Friday, October 13, 2006

Ward Valley Nuclear Waste Protest - 1998

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In the Mojave Desert, some 180 miles east of here, is a place known as Ward Valley, sacred land (isn’t all land sacred?) to the five tribes of American Indians that formed the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance. In the early 1990s Ward Valley (Silyaye Aheace) was chosen by the Bureau Of Land Management as the site for a low-level nuclear waste dump to be operated by U.S. Ecology, a waste management company. Because of Ward Valley’s close proximity to the Colorado River, a source of drinking water and irrigation for millions of people, and U.S. Ecology’s already poor track record at another waste facility, in Beatty, Nevada, that was leaking tritium into the ground, this was obviously a very bad idea.

Determined to stop the project, members of the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance set up an encampment at the site in late 1995, and had a presence of 50 to 200 activists there for the next 3 years. In 1998 the BLM attempted to close the land to the public and remove the activists. Through the efforts of the CRNNA, and the ‘Save Ward Valley Committee’, based in Needles, hundreds of environmental activists from all over the country, including our family, showed up to give their support in forming a human blockade to stop the BLM.

Peggy and I were still working for the Post Office but we rented a car for the weekend (deciding this was urgent enough to justify using a vehicle for a couple of days) and headed for Ward Valley. We had all stayed up late the night before making the 4 signs you see us holding in the newspaper photo from a 1998 issue of the 'Earth First! Journal' pictured above. Peggy, on the left, is holding the stop-sign shaped ‘STOP THE DUMP’ sign, Jamie is holding the sign with the heart-shaped cracked-earth, reading ‘BREAK MY EARTH, BREAK MY HEART’, and I don’t know who the gentleman is that borrowed Jimmy’s skull & crossbones ‘NUKE DUMPS SUCK’ sign, but Jimmy is standing directly behind him, and yes, that’s a thinner me on the right with the blood-dripping earth that reads ‘WOULD YOU RAPE YOUR MOTHER??’.

The people on the ground in front of us are Earth First! members, chained together, and blocking the driveway that the BLM would have to use to storm the encampment, and, in my mind, they are truly heroic putting their bodies so vulnerably in harms way like that.

Sometime later, when the above issue of the 'Earth First! Journal' came out, I was greatly surprised, proud, and humbled, to see a photograph of my entire family on the front lines at Ward Valley, on the opposite page of an extensive article about Julia Butterfly Hill, who was in the midst of her incredible 2-year tree-sit atop the ancient redwood, 'Luna', in The Headwaters Forest of Northern California. Our daughter Jamie, then 13, would soon write to Julia, and, as you can see above, we still have her warm, gently instructive thank you note, scribbled on recycled scrap paper from Julia's tiny platform at the top of Luna.

Although you could feel the tension building, there was no confrontation at Ward Valley that weekend, and we couldn’t stay longer because we had to go back to work, and the kids had school, so we drove back to Big Bear.

But I couldn’t get those folks in the middle of the desert, and the confrontation they faced, off my mind. So, on Monday morning, I talked with my Postmaster, who is Native American (Nez Perce), and he gave me the week off to go back and lend my support. In the absence of a car, I hitch-hiked the 45 miles to Victorville, where I caught a Greyhound Bus to Needles, and walked over to the ‘Save Ward Valley’ office, where I then caught a ride to Ward Valley in a beat up van with a bunch of jovial hispanic ‘United Farm Workers’ members whom had also come to lend their support. Many of these guys had demonstrated alongside Cesar Chavez before his death and our 22 mile ride together was a celebration of brotherhood with much camaraderie, goodwill and singing along the way.

The next week was just incredible as droves of people poured in from all over.
I was given a two-way radio, and, with another guy, assigned to overnight guard duty at the front gate half a mile from the encampment. Suddenly, there I was, midnight to sunup, on the front lines, ready to face off with the United States Government (my employers), whose lit-up fenced-in portable compound of motor homes, government cars, police cars, and tractor-trailers---full of who knows what---could be plainly seen just across the highway.
While, back in camp, so much was going on all the time. There was group training in non-violence and passive resistance, we met attorneys to contact (free of charge) if we were arrested, attended talking circles conducted by Native Elders, and participated in Native drumming, dancing, and singing.
The snake dance of the final night was my favorite, where everyone held hands and formed a long line of people who snaked randomly through the crowd to the hypnotic pulse of drums and chanting.
Great fun, especially for me, because a big Native American woman I had befriended (who spent most of her days preparing & serving food to the throngs from the hot kitchen tent) came running out of the kitchen grinning and yelling "where is that guy with the long white beard? I've been waiting all week to dance the snake dance with him". Spotting me, she grabbed my hand and pulled me into the snaking chain of people weaving wildly through the camp, it made my day!

Through blind luck, or providence perhaps, my tent was pitched right next to the tent of 1998 Green Party candidate for California Governor,
Dan Hamburg, who spent a good part of his time at Ward Valley washing dishes (and not one minute of it campaigning), while his wife, Carrie, helped out in the kitchen (I never would've known he was running for Governor if someone else hadn't told me). Dan is a former U.S. Congressman from California’s 1st District. After being elected in 1992 he authored the Headwaters Forest Act (an old-growth Redwood Forest protection initiative), which was overwhelmingly approved by the House of Representatives (because of backlash from the logging community, he lost his re-election bid in 1994).
Dan and I had a mutual friend, photographer Doug Thron, whose powerful 'Headwaters Forest' slideshow presentation was an inspiration for Dan's 'Headwaters Forest Act'. Doug had tirelessly presented his slideshow in dozens of cities across America, and, I met him during one of those presentations at a bookstore in Santa Monica, where an old friend of mine, the late Randy California, of the '60s band, 'Spirit', opened the evening for Doug with a solo acoustic performance of his classic hit song, 'Nature's Way'. Doug's slideshow was a devastating indictment of the Pacific Lumber Company's destructive practices, and I asked Doug if he'd be interested in bringing it to a Sierra Club meeting in Big Bear, which he generously did just a few weeks later. So, Dan and I shared some good stories & conversation, and I came to believe that, if Washington was populated with leaders of his caliber, America would truly be a country to be proud of. However, as a politically aware recent insider, Dan didn’t see much hope for any real governmental reform under our present two-party system. At Ward Valley he simply set a great example in humility & volunteerism, and I was soon washing dishes right alongside him.
On my second day at Ward Valley, I had an adrenalin-charged little adventure when a group of Earth Firsters!, who I was assisting in the dismantling of a large canvas tent, enlisted me to drive their decrepit old flatbed truck full of subversive activist equipment---chains, pipes, bolt-cutters, lock-down devices (and all sorts of other associated paraphernalia of Monkeywrenching), back to their "safe house" in Needles (the Native Council had requested that no man-made devices be used in our blockade, so the Earth Firsters! respectully dismantled that part of their action). I suspected that their regular driver may have had warrants for his arrest because of previous actions he'd been involved in, or maybe they were just testing me as a possible recruit.
So, off I went, bouncing across the desert with my newfound EF brothers & sisters, wanting to raise my fist in the air and shout "NO COMPROMISE IN THE DEFENSE OF MOTHER EARTH"! To my surprise (and my relief), a few relatively uneventful hours later, we were back at camp, and not in the Needles City Jail.

By the time my weeklong stay was over, the BLM had backed off its threats, and the immediate crisis was averted. I caught a bus back to Victorville, and hitch-hiked home to Big Bear.
I was deeply moved by the instant community of caring and involved activists I had been part of. In a matter of days we had become family and I went home with one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. But, the battle was not over, so I kept in close contact with the Save Ward Valley Committee, donating a little money and offering my services if they were needed again, until, on April 2, 1999, victory was declared. The Ward Valley Waste Dump project was defeated.

If you haven’t been involved in something like this, you don’t know what you’re missing. The entire week I felt completely whole in knowing I was in exactly the right place.

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Blogger Lené Gary said...

I'm so glad to see you posting again, Jim. I've missed your stories like this one. Thanks for letting me share in a week's worth of heavy activism. I've never been involved in anything like that. Wow. Thanks, again.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Sounds like a life changing week!

9:37 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

dear lene-

It always brightens my day when you comment here. I think of you often, paddling about some quiet backwaters in your canoe, writing your love poems to Nature.

thank you...


Maybe not life-changing, I've been involved in many demonstrations over the past 40 years so I was already viewing the world from my own paradigm shift.
But to spend a whole week in a community of people committed to protecting the earth through peaceful resistance was definitely LIFE AFFIRMING.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Madcap said...

Jim, I'm trying to make out one of the words in that letter. It says to use paper made of hemp and "keraf"? Have I got that right? I haven't heard of it, can you give me a clue?


I guess what I'm really saying is that I'm clue-less. ;-) But I might be "ker-aft-y" if only I knew what it was!

8:37 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


Kenaf is an annual plant from Africa that is very suitable for use in paper production, just one of many alternatives we have to wood pulp.

By the way it's nice to know somebody is reading this stuff.


6:36 AM  
Blogger CG said...

Ok Jim, you know I love and respect you. But I'm having trouble finding the value in this. Where did the waste eventually go? Because it didn't just go away.

And all these electric cars (and hydrogen) the environmentalists are now promoting -- where is that power coming from (if not nuclear)? Etc.

You know, I make radically environmentally sound lifestyle choices. So you know I'm there. And I've lived in temporary "communities" but have never seen one actually live like they say in the long run. We saw EarthFirst!ers in just a week leave a good amount of trash locally recently (and be totally disrespectful to the local culture too -- which basically all outsiders are in my experience). Etc.

I don't have "an answer" to suggest, but still have to maintain that protest has little, if any, practical value. What people actually live day in and day out is valuable. Or could be. Rarely is, but could be.

Maybe I'm just more cynical than usual.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Dear CG-

Cynicism is quite understandable these days and posts like this one are really not directed to people like you and Eleutheros who are already looking at the world from a new paradigm. You both, in my mind, have made your way to right-living, and I know you also realize there's no way in hell that 6.5 billion people could adopt your lifestyle on this small planet. And I think we also both know that there won't be 6.5 billion people living here for much longer, nature WILL make adjustments.

In the meantime though, the destruction caused by our masses of over-consuming, overpopulating, ecologically ignorant humans affects all of us, even in the most remote places on earth. I just read an article about pollinators, like bees and butterflies, being in decline worldwide (along with songbirds). It pretty hard to grow food without pollination, and I'm sure if some idiot wanted to dump nuclear waste upstream from your property which would contaminate your drinking water, that you would be very vocal in opposing that. Whether we like it or not we're part of a world community and until this system inevitably implodes on itself I believe it's important to make every effort at limiting the amount of destruction.

I admire very much the way you live, but even as Babylon collapses I will continue doing what I can to encourage people to think about their impact on the earth. I would like to hope that when the shit does come down that people like you will still be able to live healthfully from their land.

People like Julia Butterfly Hill may have limited effect through their immediate actions (and yes I'm sure some of these Earth First! youngsters can be real assholes too), but if they get a few thousand people to think more ecologically, a few of those may actually begin to educate themselves and move toward sustainable living on a human scale as you and Eleutheros have done.

As far as where the nuclear waste goes now is still up in the air. It's piling up in warehouses everywhere, but if they can't get rid of the crap maybe they'll have to stop producing it in the first place. And you should know by now that I don't like any cars, electric, hybrid, hydrogen or whatever. As far as I'm concerned you can take them all and dump 'em in the Mariana Trench. Of course, that would probably finish off life in the oceans.

And, dear contrary goddess, I don't have to agree with you 100% to love and admire you. I adore your self-made obstinate contrariness. If you agreed with everything I've said, I'd think you had gone ill...

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, so many years have passed since this has happened, and I can't shake the memories of Ward Valley from my mind. Silyaye Aheace owns a part of my spirit now. I was the Security Chief there from AIM, and am so happy to see your words here. That strength and beauty we all shared in the desert will forever be in my heart.
Jim La Pointe

1:53 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


It's hard to believe that over ten years has passed since the Ward Valley (Silyaye Aheace) action.

I too will forever feel a kinship with the place and with so many of the good people I met there.

Thank you for commenting here and refreshing my remembrance of time so well spent.

By the way, I still wear the Free Leonard Peltier shirt I got from AIM while I was there.


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