Dark Deeds in the Black Hills

If there was even the smallest doubt before, it’s been eradicated now. The Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, where Crazy Horse and Black Elk went on vision quests, must be returned to the Lakota Sioux for its own survival.

In 1868, the federal government signed a treaty with the Lakota Sioux granting the tribe ownership of most of western South Dakota, including the majestic Black Hills. Six years later, the US tried to coerce the tribe, under threat of starvation, to cede the Black Hills back to government so that they could be ravaged for gold. The tribe wouldn’t yield, thus prompting Custer’s rampages against the Sioux and eventual demise at Little Big Horn. Eventually, the government seized the land anyway, assassinated Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and confined the Sioux to the enforced poverty of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, which functioned for years as little more than concentration camps to house some of the most destitute communities in the United States.

Much of the Sioux land ended up in the hands of the federal government as part of the 1.5 million acre Black Hills National Forest. The Black Hills, the tallest mountains east of the Rockies, are an isolated range that rise up like shadows off the sun-baked flatlands of South Dakota. The flanks of the mountains are a kind of botanical crazy quilt, blending Rocky Mountain species with those found in Great Plains, Midwestern prairies and eastern deciduous forests. The Black Hills are the eastern limit of the Ponderosa pine forests and about the only place you can find unadulterated patches of montane grasslands.

For decades, the Sioux have pressed for the return of these lands. Environmentalists, largely, have refused to support the transfer, saying that the mountains would be better off in the hands of the Forest Service. It’s the old paternalism that has stained mainstream environmentalism since John Muir helped to evict the last remnants of the southern Miwok tribes out of Yosemite so that the Park Service could run the show (Yosemite is Miwok for “some among them (ie., the whites) are killers”). These days it’s okay to quote Native American spirituality in your fundraising letters, another thing entirely to trust the tribes to take care of their own lands.

But this condescending line should no longer wash with even the most gullible green. Now the sacred mountains, which the Sioux call Paha Sapa, are being laid to waste in a final frenzy to log off the little wild forests that remains and environmentalists and top rank Democrats must share the blame. In early July, two big time environmental groups, the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, connived with the top Democrat in the Senate, Tom Daschle, to doom some of the last wild forest in the Black Hills to logging. Worse than that, the deal exempted the clearcutting from compliance any environmental laws.

Under the Daschle/Sierra Club/Wilderness Society deal, which was quitely attached as a rider to the Defense Appropriations Bill, the Forest Service will allow timber companies to begin logging in the Beaver Park roadless area and in the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve. These two areas harbor some of the last remaining stands of old-growth forest in the Black Hills. All of these timber sales will be shielded from environmental lawsuits, even from organizations that objected to the deal.

The logging plan was consecrated in the name of fire prevention. The goal of the bill, Daschle said, “is to reduce the risk of forest fire by getting [logging] crews on the ground as quickly as possible to start thinning.” It’s long been the self-serving contention of the timber lobby that the only way to prevent forest fires is to log them first. The environmental movement has rightly countered that the real problem is a century of unbridled logging of old growth forests and fire suppression, which have created conditions ripe for the catastrophic blazes that are scorching the West this summer. In a single blow, the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society legitimized the timber industry’s cockeyed claim. And now there will be hell to pay.

Surprised that such a deed could originate in the office of Tom Daschle? Don’t be. Despite what the League of Conservation Voters might allege, Tom Daschle’s never been much of an environmentalist, especially in his home state. Indeed, the leader of the Democrats in the senate has always carried water for the big timber and mining companies that have done so much damage to landscape of South Dakota. Occasionally, he pipes up on high profile national issues, such as ANWR. But he rarely has his heart in it. Witness his woefully inept attempt to defeat the mad scheme to ship nuclear waste across the nation to Yucca Mountain.

The Sioux certainly have no love for Daschle. Daschle is a close friend and political ally of South Dakota governor William Janklow, known for his rabidly anti-Indian views. How anti-Indian is Janklow? In 1974 he told reporters: “The only way to deal with the Indian problem in America, is to put a gun to the AIM [American Indian Movement] leaders’ heads and pull the trigger.” In 1983, Janklow sued writer Peter Matthiessen for $23 million in an attempt to stop publication of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse–Matthiessen’s great book on the FBI’s assault on the Pine Ridge reservation and the trial of Leonard Peltier. Janklow’s suit was eventually thrown out of court.

Daschle also helped to organize the Open Hills Association, a group of ranchers, mining companies and timber groups that came together to oppose the return of the Black Hills to the Sioux. A recent Sioux newsletter described the Open Hills Association as espousing “overtly racist views.”

In 1999, Daschle engineered the passage of the deceptively titled Wildlife Mitigation Act. The bill authorized the transfer of 90,000 acres of land along the Missouri River then controlled by the US Army Corps of Engineers to the state of South Dakota. The land is inside both the 1851 and 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty boundaries and rightfully belongs to the Sioux tribe. A contingent of Sioux elders and members of the Lakota Student Alliance occupied LaFramboise Island, a sandbar in the Missouri River near the state capitol, for over a year as a protest against the transfer. Daschle didn’t budge.

Daschle’s also proven to be the kind of senator who is always willing to screw over the downtrodden to help a big time political contributor. An example. Around Christmastime of last year, Daschle quietly attached a rider to the Defense Appropriations Bill granting total legal immunity to the Toronto-based Barrick Gold Mining Company, which operates the Homestake Gold mine in the Black Hills. This mine, which was once owned by William Randolph Hearst and has been in nearly continual operation since the Sioux were driven out of the mountains, has generated more than a billion dollars in revenue. George Bush Sr. sits on their board of advisors.

The Sioux haven’t seen a dime. But they have seen the mine devour and despoil a huge chunk of their mountains. When the gold runs out, the Homestake mine will leave behind an environmental ruin of poisoned rivers, cyanide-laden leach ponds, toxic tailings piles and a hole in the earth a mile wide and 1,000-feet deep. Daschle’s rider means that the US government assumes the costs of cleaning all this up, amounting to a $50 million bail out for a foreign corporation. “This re-affirms an unsurprising truth,” says legal scholar Edward Lazarus. “This country deals far more generously with foreign corporations that buy our land than with the native peoples from whom we took it.”

The latest Black Hills deal, it appears, was primarily geared to help Daschle’s South Dakota colleague Tim Johnson, himself only slightly to the left of Attila the Hun when it comes to environmental issues, fend off a stiff Republican challenge for his senate seat from the green-bashing Rep. Jim Thune, who is currently the state’s sole congressional representative. Of course, this scenario only works if green Democrats vote for Johnson in spite of his capitulations to the timber and mining industries.

It’s an old story, one we’ve recounted time and again, that’s taken an even darker, though entirely predictable, turn. The Black Hills are one of the most butchered national forests in the West. Less than 5 percent of the forest remains in an old-growth condition, the rest is fragmented by clearcuts and logging roads. Most of the remaining old-growth forest is located in the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve and the Beaver Park Roadless Area. In the 1990s, the Forest Service planned massive timber sales for both places.

The battle to save the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve goes back almost ten years, a back and forth war of appeals and lawsuits that culminated in 2001 with a landmark ruling by the 10th circuit court of appeals that the Norbeck timber sales were illegal. The environmentalists also won a court case stopping the Beaver Park sales.

In his defense of the deal, Daschle claims that it was reached through a consensus process of the “local stakeholders.” This is untrue. In fact, two of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuits, Jeff Kessler and Brian Brademeyer, objected to the proposed settlement. In recent testimony before congress, Mark Rey, the former timber lobbyist who now serves assistant secretary of Agriculture in charge of the Forest Service, said plainly, “Our counsel have advised that there is no effective legal process to implement the modified agreement through the District Court, in the absence of the two non-settling plaintiffs.” Rey advised that the only way to get the logging started was to steamroll the local enviros with a rider exempting the sales from judicial review. That’s where Daschle, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society came in to save the day for big timber, Daschle and Johnson.

“We fought a decade to save those forests and finally won an appeals court victory,” says Denise Boggs, director of the Utah Environmental Congress. “Daschle and the big greens sold us out in ten minutes. we are tired of doing good work to protect
biologically significant areas only to have the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society enter and undermine our work and then cut us entirely out of the process by not allowing those who differ with them to appeal or litigate.”

Some environmental big wigs have called Jeff Kessler, head of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, an obstructionist for not going along. He doesn’t shy away from the charge. “You bet we’re obstructionists,” says Kessler. “We’re obstructing the fruitless and environmentally damaging logging that won’t significantly reduce risk to lives and property but that does mislead the public about fire safety, we’re obstructing illegal activities by the Forest Service, we’re obstructing stealth law making that erodes our important environmental laws and the checks and balances designed by our founding fathers, and we’re obstructing the loss of important old-growth forest and wildlife habitat.”

But here’s where the story takes off to another level. It’s not just the Black Hills that have been put at risk. What’s good for Daschle’s backyard, the chainsaw delegation in Congress argues, must be good for the rest of the nation. Thus a little backroom deal in South Dakota can quickly metastasize into a cancer that ravages forests from Vermont to Alaska.

“After hearing all the hand-wringing from environmentalists downplaying the impact of appeals and litigation, it’s nice to see that the highest-ranking Democrat in the nation agrees that these frivolous challenges have totally crippled forest managers,” said Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican and chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health. “It will be interesting indeed to find out if what’s good for Mr. Daschle’s goose is also good for the West’s gander. We intend to find out.”

And it’s not just right-wingers like McInnis who are itching to use the Daschle rider as a template for a broader assault on the national forests and environmental laws. Senate Dianne Feinstein, a darling of the Sierra Club, announced last week that she intends to seek a similar exemption from environmental lawsuits for logging in California’s national forests and may support an amendment that applies the provision to all national forests.

Daschle seems open to the idea. “I think the Black Hills could be a model for the rest of the country,” Daschle told the Rapid City Journal in late July.

This is an entirely predictable turn of events. But the Sierra Club remains blindly behind Daschle and refuses to denounce his bill as a mistake. “We appreciate the work of Senators Daschle and Johnson to bring all the parties to the table to hammer out a deal that would ensure the safety of South Dakotans and continued protections for America’s National Forests,” writes Sierra Club CEO Carl Pope in a defense of the deal. “This is how these matters should be addressed.”

There’s a lot of caviling with words here. Pope is getting expert at this kind of Clintonian parsing in his press releases. In the first place, the agreement wasn’t supported by local environmentalists. In fact, the Sierra Club’s own local representative, Brian Brademeyer, walked out of the talks once he saw where they were headed. He also quit his Sierra Club post. Pope’s organization, it must be noted, is on record as opposing all commercial timber sales on federal lands, but that didn’t prohibit him from signing off on logging in two of the most sacrosanct types of land in the national forest system: a roadless area and a wildlife preserve.

When Bush came into office, the mainstream enviros howled that he was putting timber industry flacks, such as Mark Rey, in charge of the national forests. A case of the fox guarding the henhouse, they charged. It’s clear now that an equal threat comes from the leadership of the Democratic Party, in the form of Tom Daschle and Dianne Feinstein, and enviro bureaucrats who trade away forests, even in the sacred Black Hills, to keep them in power. There’s a difference. No one can accuse Mark Rey of hypocrisy. He’s never claimed to be a defender of nature.

That the Wilderness Society played a key role here is hardly shocking. After all, this was the group that was headed in the 1990s by a man who clearcut his own ranch in Montana and when he was exposed tried to blame the scandal on his wife.

One of the principal deal cutters was Bart Koehler, now a flack for the Wilderness Society, whose main claim to fame rests on the fact that he was one of the founding members of Earth First! During Earth First! roadshows in the early 1980s, Koehler dressed up as a singing cowboy called Johnny Sagebrush. The act wasn’t funny then; it’s even less so now.

Koehler is only the latest of the founders of Earth First! to opt for a plush office and a plump salary. In 1989, Dave Foreman was arrested by the FBI on charges that he conspired to knock down powerlines in Arizona. He saved his hide by cutting a deal with prosecutors while his colleagues Mark Davis and Peg Millet were sentenced to six and three years in prison respectively. Then he renounced Earth First! and joined the Sierra Club board. Today he claims that Earth First! was really little more than a joke. Two other founders, Mike Roselle and Howie Wolke, both recently defended a deal that consigned thousands of acres in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana to the chainsaw.

Edward Abbey must be grinding his teeth in his grave at how smoothly these green radicals have turned into political pimps for the Democratic Party, flashing their enviro credentials as they put their green stamp of approval on one clearcut after another. All in the name of pragmatism. Koehler and Foreman used to fume at the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club for just such sell-outs. To differentiate themselves they coined the phrase “No compromise in the Defense of Mother Earth” as a motto for Earth First! Nice slogan. Now it has come back to haunt their every step.

As aging green heroes, these former rads have coddled up to the very groups they used to revile as spineless sell-outs and have taken money from the same foundations they used to denounce as agents of big oil. It’s all about getting big. And the budgets of the big environmental groups have bloomed since Bush got into the White House. The national Sierra Club now has more than 500 professional staffers. That’s more than the timber industry and mining trade groups combined. Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s CEO, makes about $100,000 a year-or $96,000 more than the per capita income on the Sioux’s Pine Ridge reservation, where 8 out of 10 adults are unemployed.

Yet, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Go ask Enron and Worldcom.

Grassroots greens are getting angry as they’ve experienced the big groups undercut them time after time. “The actions of the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society in the Black Hills reinforces the accusations by the wise-use community that the environmental movement lacks integrity and accountability,” says Denise Boggs of the Utah Environmental Congress. “This is yet one more shameful example of the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society looking out for their political connections instead of for the land and wildlife that must actually live with the repercussions of their deal cutting.”

In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sioux had been cheated out of the Black Hills. They awarded the tribe $106 million in compensation. The tribe told the court to keep its money. They wanted the land. Can you imagine the Sierra Club or the Wilderness Society doing the same?

The Black Hills haven’t seen such an act of betrayal since the Crow offered to scout against the Sioux for Custer. It’s time to return the sacred mountains of Crazy Horse now before Daschle and his cronies in Big Green can do even more damage.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3