Remember Rebecca Rodriguez? She was one of Harding County rancher Bret Clanton's interesting house guests last year. Rodriguez was walking TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline route from Port Arthur, Texas, to Hardisty, Alberta, for her documentary project, This Land Was Your Land. She trod through Clanton's land in early November; with winter setting in, she got to Val Marie, Saskatchewan, near the U.S.–Canada border and called it good. (There is great merit to knowing when to say when... especially when walking northwest toward Alberta in December.)
Rodriguez writes back and says South Dakota holds a special place in her heart. She collected lots of great photos and great stories. She offers one story based on her encounter with John Harter, a Colome rancher who fought TransCanada in court and lost, as South Dakota's judicial system uphold the outrageous notion that a private foreign company can use eminent domain to usurp South Dakotans' property rights. Rodriguez also sends a video of Harter himself telling his story. I happily yield the floor to her literary account of one part of her journey through South Dakota.
The CIA, the Black Snake, and the Last Man Standing
Rebecca Jane Rodriguez
They’re playing old country music so I stay, all night until closing. I awaken the next morning in the city park in the town of Witten, South Dakota. As light breaks through the tree limbs into my tent, my throat is dry, my head is heavy, a reminder of the night before—one too many whiskeys at the bar across the street called “Cowboy-Up.” My phone rattles. It’s Johh Harter, a rancher from nearby Colome. We tried to meet the day before in Winner but we couldn’t make it happen. Harter is the only man in the state to challenge TransCanada’s claim to his land. The Keystone XL pipeline is set to run across his pastureland, the same homestead that has been in his family for decades, and he's not taking it lying down. He tells me he has time to talk.
John arrives a few minutes later in a black pick-up truck. He’s a smaller guy but tough with a slim muscular build, eyes like frost on bluestem behind square glasses. He invites me to stay with him and his family for a few days on his ranch just outside of Winner. The South Dakota plains are serene: rolling hills, flat land; this is sand country, all under a blue sky swollen with clouds—a place that I’ve quickly become absorbed in. On the ride home he gives me the details of his six-year fight to protect this little patch of heaven from a pipeline giant.
During a 2008 meeting for landowners at the Holiday Inn Express, TransCanada representatives set up tables, laid out maps, and there he found out the pipeline was set to cross his land. According to TransCanada, this pipeline was going to fix all the community’s problems, money for the schools, local jobs….
All he had to do had to do is sign on the dotted line.
The other farmers and ranchers were eager to get on board, but John hesitated because he’s heard this story before.
"I guess when I was at this meeting I had this thought of caution while I was there listening and asking questions. One of the things that embedded in my mind before I even went to this meeting was what my Dad told me when I told him about the pipeline. My dad told me not to trust them. He said, ‘Them oil people all lie.’”
This was not the Harters’ first brush with the oil industry. John recalls a childhood memory when his family was paid a visit by some oilmen.
“Years ago there was these people that come up, it was when I was probably younger than ten years old. I remember a van coming in the yard and these were people coming in wanting to drill test wells on the property and my Dad wouldn’t let them do that.”
John tells me his Dad was no fool and he wasn't buying their bull either. So he looked into it further and learned another B-word: Bitumen.
John’s research lead him to Dakota Rural Action, a local grass root organizer. He went to some informational meetings where he was put in touch with other landowners, who had direct experience with the Keystone I, a precursory pipeline to the XL further to the east carrying the same product. They weren’t talking like the pipeline peddlers in the area. From the get-go pipeline reps downplayed the contents, telling John it was just crude petroleum. But it wasn’t crude, not quite.
“[Trans Canada] told us that it was crude oil and then we learned about what the tar sands actually is. It’s bitumen, a mud peanut butter-consistency type of a product that they have to dilute with a lot of other chemicals that if it got into the water table it would be poisonous and virtually unable to clean up.”
Harter's main problem with the whole thing was where the engineers wanted a put the pipeline.
John's pasture is ideal for cows but a dubious place for a pipeline. The thought of a 36-inch, high-pressure pipeline, less than a ½ inch thick, at 1600+ psi,100 feet from where he waters his cows, understandably made him nervous. More alarming, the effects a bitumen spill would have on the land, so close to the water table, would mean the end of his cattle operation. A spill wouldn’t just be bad for his cattle outfit, but it could wreak havoc on the drinking water for his whole community. For John, it’s a matter of life and death.
“Safety probably was and still is the main point. Just a few miles north of my property is the start of the depth of the Ogallala high plains aquifer. [The pipeline] runs beneath that and the city of Colome’s water wells. You’re constantly hearing about oil spills that go on, so across my property, where the water table is right at or just below ground level, sometimes it is even above ground level, a spill would be devastating. To me that's intent to do the public harm and they’re doing it on purpose and… it's unlawful.”
He didn't want to sign, but felt he didn't have a choice. He tried to negotiate, but that didn't go well. Dakota Rural Action was able to hammer out a better easement with TransCanada. It included more money but not the safety concessions John wanted, like ¾-inch thick pipe on his pasture near the aquifer, an area not even considered “high consequence” to TransCanada’s engineers. Desperate for better protection, John even went so far as to contact the Natural Resource Conservation District, which determined that the property in question was indeed a wetland area, shifting it into a “high consequence” zone and worthy of thicker pipe.
That didn’t matter to TransCanada. They wanted his land for their pipeline, --done the cheapest way possible --and they weren't taking no for an answer. There would be no more concessions. They informed him if he wasn't going to give up his land willingly, they had the legal right to take it from him. That's when they started using the words, "eminent domain".
"I was reluctant to sign a survey easement with TransCanada but they were threatening eminent domain just to get the ability to go out and even survey across your property so, I did not have the ability, nor did any other property owners, of saying ‘No’ to these people."
A seventh degree black belt, one thing Harter doesn’t like to be is bullied, so he took his case to court. He lost…but the story doesn’t end there.
After the decision of condemnation came down, with a little support from other ranchers in the area, Harter looked for allies in an unlikely place.
“We don’t own the land, the land owns us.”
Faith Spotted Eagle, a grandmother and activist from the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota has been working with John Harter and other non-natives resurrected a partnership called the Cowboy Indian Alliance or the CIA. Back in the 1970’s the unlikely coupling began when the Lakota native community and Dakota ranchers joined forces under the CIA to halt uranium mining. The CIA has now been loosely reestablished by a new generation of farmers and ranchers, finding support with folks who are no strangers to the loss of land.
I talk to Faith at a “Draw the Line” event, organized by Spotted Eagle and local native groups as part of an international day of solidarity with Bill McKibben and others in the climate movement 350.org. Mixed in with tribal members from the nearby Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservation are an assortment of folks; a middle aged couple from Valentine, Nebraska, a journalism student from Colorado and some new age types with sun hats and mom jeans. Harter and his wife Tracee round out the cast; representing the only landowners to stand defiant to TransCanada advances. Faith has found common ground with Harter and the other white ranchers who are feeling the effects of perpetual
encroachment by corporate interests.
"I think the most phenomenal thing is that we are aligned with the cowboys and the white ranchers. We would not be having this conversation with you. We wouldn’t be standing on the street with them if it hadn’t been for the KXL and what Harper is doing in Canada—and in a way—we have to thank Harper for uniting us because of the predator economics. I think that it affected our white neighbors in a way that has really shaken their sprits to realize how it felt when our land was taken and so we jokingly call them “the new Indians”.
We drive out to see the old family homestead. We totter down an uneven dirt path to see the pasture that the pipeline will dissect, a long line of tall cottonwood trees dot the way there. Faith and a group of Lakotas from the demonstration follow us caravan style to the site where the pipeline is planned. They offer to bless the land in question for protection in case the pipeline does goes through.
"It’s real hard to go out to their ranches where their land has been condemned." Faith says, “That is not only condemned land, it’s also treaty land, so it’s like it’s been taken twice."
No one lives here now, just an old trailer where John’s little brother used to live before he moved to town. Harter and his dad continue to run cattle there and lots of memories of the old days remain. I grew up here working on the ranch." Harter tells me, "The land is a part of me, it is history within me.” History is all Harter has right now as the future seems so inevitable. It is little consolation to him that his fate is a shared one.
The “Black Snake,” as the Lakotas have called it, is slithering its way up the spine of America; strangling all who stand in its way. It is just a matter of time before corporate interests come knocking at your door the way the oilmen did to the Harters. They will be polite at first, listen to your concerns; if you are firm they might even go away, but rest assured they will be back.
Here's Harter telling his story:
Thank you, Rebecca, for visiting South Dakota and telling our story.