casinos,” says Gourneau. “But we say, ‘Don’t use Sand Creek to get your casino and don’t use Sand Creek as a hammer [to hold] over the state of Colorado.’”

“When they first came out with the offer, they included Sand Creek as a bargaining chip,” says Joe Big Medicine, a Southern Cheyenne Sand Creek descendant. “When we met with Council Tree, we demanded that Sand Creek be left out.”

Hillard relented on the association, but he still tried to talk about “genocide” when the Homecoming Project got a hearing from the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee in September 2004. But after a chilly reception from Congress and continued opposition from Gov. Bill Owens and the northern tribes, the investors regrouped and targeted the city of Pueblo for the casino site. The project received approval from county commissioners this August before the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal council ultimately rejected the land exchange a month later.

Hillard says the casino is “at best, on hold,” but adds that the swing in support among southern tribe members “reflects honest and very deep divisions.”

Still, Hillard’s venture created confusion—over the creation of a Park Service unit and the tribal casino proposal—and stalled the legislation to designate the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

Hillard “sidetracked us enough as it was. It almost completely derailed us,” says Steve Brady, who adds that Congress, not a casino developer, should move ahead and finally pay reparations for Sand Creek descendants.

The Run

Braided Hair — the great-grandfather of brothers Steve Brady and Otto Braided Hair — was hurt during the Sand Creek massacre but escaped that morning. He found his pregnant wife alive and riding the same horse for warmth a few days later.

“[Braided Hair] was among those delegated to go back and look for survivors and horses,” says Brady, who has kept the Anglicized name Indian Affairs later gave his family while his brother uses his ancestor’s given name. “He went back to the village and…unbelievable carnage, mutilated bodies, the whole village burned. So, they were left totally destitute. My great-grandfather never forgave the white people for that.”

Braided Hair lived to be 102 years old, dying in 1934. By then, most of the old ways of life had disappeared.

In the years following the massacre, bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho alternately pushed for peace and war with the United States, losing either way. By 1890, the government had relegated the northern and southern tribes to scrawny reservations, scraps of their once-expansive dominion.

Members of the tribes needed permission from the government Indian agent to leave a reservation. Elders were discouraged from sharing their heritage, and many chose to suppress stories of the past. Children learned little about their native language, culture and history. Few residents of the Northern Cheyenne reservation have ever journeyed to Sand Creek, and the tribes had even lost track of exactly where their ancestors had camped and been attacked.

“I didn’t learn about Sand Creek in elementary school or high school,” says Otto Braided Hair, coordinator of the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Site Project.

“For us, everything is healing. The repatriations. This [the massacre site] becoming a national historic site,” says Braided Hair, as he walks around Sand Creek and speaks of the role of the tribe’s prayers in their accomplishments. “Everything seemed almost impossible [in 1999]. Even the healing run.”

Since 1999, a group of runners, children and adults, commemorate the Sand Creek Massacre every year by jogging from the site to Denver during the week of Thanksgiving—and the anniversary of the attack.

Lee Lone Bear, the spiritual adviser, conceived of the healing run as another way to actively remember and reconnect with the history of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Both northern and southern tribes say the run is a centerpiece for education for their members and the American public, and it’s even helping them to connect with each other.

In the early morning of the run that first year, Lone Bear held a pipe ceremony along the creek with Braided Hair and a private landowner. Lone Bear says the men heard a woman crying, only to realize it was a chorus of coyotes circling them. The landowner later said that deer and elk—long absent from the area—returned after the ceremony.

The Future

A few weeks after the repatriation, both Braided Hair and Lone Bear return to Colorado for the seventh annual healing run.

The night after Thanksgiving and the run at Sand Creek, members of the northern and southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes have gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Denver Art Museum. There are about 40 people at “the Wheel,” an outdoor art exhibit of a circle of ten forked “trees” painted red with messages of history and hope for Native Americans.

Lone Bear recounts the story of White Antelope chanting his journey song as he died at Sand Creek, and then begins to sing those words in Cheyenne — “Only the Rocks Live on Forever” — with Braided Hair and others. Braided Hair follows with a long yelp that gives chills even on a 30-degree night.

The massacre site is on the verge of becoming a national historic site run by the federal government. The healing run is bringing attention, and receiving support from the city of Denver. The Colorado Historical Society is planning a major exhibit on the state’s Native American inhabitants. The Cheyenne and Arapaho are learning how to make sure their heritage and their stories live forever with the rocks.

“In our writings, we say it is our tribal history,” Braided Hair tells the group at the vigil, “but it is not. It is the history of the land.”

Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers

buffhazeActivists and government agents battle over where America’s last wild buffalo will roam.

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, April 2005 (Also published via AlterNet, May 2005)
By Joshua Zaffos

It’s early April and I’m bedded down, embedded if you will, along the floodplain of the Madison River in Montana. Crouching next to me in the willows and late spring snow, Justine Sanchez has the volume on her two-way radio turned down low so as not to reveal our whereabouts to the Gallatin County deputy sheriff parked on the shoulder above us.

A distant hootin’ and hollerin’ of men on horseback, the crisp blast of blank rifle rounds, or “crackers,” and the approaching buzz of snowmobiles signal a looming clash. This area comprising and surrounding Yellowstone National Park has been a battleground since white men showed up (how many environmental stories start this way?) and the American buffalo, icon of the West, stands at the center of the conflict.

With her worn wool sweater, hand-knit hat and long dreadlocks, Sanchez is a warrior-activist with the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC), “the only group working in the field, every day, to stop the slaughter and harassment of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo.” Most of the year, she lives in the Colorado mountain town of Ward, where she leads yoga classes, works at a spa and raises her 8-year-old son, Japhy, with her husband, Roman, a bilingual elementary education teacher. But each winter since 2000, the Sanchez family has joined hundreds of volunteers protecting the buffalo on the western boundary of Yellowstone.

Some of the bison carry a disease called brucellosis, which they contracted from cattle almost 90 years ago. Brucellosis causes reduced fertility, lesions in females’ reproductive tracts and abortion of the first pregnancy after exposure. Now, Montana and its cattle are certified as brucellosis-free and ranchers fear the buffalo will infect their livestock. Although such a transmission has never occurred, the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) persecutes buffalo that leave Yellowstone: Agents round up and force, or haze, roaming herds back to the national park, capturing and testing animals for brucellosis and killing those that are infected. This is the battle that BFC volunteers enlist to fight.

Hazing the Herd

The week before my arrival here, nearly 300 buffalo wandered seven miles outside the national park along the Madison River to Horse Butte, where pregnant females migrate every spring to give birth. Even though no cattle graze the area this time of year and only a few do so in the summer–after risk of infection has virtually disappeared–the DOL captured 24 bison and killed eight that tested positive for brucellosis. State agents hazed the remaining herd back inside Yellowstone, like a postmodern cattle drive with snowmobiles and “crackers.” Bison have already returned to Horse Butte.

A crackle and a voice come over the airwaves of Sanchez’s radio. I barely make out the words although the message is immediately clear. She springs into action and I follow, scampering up the slope from the river to the road, just in time to see about two dozen bison jog in an unnaturally tight formation from the other side of U.S. Highway 191, then hop the guardrail and cross toward us.

A herd this size took refuge in the heart of Yellowstone 120 years ago, following a campaign by American pioneers to vanquish the buffalo and Native American economies centered around the species. That herd spawned the 4,200 or so wild bison that exist in the region today.

“We love you,” Sanchez calls out to the beasts.

On the heels of the animals are six “bubbles,” as the BFC volunteers identify snowmobiles over their radios. The machines skid across the highway asphalt and then onto the dirt of the shoulder as the buffalo exhaustedly trot down to the Madison and across the imaginary line that means they’re back inside the national park.

The county sheriff’s deputy, Rob Burns, drives toward us to reprimand Sanchez for getting so close to the animals. Other BFC volunteers–more than a dozen of them–emerge from other surveillance posts, seemingly materializing from the woods and earth. They converge not 50 feet from the agents, ready to conduct their own haze of sorts, harassing the government employees who are harassing the buffalo they’re here to defend.

“We don’t really get this close to these guys in this capacity,” Sanchez admits to me after the deputy walks off. For a moment, I wonder if she’s talking about the massive buffalo or the government agents, but it’s obvious which ones she thinks are more dangerous.

Psychological Warfare

“Y’all should get a real job,” shouts Stephany Seay, who along with Sanchez is one of two media coordinators for the campaign. She’s wearing a silver buffalo pendant around her neck, a green military jacket and a brown wool skullcap. Her eyes are a fierce blue. Like several other volunteers, she has a camcorder tightly trained on the government officials as she wages psychological warfare on them.

“Where’s all your cows, livestock inspectors?” demands Seay, who then goes into a mocking redneck drawl. “‘Let’s go chase the buffalo, guh.'” Her comrades snicker and keep the cameras rolling.

The officials, who actually represent a variety of government agencies including the DOL; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; the U.S. Forest Service; and the National Park Service, don’t respond. They gather with the county deputy and look under the hoods of a few of the snowmobiles, the motors apparently overworked from skidding through the dirt.

Together, these agencies implement the Interagency Bison Management Plan, a cooperative scheme finalized in 2000. The plan upholds the DOL’s right to control and kill wandering buffalo in the name of disease control for cattle, yet also outlines steps for increasing tolerance for bison roaming along rivers outside the park.

Steve Torbit, a Boulder-based senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, calls the plan a “small but significant step” because, without the agreement, any bison that left the park would be killed on sight.

“On the other hand,” says Torbit, “Montana still continues to harass bison on the western side of the park where there are no cattle.”

Five years into the plan, tolerance for the buffalo hasn’t increased much. Animals that leave the park are still hazed, captured and slaughtered. Buffalo calves are sometimes vaccinated for brucellosis and quarantined for up to four years, although the vaccine isn’t entirely successful and the effects of enclosed isolation on the animals’ natural behavior are unclear. The BFC and other critics argue that the engine driving the management plan isn’t working properly either.

Deputy Burns now approaches the BFC volunteers, mostly twenty-something-year-old kids with unruly beards, bandannas tied around their heads and faces, and ragtag clothing. My nose is stuffed, but one of my newspaper colleagues tells me they have “enough hippie B.O. to choke a horse.” Here’s a band of eco-Zapatistas and, as the cop approaches, the mountain air stings even through my clogged nasal passages like a riot might erupt.

Buffalo on the Badge

“Sir, I’m going to need to talk to you about a federal investigation about assaulting an officer,” Deputy Burns says to Roman Sanchez, Justine’s husband. A black fleece ski mask covers most of Roman’s head; wraparound sunglasses hide his eyes.

Burns corrals the defiant Roman a few yards away to question him. The other BFC volunteers keep the camcorders locked in, pushing closer to the officials. Their jeers escalate toward a hostile antagonism, including shouts of “liars” and “racists.” Apparently, one of the agents called Roman a “nigger” yesterday; today, they’re claiming that Roman threw a snowball at one of the federal agents.

“Is this why you joined the Park Service?” Seay snarls at a law enforcement official, sticking her camera in his face. “To harass the last wild buffalo and support racist behavior? Buffalo on the badge and everything.”

He says nothing.

Mike Mease, one of the BFC’s cofounders, later details where this aggression is coming from. “In the last three weeks, we’ve had some of the worst violence aimed at us that I’ve ever seen.”

Last week, a pickup truck fired off paintballs at volunteers stationed along the road. Before that, someone loosened the lugnuts on a BFC car and a tire fell off the vehicle when a volunteer started driving. Combined with the onslaught of this year’s hazing and killing, passions and tempers are running high.

Justine Sanchez stands behind the others, a soothing voice amid the rage. “Montana should be celebrating that the last wild buffalo have chosen to live here,” she keeps repeating.

Eventually, Deputy Burns finishes his talk with Roman. Both sides simmer and disperse. The government agents hop on their snowmobiles and disappear back across the road. The BFC volunteers return to their posts. The buffalo are already out of sight but will inevitably migrate along the Madison to Horse Butte again.

Tom, an older volunteer with Native American ancestry and a long, white beard, leans over to me and speaks with a grin. “Welcome to our world.”

Central Command

The world of the Buffalo Field Campaign physically exists in a setting that most of us only know through postcards and Robert Redford movies. When not spread out in the field along the Madison River and its tributaries, the group shacks up along the shore of Hebgen Lake, ten miles from the national park tourist trap of West Yellowstone, Montana, a town of 1,100 people that caters to summer RVs and winter snowmobiles.

A few days before my arrival, Seay emails directions to the BFC compound: “We are out on [Highway] 287 right by the Square Deal Bar–you’ll see the large cabin and tipis, and you’ll know that’s us.”

The cabin and a few other outbuildings are actually remnants of a previous high-country commune. Not much has changed since the BFC set up shop eight years ago. The log cabin houses anywhere from twenty to 60 volunteers, depending on the week. The rooms and lofts are mostly packed with tight bunks. A side room nicknamed Siberia–in a region where winter temps drop to 60 below zero–is lined with dry goods and activist paraphernalia like banners and papier mâché effigies of Park Service employees. One outbuilding functions as the media center, filled with recording equipment and computers; another serves as Central Command for the wild-haired field crew.

A handful of paid staffers, including Sanchez, Seay and Mease, live in yurts and tipis scattered around the cabins. Mease has a large bison painted on his tipi. Some Native Americans decorated their tipis with animals or other images to invoke their powers, and there was no symbol more potent than the bison.

Mease is the godfatherly bull of this herd of activists. He originally came with a few others to the Yellowstone region in 1990 to videotape the slaughter of the buffalo. The dedicated corps grew each year and drew the attention of allies, including members of the American Indian Movement and other Native American activists.

The catalyzing episode occurred during the severe winter of 1996-1997 when the Department of Livestock killed 1,083 buffalo. Mease videotaped the massacre, and the activists officially formed the Buffalo Field Campaign in the aftermath. By the following winter, they were set up on Hebgen Lake, a worldwide call for volunteers was out, and the BFC was shining a macabre spotlight on the grisly work of the State of Montana.

Field Work

Now, the group’s annual field season runs from November until May or June, coinciding with the buffalo’s migration from their territory inside the national park to the river bottoms beyond where they give birth to their calves in the spring. Volunteers mainly monitor and document the movement of the buffalo and the DOL, often enduring long, cold shifts in the field.

But the group also uses methods similar to those employed by the eco-activists who treesit 150 feet above the ground in California redwoods, in protest of logging. Last spring, a BFC volunteer named Akiva constructed a “mono-pod”–a 30-foot-high platform on a pole–blocking the door to the state’s bison trap. He camped atop the structure for a week, effectively halting the capture and slaughter of buffalo.

“I think it’s good we have a lot of different tactics,” says Justine Sanchez. “Some honey, some vinegar.”

She and Seay send out weekly emails to supporters detailing the DOL’s actions, how many bison are killed each season–98 this year, as of May 19–and post video of hazing and capture operations.

“They’re keeping the issue alive,” says Torbit of the National Wildlife Federation. “We’ve worked with BFC over the years and I have tremendous respect for Mike Mease.”

“They certainly help balance the issue,” says Rick Wallen of the National Park Service, “because the people on the other end of the spectrum”–those with the snowmobiles, the guns and the power–“have their own biases, too.”

The strategy and goals of the field campaign have drawn financial support from media mogul Ted Turner, who has his own reintroduced buffalo herd north of the park; clothing donations from manufacturer Patagonia; and a van from musician Jackson Browne. U.S. Representative and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich visited the group last year and even spoke up in Congress for the BFC and the federal legislation it’s pushing in conjunction with the National Parks Conservation Association, the Humane Society and other environmental and animal-rights organizations.

Known as the Yellowstone Buffalo Preservation Act, the bill would scrap the Interagency Bison Management Plan and allow buffalo to range over Horse Butte and other public lands neighboring the park without threat of slaughter. The act would also shift most decision-making authority from Montana to the Park Service and dismantle a testing and slaughtering pen inside Yellowstone’s northern boundary. More than 100 Congressional representatives, mostly Democrats, cosponsored the legislation during the last session. But it’s still a long way from passing and has yet to be reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives this year.

A Political Issue

At the state level, environmental groups are optimistic following last November’s election of Democrat Brian Schweitzer as Montana’s governor. Schweitzer, a cattle rancher, cancelled the first planned buffalo hunt in the state in 15 years this January, a move applauded by the BFC and animal-rights groups. Steve Torbit and the National Wildlife Federation, which supports bison hunting as a long-term management tool, also opposed the hunt because the DOL, not the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, would have had political authority for wildlife management.

“The reality is that this is a political issue,” says Tim Stevens, Yellowstone Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Stevens is encouraged by the governor’s interest but says it’s not entirely clear how things will play out.

Schweitzer has talked about paying Montana ranchers to remove cattle from potential bison range–a tool used by the National Wildlife Federation to buy out most of the cattle grazing on Horse Butte. But the new governor has also suggested rounding up the entire Yellowstone herd to test and vaccinate all 4,200 buffalo.

The BFC says the idea threatens the wild behavior of the bison herd, similar to the current quarantine of some buffalo calves.

Stevens believes the plan is “impractical,” and beside the point. “It’s a false specter of disease transmission.”

Not a Threat

The fact that bison have never infected a single cow with brucellosis, says DOL spokeswoman Karen Cooper, proves the interagency management plan is working. Tests show that 40 to 50 percent of Yellowstone bison carry the disease, enough for Cooper to call them “a chronically infected herd.” She says since the state spent 50 years and $30 million to make sure ranchers’ cattle are brucellosis-free, wandering bison pose an economic threat. Once the herd’s infection rate drops, the animals will be freer to roam outside the park.

Rick Wallen, a wildlife biologist who heads Yellowstone National Park’s bison ecology program, confirms that about half of the herd has been infected with brucellosis. But half of those animals now carry only antibodies to the disease, Wallen explains, meaning they’re “probably not a threat to shedding the bacteria.”

Meanwhile, elk in Yellowstone also carry brucellosis.

“The probability of elk co-mingling with cattle is higher than the probability of bison co-mingling” due to seasonal migration patterns, says Wallen.

But the probability of infection for elk is only 1 to 4 percent, so they aren’t harassed or slaughtered.

“There are some philosophical questions we debate,” Wallen says, “and [Montana] state managers have to account for.”

Wallen is referring to acceptable levels of risk, but there are other questions, too: Should bison be allowed to roam freely like other wildlife, such as elk, and should they be hunted? Should an agency dedicated to a single special interest have a controlling stake in a public resource like wildlife? Should politics trump science in the management of a species once on the brink of extermination?

The BFC thinks the answers to these philosophical queries shouldn’t come from government agents looking out for Montana’s livestock industry.

“Our presence here,” says Darrell Geist, a campaign cofounder and board member, “is a rhetorical question to the American people: What vision do you have for the last wild buffalo?”

Roadside Ruckus

It’s Goth night back at the cabin, meaning loud punk-metal blares from a stereo in the kitchen and the night’s cooks are dressed in black. One volunteer has the pelvis of some animal tied to his face. Dinner is a white bean casserole with a thick crust of nutritional yeast, salad and bread. Darrell Geist, Mike Mease, Roman Sanchez and a few others are talking through their strategy for dealing with the deputy’s allegations of assault by a snowball. They’ve already phoned the group’s attorney and the governor’s office.

The campaign holds a nightly meeting at which the next day’s field shifts and chores are divvied out. Warren, a 23-year old volunteer with a nest of curly hair on his head, is running tonight’s session. He left behind a post as a U.S. Navy nuclear engineer a year ago to hitchhike around the country before landing here for the winter. He opens the meeting by asking if any staff or volunteers have an “agenda.”

Jen refreshes folks on protocol for speaking on the two-way radios, and Drew alerts the others that a pickup truck swerved at him this afternoon. Dan reminds volunteers to go fishing only after their patrol shift ends. Bobcat asks his comrades not to use the back door anymore.

Mike Mease then speaks about today’s roadside ruckus, concluding with a caveat: “Every time you take it out on the DOL, they take it out on the buffalo.”

“Next time, let’s try something different,” offers Tom, the bearded, older volunteer, wearing a green shirt, red suspenders and a long blue stocking cap. “Let’s just be quiet and watch ’em and film ’em. And if that doesn’t work,” he concludes with the joking grin I saw earlier, “we’ll throw rocks.”

Silence and rocks, slurs and snowballs, “crackers” and bullets, honey and vinegar. The Buffalo Field Campaign readies for bed and another long day tomorrow of whatever it takes until America’s wild buffalo can roam freely beyond the borders of Yellowstone National Park.