The Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota has served as a blueprint for environmental and pipeline related protests around the country. The country watched as the #NoDAPL movement’s tactics successfully halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (at least temporarily), and it seems that landowners and activists in the Big Bend area, who have been fighting against the Trans-Pecos Pipeline since 2013, took note on the significance of Native American involvement in environmental protests.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline set up temporary encampments near the construction site of the 1,100-mile pipeline stretching from North Dakota to Illinois. After months of protesting and clashes with law enforcement, the protestors finally saw results in December. That’s when the Army Corps of Engineers said they would not approve an easement necessary for the pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe says is their primary water source. Protestors cited concerns about the contamination of the water should the pipeline leak, but also the treaty rights of native nations. The big break was short lived—President Donald Trump signed executive orders last Tuesday to continue the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline, and one executive order in particular called for expedited approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
But that hasn’t deterred protesters who have learned from and molded themselves after the #NoDAPL movement. The Trans-Pecos Pipeline, a project of the Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners (which is also behind the Dakota Access Pipeline), is 148 miles of pipeline that will bring natural gas to Mexico through fracking. The pipeline passes through the Rio Grande River and three counties in West Texas: Pecos, Brewster, and Presidio, most of its path going through privately owned land. West Texas ranchers and environmentalists joined together to form the Big Bend Conservation Alliance to stop the pipeline, raising concerns about the environment and the dangers of fracking. But the ETP’s status as a common carrier in Texas gives the company eminent domain over land ownership rights, so construction of the pipeline began last May.
Lori Glover is a landowner in Alpine and Presidio County and also the co-founder and organizer of Big Bend Defense Coalition, a nonprofit created from offshoots of groups such as the Sierra Club and Defend Big Bend. Throughout her involvement in those groups, Glover focused on community rights and the legal aspects of eminent domain, until she and other members created the coalition in November to pursue more “direct action” against the pipeline. That usually involves preventing workers from accessing the pipeline site by blocking equipment, locking up gates, standing on pipelines, and even protesters locking themselves to construction equipment in hopes of delaying pipeline construction.
In September, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) held a protest in support of Standing Rock at the Dallas headquarters of Energy Transfer Partners. Glover attended the protest in solidarity with the #NoDAPL movement and to bring attention to the fight against the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. It was there that Glover met Frankie Orona, then the co-director of AIM Central Texas.
“There is an Energy Transfers Partners pipeline that is being constructed in Texas, your own state, for the past two years,” Glover says she told Orona. “So would you come out and support us in our fight?” Orona and other members of AIM had traveled to Standing Rock in August to support the movement, so when they learned that there was another fight in their own backyard, Orona said they felt compelled to join.
Orona left AIM Central Texas and created the Society of Native Nations in October along with about fifteen other members. Although the organization is relatively new, it’s still part of the national chapter of AIM, and Orona noted that because members have a long history of working with native communities in the state, it helps give them influence among Native Americans. The overall goal of the Society of Native Nations is to connect tribal communities and preserve the culture, history, and teachings of indigenous people in North and South America—and that means preserving the land as well. The organization’s website states that they believe Native Americans were called to be “keepers of the earth.”
“In our culture, we’ve always believed that you only take what you can and you give back what you can,” Orona said. “And so in doing that we believe that it’s our job to help preserve and take care of and nurture those things that are around us that provide us with the things that we need to survive.”
That firmly aligned with the mission of groups like Glover’s. Together, the Society of Native Nations and the Big Bend Defense Coalition established Two Rivers Camp on land owned by Glover on December 30. Orona said the camp is about 30 to 40 minutes away from “the front lines” of the pipeline, which is along Highway 67 between Marfa and Presidio. The establishment of the camp is one of many lessons they’ve learned from the #NoDAPL movement. Because they’re entering the fight against the pipeline near the end of its construction (it’s more than 93 percent complete), a permanent camp near the site provides old and new protestors with a dedicated area to come together, stay, and organize. Orona said one major goal of the camp is to slow down the pipeline enough so that more members outside the West Texas community can have a place to stay if they want to join the protest.
“The biggest thing we learned out of Standing Rock is power in unity,” Orona said. “It wasn’t one nation that made that happen. It was over four hundred different nations that came together within our own nation and other countries that came down to support so that all nations, all different tribal communities, all faith communities, religions and backgrounds came together to make that happen.” Standing Rock also showed Orona the importance of establishing the camp on private land. “If, for some reason, the police wanted to come in, law enforcement wanted to come in, they would need a search warrant,” he said.
From their camp base, members of the camp plan protests and “direct action” at pipeline construction sites, often streaming their protests on Facebook. Activists, including Glover, have been arrested on charges such as criminal trespassing and criminal mischief. Orona and Glover say tensions with local law enforcement from the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office have increased, especially when protesters learned that members of the law enforcement were employed by ETP as security when they’re off duty. Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez confirmed this, stating that it’s “not illegal.” In an email, Vicki Granado, an ETP spokesperson, said that the “it is very typical in the industry to use off-duty law enforcement for security.” Orona, however, believes the involvement of local law enforcement members with ETP has an effect on the community. “That’s one of the reasons why the community is so scared to be in opposition with them,” Orona said. “It’s scary.”
But the active participants in the protests have only felt more invigorated, even as the current president has undone the work of protestors at Standing Rock. Orona said that President Trump’s executive actions have only made activists at Two Rivers Camps more determined to “step up [their] game.” As more activists join them at the camp, members are planning more direct action and “soft action,” peaceful activities that raise awareness of the issues with the pipeline, such as sending protestors to Marfa to spread information. Even with things looking dire for protesters toward the end of the pipeline’s construction, Orona still has hope that if they can’t stop the completion of the pipeline, then maybe they can prevent fracking, as long as more people pay attention and join their fight. “We’re going to continue moving forward,” Orona said. “We just hope that we have enough support. We need more of our communities to support [us]. We need more feet on the ground.”