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Scrapbook: Andy's Top 9 Events of 2009

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Sierra Club Scrapbook

January 02, 2010

Andy's Top 9 Events of 2009

2009 Highlights from Sierra Club’s Community Partnerships Program

By Andy Bessler, Sierra Club Representative, Flagstaff Arizona

As 2009 comes to a close, I am reminded of an amazing year and the many events that have helped build a movement to transform and empower tribal communities in the Southwest and beyond through building environmental justice and bringing a green economy to tribal communities. It has been an honor to work in partnership with the diverse array of tribal activists, governmental leaders and fellow Sierra Clubbers in the Southwest and beyond. On the national scale, many things could trump this list like Barack Obama being elected or EPA announcing that carbon dioxide is harmful to human health, but from my perspective, this list shows where the action was in 2009.

This list is simply my personal reflections on 2009 and what were the best events that happened on the ground to move EJ in the Southwest and to curb global warming by stopping dirty coal and uranium as well as taking critical steps in transitioning to a clean energy economy. From my perspective in reflecting on our work in 2009, this list is simply reflects the amazing diverse work we get to do in partnership with other great organizations in the region as well as the diverse array of tribes including the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, Zuni and others. The results that come from true partnerships in pursuit of environmental justice are empowering to me and show that change is possible despite the powerful force and resources behind the coal and uranium industries. In working on these issues over the years, it has been and continues to be an honor to work together in the struggle for environmental justice by moving beyond coal and uranium towards a true clean energy economy. I am sure in 2010; we will see further progress towards achieving environmental justice for all. Without further ado, here are Andy’s top 9 events in 2009:

1. The Red Butte Gathering, July, 2009

An historic and epic 4 day ceremonial gathering that required a diverse team and intense organizing to pull off. Over 450 attendees including over 150 Havasupais’ that trekked from within the Grand Canyon prayed, feasted and protested with prayers, prayer runs and songs to stop uranium mining near the sacred Red Butte just south of the Grand Canyon. Some say it was the largest environmental protest ever done near the Grand Canyon. For sure, it was historic in that the Havasupais’ have gathered there for ceremonial purposes as well as uranium protests in the past with the last gathering happening in the early 90’s. Supai kids danced with Smokey the Bear and the Supai elders asked to extend the event another day. A concert was held with several bands including John Densmore, former drummer for the Doors. We butted heads with uranium miners who posted counter-protest signs and the Havasupai Tribe and the community of Supai galvanized to pull it off without a hitch. The Red Butte Committee, including the Sierra Club, galvanized over the year to consult with the Forest Service on better management of Red Butte and kept the community of Havasupai informed about uranium mining threats to Red Butte. This event set the tone for the struggles over uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and no uranium mines have opened to date. Simply put, one of the best events I have ever helped organize and it was a great honor to simply be there to witness.


Group shot at the Red Butte Gathering with Red Butte in the background

2. Passage of the Navajo Green Economy Act of 2009, July, 2009

     In our tribal partnership work, campaigns evolve and change and this was the case of the Navajo Green Economy Coalition. With tribal partners like the Black Mesa Water Coalition, we have worked for years to find ways to transition the Navajo Nation’s economy off coal and that work had formed in 2008 to reform the Navajo Nation to become the first tribe in the country to establish a Green Economy Commission and Green Economy Investment Fund. These policy changes will allow Navajo communities to create their own plans for creating green jobs in sustainable practices that respect and honor traditional Navajo culture and utilize new solar and wind technology. In a true grassroots campaign led by Navajo advocates, the Sierra Club was proud to support this victory in progressive policy change that other tribes around the country are already studying. Young Navajos are leading the way towards a clean energy future and it was great to see it happen.

Learn more at


3. Power Paths released nationally on PBS, November, 2009

     From 2005 till 2007, we had a film crew following our involvement with the Just Transition Coalition. The Coalition formed after the closure of the Mohave Generating Station, one of the dirtiest coal fired plants in the west following legal action by the Sierra Club and others. Filmmaker Bo Boudart followed our progress as we filed petitions with the California Public Utility Commission to secure funds and environmental justice for Navajo and Hopi communities impacted by Mohave’s closure and dark legacy over nearly a half century of pumping coal and water off Black Mesa to feed some of the Southwest’s biggest cities with cheap electricity.  The film gave national exposure to some of the best strategy and organizing work we have done to date. We still await a legal ruling by the CPUC to see if funds can be diverted to tribal communities from Mohave’s closure, but Power Paths has done a great job in telling our story to millions of people across the country. Clips can be seen here.

 Just Transition Coalition 
 Members of the Just Transition Coalition pose after meeting with CPUC commissioner Michael Peevey in 2006. This photo was used in the DVD cover jacket for the film.

4. Hopi Tribal Council Symbolic Ban Environmental Groups including the Sierra Club

Favorite 2009 headline from the AZ Daily Sun (which loved to pile on Sierra Club and of course, failed to mention the other organizations banned as well)

Tribes Bash Sierra Club” 

While you might be wondering why being listed as “persona non grata” on Hopi and Navajo lands, where President Joe Shirley issued a statement saying he stood behind the Hopi Tribe in symbolically “banning” the Sierra Club and others would be #4 on my list, there is are several reasons why it was actually a good thing. After several years of helping to build diverse tribal partnerships with Hopi and Navajo on the 2005 shutdown of coal mines on Black Mesa and coal plants in Nevada, protecting sacred lands like the Peaks and Mint. Taylor, it was old news that the Hopi Tribal Council worked closely with Peabody. Indeed, with 2009 showing real political turmoil on Hopi land fueled by Peabody Coal’s influence, the Hopi people have suffered from real governmental and economic issues including the shut down of the community newspaper, the Hopi Tutuveni and the dismantling of the Hopi Appeals court. In response to legal actions Sierra Club, NRDC, Dine C.A.R.E, To Nizhoni Ani, NPCA and the Grand Canyon Trust took asking the EPA and NPS to review air quality impairment issues over the Grand Canyon from nearby Navajo Generating Station, the Hopi Tribal Council passed a resolution criticizing the groups but the organization targeted in their news release and response from the media was the Sierra Club.

This event is #4 on my list because it showed that we were impacting Peabody’s status quo and it was the Sierra Club that had really demonstrated credibility with tribal leaders with the strength of our commitment to EJ and allows us to remain true partners with Navajo and Hopi grassroots communities in the face of the coal lobby as a credible agent for a real transition to a green and clean energy economy. Several Hopi and Navajo organizations working with us on coal-related issues including H.O.P.I, Black Mesa Trust, and the Black Mesa Water Coalition issued statements since the resolution had also “banned” their own people involved in these organizations.

The best moment I heard about came a few weeks after the ban was announced. H.O.P.I was hosting an Energy and Water Forum in Hopi where several hundred Hopis and others came together to learn together and discuss the history and injustice of Peabody’s involvement on Black Mesa including impacts from groundwater depletion that threatened sacred Hopi springs. Hopi police sent by the Tribal Council read a “cease and desist” order to shut down the public event and ordered the crowd to disperse. An elderly Hopi woman, no taller than 5 foot stood up and scolded the young police officers, “Well we are going to have our event and if you don’t like it, you will have to arrest all of us!” Everyone cheered and the event went on as scheduled.

5. Snowmaking at AZ Snowbowl still not a reality, all year and counting….

     Despite a real blow in the lengthy struggle for environmental justice for tribal communities in Arizona, New Mexico and beyond who have worked in partnership with the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, local group and the full force we and our tribal partners can muster after federal courts failed to serve justice and tribal communities when the Supreme Court turned down the appeal of snowmaking plans at AZ Snowbowl’s operations on the San Francisco Peaks. The Peaks are a true shrine to all of the 22 tribes that ascribe heavy and credible traditional cultural importance and efforts to save the Peaks continue to be led by the Navajo Nation and other tribes of the Colorado Plateau. The Peaks are also a true shrine to ecological diversity that would be impacted by snowmaking with reclaimed water. In discussions with all stakeholders in 2009, the Sierra Club has urged all parties including the Obama Administration, Tribal leaders, the Mayor of Flagstaff and others to find a workable solution that would allow the diverse communities of the Colorado Plateau to demonstrate respect for environmental justice and religious freedom by saying no to snowmaking and a future for AZ Snowbowl that fairly respects the concerns of the tribes involved in Saving the Peaks.

Like Mount Taylor and other sacred places, tribal communities won't lose their respect for the Peaks and won't stop protecting sacred lands until threats like uranium mining and snowmaking go away. Everyone needs to understand how this issue has not gone away and won’t go away till justice, both religious and environmental; is served. I think the real problem is that everyone has relied on the Supreme Court to solve this complex issue with no adequate resolution. Grassroots tribal communities have the answers if only they had the ears of those who control the decisions. Luckily, the USDA and the Obama Administration has put the brakes on Snowbowl’s construction to allow time for the tribes to consult. Senator McCain had his hackles up in November by threatening USDA in holding up USDA nominees unless they let AZ Snowbowl carry on with their pollution project. President Obama and his administration, it seems to me as with other Bush-era fiascoes, has put the breaks on Snowbowl’s plans it by trying to think it through and come up with a solution the tribes can live with. By “Saving the Peaks”, we will save ourselves from a future with racism, ignorance and greed above all that is sacred. Let’s hope 2010 is the year when we find the solution and Save the Peaks. Follow this continuing issue at

6. Mount Taylor listed as a Traditional Cultural Property, June, 2009

It has been a great honor and great pleasure to work with my Flagstaff-based colleague Robert Tohe of the Sierra Club’s EJ program as he organized with tribal communities across the Southwest in securing the nomination of Mount Taylor as a Traditional Cultural Property by the New Mexico State Historic Preservation Office in June of 2009. It was great to watch a successful, diverse and unified coalition come together on a common goal and deal a real blow to the uranium industry eying the slopes of this sacred mountain for more uranium. You can learn more about Robert’s great work and see how the struggles for EJ go in 2010 in relation to uranium mining threats here:


Arriving in Zuni 
As part of a multi-state prayer run in support of Mnt Taylor’s listing, I got to run with a group of Hopi and Zuni runners into the historic Zuni Pueblocomplete with police escort. It was an honor to be part of the run from Hopi to Zuni that eventually went to Mnt. Taylor and Santa Fe.

7. Proposed Desert Rock coal plant loses permits and funding

     In support of the Sierra Club national efforts to address global warming pollution from its biggest single source and move beyond coal, we continued to partner with Navajo and other tribal partners in making sure that bad ideas like proposed Desert Rock coal-fired plant stay on the drawing board. 2009 was another year of putting more nails in the coffin, so to speak and further motivated President Shirley in suddenly partnering with the Hopi Tribal Council in opposing environmental groups on tribal lands.  2009 saw no forward momentum in any permits for Desert Rock and indeed, since the Obama administration has reviewed the air permits, biological assessments and other federal permits needed to build Desert Rock, it appears that Desert Rock’s future is still dim.

However, global warming is the biggest threat to the planet and if Desert Rock were to be built, all of the past efforts New Mexico and the region had made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be lost, plus more mercury pollution would be pumped into nearby lakes and rivers. That is why we have continued to urge all Navajo communities to look towards clean energy solutions for a more sustainable economic future.

In her search for environmental justice, Elouise Brown of Dooda Desert Rock has stood firm on the front lines of this struggle and she deserves all of our thanks in helping save the planet. If Elouise and our diverse Navajo and non-Navajo community partners did not protect the lands, air and water where Blackstone, Sithe Global and President Shirley wanted to build this coal plant, I really wonder if Desert Rock  would have come out of the coffin and gotten green lights in 2009.  I offer a big thanks and ahe'hee' as well to Dine' CARE, San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, Earthjustice and the rest of the diverse organizations working together to stop Desert Rock. Let’s hope 2010 is the year when green jobs from a clean energy economy come to the Navajo Nation so that the dirty temptations of a coal-dependent economy will no longer be relevant.

8.        Water is Life (Paatuwaqatsi Run), September, 2009
     Simply one of the favorite events of my life year after year. Now in it's 5 year, the Paatuwaqatsi (Water is Life) Run remains a great Hopi event done in partnership with run founder Bucky Preston and the Paatuwaqatsi Run Committee including our trusted partner organization, Native Movement. In 2009, the Water is Life run brought a diverse crowd of over 250 including tribal and non-tribal runners to pray and run for water. Running 30 miles for anything is bound to convince you it is important, and along the 30 mile-route on traditional Hopi trails, the many threatened springs remind a parched runner the importance of water. Indeed, Water is Life and this run is a uniquely Hopi way to demonstrate it. This year, I got to volunteer as a mounted horse safety patrol with my good friends Carletta Tilousi and Kris Kuhn on the sections of trail unreachable by roads. While I was riding instead of running, I got to share in the feast and celebration of coming together for water. Register for next year’s on Saturday September 11, 2010 run at

9        Mother Earth Gathering, May, 2009.        
     In partnership with the Peshlakai Cultural Foundation and the great medicine man and Southwest icon, James Peshlakai, Sierra Club co-sponsored the 2nd annual Mother Earth Gathering with over 200 attendees from the Navajo community of Cameron just north of Flagstaff, AZ. Community members came together for a public education day regarding Mother Earth at the Dzil Lebei School. After a morning prayer run with Bucky Preston and nearby school's cross country runners, several speakers including myself spoke to the crowd regarding critical issues like Desert Rock, and a Just Transition such as the proposed wind projects planned for Cameron. To see a community struggle with hearing from community members dealing with competing wind and coal projects, one can understand the unique place we found ourselves in 2009. How do we transition our economies away from coal towards wind and solar that need the breaks that coal has gotten for years? These questions require an informed public and we tried to help when invited by the Peshlakai Foundation. The 3rd annual Mother Earth Gathering is planned for May 23rd, 2010, so watch for the flyer and see you there!!

 Havasupai Bird Dancers

Havasupai Bird Dancers blessed the crowd while folks feasted on a traditional Navajo meal offered by the Peshlakai Foundation.

Have a great 2010 and thanks for all the great memories of 2009!!


Andy Bessler

Community Partnerships


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