Barbed Wire and Redrock at Bears Ears National Monument
By David Gessner
I am sitting near the top of the eastern ear, or rather the eastern earlobe, of Bears Ears, the redock buttes that give our most controversial national monument its name. From up here I can look back on my starting point, the meadow far below and two miles north where a big white tent marks the social center for the reunion of five Native American tribes during the fourth annual Bears Ears Summer Gathering. Hundreds of Indigenous people, environmental organizers, and members of the media like me make up the first meeting of this sort since President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced, last December, that they were going to reduce Bears Ears by 85 percent.
Although this July celebration is taking place legally on public land—land that is still, despite the reduction of a million acres around it, a national monument—the event hasn't exactly been greeted with open arms by the local white ranchers. In fact, as one young Navajo man put it earlier, it feels a little like we are under siege.
"You look like an environmentalist. Get back in your truck!" This was the greeting one of my fellow celebrants got from one area resident when he stopped to check how deep his back tire had sunk in the muck. Other cars had been tailgated as they made the drive to the celebration. Someone moved the signs for the event so that many of the attendees—and the porta-potties—ended up in the wrong place. The ribbon that marked the pull-off for the road to the gathering was stolen. The Native American organizers responded by placing volunteers on the roads at each turn to make sure guests weren't being misled. Not long ago a private plane buzzed low over our campsite.
"You can tell how special a place is by how many people try to keep you away from it," Navajo elder Jonah Yellowman told me soon after I arrived. I saw what he meant during my hike up here. After lunch these matching buttes looked like an open invitation, and since we were on monument land, I assumed I could walk directly toward them. But barbed-wire fences and grazing cows cut off most of the access, siphoning me to the single point where I could open a gate, scramble up a gully to the public road, and finally get to the base of the eastern butte. Then I climbed to the spot where I sit now. But even then the fence followed me. In a strange marriage of redrock and barbed wire, of public and private, the fence continues right up to where the rock turns vertical, a place no cow could climb.
It feels odd to be fenced in on land that even Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke admit is still a national monument. Public lands are said to belong to all of us, but hiking here, I have experienced the anxiety of the intruder. Looking out at hundreds of miles of land and a half-full moon through an opening in a fence, I am in a fought-over spot in this fought-over landscape in our fought-over country. Maybe this place embodies our world right now. All the battles between red and blue, future and past, are being fought right here, at this point where redrock meets barbed wire and where Native peoples celebrate while white ranchers resentfully prowl the outskirts.
On the hike back, I think of a statistic I recently read: Over a third of the land in the contiguous United States is pasture land, with a quarter of that being land leased by the government, and that almost all of that land serves the cow. I am very careful to reattach the wire loop that secures the gate that leads back to the meadow. Just last week saw the beginning of the trial of environmental activist Rose Chilcoat and her husband, Mark Franklin, in what some of us are choosing to call Gate-gate. Chilcoat was a former director of the environmental group the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and she and her husband are accused of closing a gate on a rancher's property that denied his cows access to a watering hole. This is just the sort of battle that makes San Juan County seem both uniquely quirky and a microcosm for the rest of the country. Here the wars never stop raging between environmentalists and those who resent federal intrusion, and between Native people and locals.
But who are the real locals? Over 50 percent of the residents of San Juan County are Indigenous people and, if the recent primary election is any indicator, two out of the three San Juan County commissioner seats could go to Navajos. Meanwhile "local" Zane Odell, one of the most vociferous opponents of Bears Ears, is actually a Colorado resident. As for the land I am now walking through, it was once the childhood romping grounds of the great Navajo chief Manuelito. He used Bears Ears in the 1860s to hide out from the U.S. Army but then gave himself up to join his people and care for the children and elderly during the Long Walk, the forced eviction and march of Navajos to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. And the Navajos are not alone in seeing this land as a homeland. The Ute traditional territory encompasses Bears Ears, and the Ancestral Puebloan people, including the Hopis and Zunis, don't have to look hard to see clear evidence that this was once their home. That evidence still inhabits the landscape in the form of the plentiful ancient dwellings and artifacts.
"Chief Manuelito wanted peace, but he was ready to fight," Kenneth Maryboy, a Navajo member who is the current Democratic nominee for one of the three county commissioner seats, is now telling a few dozen of us who are gathered under the huge tent. "Manuelito said, 'There is a day when my enemy is going to kill me. But I'm not going to go quietly. Trees and rocks will be ripped up around me. I will take many with me before I go.'"
Perhaps Maryboy is in a fighting mood, having just won the primary for a commissioner seat over Rebecca Benally, who stood next to Trump when he announced the Bears Ears reduction in Salt Lake City last February.
Maryboy's words are inspiring, but they are one of the few aggressive notes during the weekend gathering. The theme of this year's celebration is "Bears Ears Is Healing" and that seems to be happening. A couple hundred of us are camping here, and it's the most social camping I've ever done. Each morning a color guard made up of veterans raises the U.S. flag. We then greet the sunset near the Bear Totem Pole that was carved and brought here as a gift of goodwill and support from the Lummi Nation of Washington State. Then everyone goes in search of coffee in the kitchen tent. All three days, the weather is perfect, and violet morning light plays off of Bears Ears, with its rich, almost edible, red-orange colors shining out from below the green of ponderosa and piñon pines. Mountain bluebirds and cliff swallows shoot from tree to tree in the meadow below the ears.
William Greyeyes, the board chairman of the Utah Diné Bikéyah and one of the original leaders in the struggle to establish Bears Ears, tells me that the lack of local hospitality is nothing new.
"This has happened in past years too," he says. "We just ignored them and re-established our path and kept going forward. That's the only way to do it. These are public lands, federal public lands. It's open to everybody. And they are welcome to put forward a proposal to the United States government. Just as we did."
And so the weekend continues peacefully, including prayer, medicinal plant walks, programs for kids, the dedication of the bear totem, a 5K run, and more mutton than I have ever eaten in my life. By the end of the second day, the anger from the locals has died down and the mood of the gathering is buoyant. Speakers remind us of what was gained, what still is, and what might be again. Of possibilities, not loss.
On Saturday night, the final night of the gathering, I decide to pack it in early after a delicious dinner of bison and beans. Too tired for any more interviews, I stumble back to my tent. But then, lying there, I hear the music. And then a voice over the microphone. The voice belongs to Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, the former councilwoman for the Ute Mountain Ute on the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Lopez-Whiteskunk was the first person to tell me the Bears Ears story, back in January, and soon I am climbing out of my sleeping bag and heading back to the big white tent. Lopez-Whiteskunk, dressed in traditional Ute clothing, is dancing to music played by her father and other family members. Her granddaughters, also in traditional dress, sit on the stage and whisper to each other. I join along with everyone else in the final dance, a great snaking circle that turns inward on itself and tightens until we are one great, knotted ball. The dance ends in laughter and applause.
After the dancing, Lopez-Whiteskunk talks to the crowd. Her theme is how to deal with Trump's assault on Bears Ears, and the aggressive opposition the tribes face.
"This is not new for us," she says calmly. "We are used to this. We will adapt."
She reminds us of what has already been accomplished.
"We did it. Yes, they are trying to take it away. But we did it. Remember that."
I like her calm. It soothes. But I also remember Kenneth Maryboy's sterner message.
Taken together, they sound something like this:
We talk, we plan, we teach, we learn, we celebrate, we dance. We try to heal.
But, if necessary, we fight. Like Manuelito, we won't go quietly.
We will fight, and trees and rocks will be ripped up around us . . .
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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
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<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
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