Things with Feathers: Elwha and Keystone XL updates
The Victories of the Keystone XL Effort
So recently, TransCanada asked the US State Department to hold off on making a decision about the Keystone XL pipeline, in a move that was widely viewed as a blatant attempt to avoid being rejected by the current administration, so that TransCanada could just wait a couple years, when perhaps a more fossil fuel friendly President would be in office, and they could quickly get permission to build the rest of the pipeline.
The State Department denied the request, and shortly thereafter, President Obama rejected the project, which has been widely – and rightly – seen as a victory for all those who had been working for years to prevent it being built.
Many pipelines have been built (including a portion of the Keystone XL pipeline that is entirely within the US and was approved by President Obama; see item 6 here), regardless of the protests of environmental activists and people who will be directly impacted by those pipelines. Keystone XL was also assumed to be a project that would just get approved and be built, like all those others. In the past, tarsands oil had a lot of support from the Canadian government, and the previous US administration (under President G. W. Bush) was also very positive towards fossil fuels. In late 2011, after over 1,200 people were arrested protesting the pipeline, the State Department (now under President Obama) issued an environmental impact statement that looked very favorable to the project.
“The inside story of how the Keystone fight was won” goes into the background and story of the various people and groups involved in protesting this pipeline, and the various political forces affecting its rejection. What I think makes this a story about victories is not just the victory in halting the pipeline’s progress – and in having the President speak out against it and the problem of climate change – but the victories of having many people from diverse places working together against it.
In 2011, when 350.org, the climate action group that would become widely identified with the anti-KXL campaign, glommed onto the issue, there were two groups of activists already working on it: locals from affected communities along the proposed pipeline route, such as ranchers, farmers, and Native Americans, and environmental wonks in Washington, D.C.
The local people had been working against the pipeline since it was first proposed in 2008, which included tribal councils passing resolutions against it, and then taking their concerns directly to the President in 2011. In 2014, after the State Department issued another impact statement, again looking favorable towards the pipeline, the entire coalition held another protest event in Washington D.C.
The theme was “Cowboys and Indians,” after the ranchers and Native Americans who both joined in. The Native American groups put up tepees where visitors could stop in and be educated about the issue. The week culminated in a rally and march with real-life cowboys and Indians riding horses. “That was the first time the White House acknowledged our work,” Kleeb wryly remembers. “I got an email from the White House saying, ‘OK, you’ve got our attention.’ They literally said that.”
The cowboy and Indian alliance was not just cobbled together for that event. It had grown out of a Native American summit about a year earlier. “I was at an event at the casino on the Rosebud reservation [in South Dakota] in early 2013,” Kleeb recalls. “It was a community forum where everyone was sharing information. One of the elders talked about the cowboy and Indian alliance that stopped uranium mining in the ‘80s. So I went to tribal leaders and said we should revive the cowboy and Indian alliance and do events along the pipeline route. We did a concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, and ‘Reject and Protect’ on the Mall.”
The collaboration between historical antagonists, both icons of the American West, gave the opposition to KXL a broader national political appeal. “Those faces are not the image you usually have of the environmental movement,” says Kleeb. “We were helping the White House understand that there was political space [to] reject it.”
The full story is much more complex, and includes delights like the Republicans’ focus on it backfiring, and the importance of it being an issue of climate change, which also gave the President what he needed to reject it. I recommend reading it in full.
Bonus hopeful climate change article: How We’re Winning the Climate Fight, One Community at a Time
Growth in the Elwha River
Here is a photo taken last month at the mouth of the Elwha River, where the new beach and estuary being created by free sediment, and a free-flowing river, continue to expand.
From the Facebook post that contained this image:
The day after the weekend rain event during which the Elwha flows jumped from 2000 to over 12000 cfs in less than 8 hours. Flows then dropped back to pre-storm cfs overnight. Classic Elwha. The high flow combined with fall high tide and the entire Elwha west estuary (not blocked by a dike) was reactivated. The result? Juvenile steelhead, coho, and Chinook were abundant. Also, (for the first time in over a decade of sampling), we caught a number of large, powerful, adult chum in our sets. Once the second most abundant run in the Elwha chum numbers plummeted to a few hundred fish after the dams went in. We’ve said it before: Large, and packed with marine nutrients, chum are absolutely critical for the restoration of the watershed ecosystem.
We have many significant challenges left to address in the Elwha nearshore. Today was a heart lifting moment to just experience the forceful hope unfolding in the Elwha, and a clear affirmation of what happens when you restore ecosystem processes.
Chum salmon are not the only fish starting to return and restore overall ecosystem health; some of the forage fish in the area are coming back, too (Source):
Following complete removal of the last dam from the Elwha River it appears that the nearshore food webs have begun to repair themselves. During a recent lower river and estuary seining, the Coastal Watershed Institute (CWI) documented, for the first time, hundreds of gravid and spent eulachon Thaleichthys pacificus- a federally listed river spawning smelt (watch a video of the field observation here).
Eulachon are a small, very fatty fish, also known as “candlefish” because they can be dried and then burned like a candle. They’ve been an important food for indigenous peoples as well as the other members of the ecosystem, and the undamming of this river is helping the population by providing the kind of sediment they need. They had been nearly absent for 60 years, and now, about a year after the last dam was removed, they are returning in abundance.
The Coastal Watershed Institute has also documented two kinds of smelt (also forage fish) near the Elwha now that the nearshore environment is being repaired by sediment flowing from the river. All species of forage fish are vital for the overall health of the ecosystems they are a part of, as a very wide range of larger animals – fish, mammals, birds – rely on them as a major part of their diets, so protecting these fishes from overfishing, and ensuring the habitat they need is protected and restored, is critical. It is exciting to see that they can start to return so quickly to an area that had been inhospitable to them for so long.
Bonus tree-on-a-rock image:
Thank you for reading. Thank you for being here.