Friday, December 30, 2016

The 3 On the Brink Posts that Needed More Love

Click for photo credit.
In this final list and final post of 2016, I list the 3 On the Brink posts that needed more love. These were posts that I personally liked that didn't get a great deal of attention from readers for some reason or another.

As I have found over the many years of writing this blog, one can never predict which post will be popular. This brief post, for example, on the do's and don't's of twerking for university professors remains one of the most popular posts of all time. I didn't spend much time on that post yet it remains surprisingly popular. Others that are more thoughtful sometimes never find much readership. Here are three from 2016 that I felt needed attention:

1. The Flooding of Gilligan's Island. When news came out this late spring that some Solomon Islands were disappearing due to climate change, I thought more people would be interested in the news. My post tried to link the loss of the islands to American pop culture. It turned out to be one of the least popular posts of the year.

2. Memories of Harriet Tubman. I wrote this post when news came that Tubman would replace Jackson on the $20 bill and framed the issue within my own memories of her influence on my life as a child in rural Wisconsin.

3. Virgin Islands Subpoenas Think Tank that Denied Climate Change. I found this news incredibly important for a number of reasons. There is no doubt that there was (and is) a conspiracy to deny the reality of climate change among some circles. When nations or individuals are impacted by climate change, can climate change denial organizations be held accountable? That is the focus of this post.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

On the Brink Book of the Year: William Cullen Bryant: Author of America

I reviewed some amazing and interesting books this year, but of all of them, Gilbert Muller's book, William Cullen Bryant: Author of America, stands out as the most scholarly and significant of a strong group. In some ways, this selection is not fair since the book came out in 2008. However, since it was first reviewed this year on this blog, it was eligible in my selection criteria for book of the year.
Anyone who is interested in the history of environmental thought, New York, publishing, or America in general will find the book interesting. Bryant is arguably one of the most important Americans of the 19th century. Muller makes the point in his book that Bryant created what it meant to be American. He helped to define and refine American culture through his publications and through his elevation of mainstream American intellectualism. He also helped to start the American environmental movement first through his artistic romanticism and then through his support of individuals like John Muir.

The book is incredibly well researched with ample footnotes as well as details that are new to those interested in Bryant and 19th century history. Some unfortunate historical biographies become unreadable when authors take such a detailed approach. Not so in this case. Muller is an excellent writer and I did not find my interest flagging.

In a time when American culture is deeply splintered, this book serves as a reminder of how one person can improve the intellectual life of a nation.

Check out my original review here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Most Popular On the Brink Series of 2016

This photo is from my series on local parks which did not
make the list of the most popular series.
Series have always been popular on On the Brink, but this year I published more series than ever. As list season continues, here are the three most popular series that came out this year:

1. My Halloween posts on the dead and the environment made up by far the most popular series of the year. For some reason, the three posts here, here, and here drew considerable ghoulish attention. I think the titles of the individual posts had something to do with it.

2. The second most popular series focused on the Standing Rock pipeline controversy. This seven-part series focused on the geographic and historic background of the issue. Here is a link to the last post in the series which links to the six previous ones. Although President Obama stopped the pipeline, the issue is far from over. I expect the issue will heat up under the new administration.

3. Everyone loves my photo series on the National Monuments which follows from my complete series on all the U.S. National Parks. This link takes you to the last post in the series which links to the previous ones.

Honorable Mention

I do have one honorable mention. I devoted quite a lot of time on my 10 Days of Karst series which focused on 10 themes in karst science and policy. The posts provide a nice background on karst for introductory science students or the general public. These posts were not wildly popular, but I hope they get more attention over time. Here is a link to the last post in the series which links to the previous 9 posts.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Most Popular On the Brink Posts of 2016

The Four Seasons. Click for photo credit.
List season continues on On the Brink with a look back at the most popular posts of 2016. As I write individual posts, I never know what will be popular with the readers of the blog and I am often surprised as to what gets lots of hits and what doesn't.

The list below includes posts that I thought might make the end of the year list (the interview with Margaret Grundstein for example) and others that I thought would barely fly above the radar. Regardless of what I thought about the posts, these are the five most popular posts of 2016.

1. This interview with Margaret Grundstein was the most popular post of 2016. I reviewed her book, Naked in the Woods: My Unexpected Years in a Hippie Commune, and followed it up with the interview. I though her answers were fascinating and the interview is worth a read if you haven't seen it.

2. Another popular post focused on the pre-debate scenes at Hofstra University. As most know, Hofstra University hosted three presidential debates in a row. Our campus has a focus on the presidency and are the only university in the country to host three presidential debates.

3. I was very glad to find that one of my posts on the U.S. National Monuments, Cabrillo National Monument, made the top 5 most popular blog posts this year.

4. Anyone who knows me knows that I dislike bugs so the idea of eating bugs makes me rather ill. That is why I am not particularly pleased that I have to revisit this blog post that I titled, Bugs! It's What's for Dinner in 2030. But, it did make the top 5 and I must provide a link to it while trying not to vomit.

5. Finally, my post Karst, Caves, and Presidents also earned a place in the top this year. I am glad it made the list since it was one of my favorite posts of the year that didn't make me want to vomit like #4.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Top 5 Environmental Predictions for 2017

Click for photo credit.
It is an end of the year tradition at On the Brink to post several end of the year lists. Today I list my top 5 environmental predictions for 2017. If you have any other suggestions, please post your thoughts in the comments of the blog.

1. Greater accountability for climate change denial frauds. There are many smoking guns that emerged in recent years that show that many in the climate change denial crowd were very aware and accepting of climate change science. They denied climate change as a reality for economic reasons for their companies or for their own personal gain even though they fully understood and aware of the issues of climate change science and policy. More of these fraudsters will be revealed and some will be called to account as places like Miami and the coastal northeast continue to feel the impact of sea level rise.

2. Rebirth of activism and growth of environmental majors. Many basic environmental rules are under assault. As a result, we will see a renewal of environmental activism similar to what we saw in the late 1960's and the mid 1980's. Expect to see more civil disobedience inspired by the 2016 Standing Rock Indian Reservation protests. Also expect to see significant growth in college students declaring environmental majors. Growth in these fields always occurs when the environment is under assault.

3. Rebirth of local sustainability initiatives. Prior to President Obama's election, sustainability accounting and management infused local governments and decision making. After his election, local governments took their cues from the federal and state governments. Given the predicted lack of interest in advancing President Obama's environmental initiatives, we will see that local leadership will once again become more significant.

4. 3-D Printing and genetically engineering climate change solutions. Scientists have applied high-tech solutions to a number of modern problems. However, we have not yet fully embraced technical solutions to climate change via geoengineering or other technological approaches. Look to some out of the box ideas to emerge in the coming year. Can we use carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to "print" limestone? Can we develop organisms that are especially effective at reef building?

5. Growing concerns about carrying capacity of the planet. While many have blithely suggested that the world can hold many more billions of people, we are quickly coming to terms with the carrying capacity of the planet. Whether it is water resources in Yemen or healthy fisheries in the northeastern United States, we are starting to come face to face with some distinct resource limitations. Of course, at the same time, we are seeing greater ecosystem changes that are causing extinctions of many animals and plants. As populations continue to grow, and as some regions begin to experience greater resource limitations in 2017, expect to see greater discussion in the public and in the scientific community about these limitation issues. Given today's anti-globalization vibe, there will be growing geographic disparities in terms of access to basic resources like food, water, and shelter.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Top 5 Environmental News Stories of 2016

Click for photo credit.
It is an end of the year tradition at On the Brink to post several end of the year lists. Today I list my top 5 environmental news stories of 2016. If you think I left something out, please post your thoughts in the comments of the blog.

1. Standing Rock. The Standing Rock Pipeline protests were interesting for many reasons. I wrote a 7-part series about Standing Rock that delved into the historic and geographic issues around the pipeline project and resulting protests that you can find here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. What makes Standing Rock such an important news story is that it was ultimately successful. It galvanized the environmental community in ways that haven't been seen in some time.

2. Cabinet picks. The new administration picked some very anti-environmental individuals to lead cabinet posts. I expect there will be significant conflict over many of the picks should they try to gut some important programs. A few of the picks are climate change deniers and have promised to eliminate climate change policy. See 1 above for some expected pushback.

3. Warming climate.The graph and map below show recent trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and global temperature. While I could link to recent articles about the warming Arctic, what matters are these long-term trends. They continue to follow the predictions of climate scientists. There is no denying that we are in a distinct warming phase that is largely driven by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide trends at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. We used to be nervous about the atmosphere
reaching 400ppm concentration of carbon dioxide. We are now above that level.
2015 was the hottest year on record. Click for photo credit. Click for photo credit.

4. Sinkhole leaks 215 million gallons of radioactive acidic water into aquifer. I think this story is one of the most underreported stories of the moment. Some nasty liquid mining waste leaked into the aquifer near Tampa and the mining company and the state neglected to tell residents about the issue for weeks. Where did the water go? Who is impacted? Why didn't the state report the leak to local residents for weeks? What are the ongoing risks? What are the long term risks? I don't think this story is going away any time soon.

5. Yemen foreshadows water conflicts. The world is in a difficult place at this moment. One of more problematic areas is Yemen where Saudi Arabia (with the U.S.) and Iran are sponsoring a civil war. Yet underneath this conflict is the fact that Yemen is very quickly running out of water. The capital of Sana'a has depleted its aquifer and the arid climate of the country limits any kind of significant water works development. While the conflict in that country is partially about religion and culture, another part of it is about access to limited water resources.The Centre for International Governance and Innovation gets the issue exactly right in this piece where Yemen is called the "country in a coal mine." Many areas of the world are running out of water and Yemen is but the first to face this issue. Will the fight for limited water resources lead to war in other areas?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

New Series: Circumnavigating Long Island by Land: Part 1. Port Washington to Manhasset

To many, Long Island has a very strong sense of place. I am seeking to highlight the distinct regional character of the place by posting photos taken while walking its circumference starting from my home in Port Washington, heading west toward Brooklyn along the shore, back around to the southern shores to Montauk and Orient, and back across the north shore to Port Washington. Since I have a day job and do not relish suburban and urban camping, I am breaking these walks into pieces. Today's post is from Port Washington to Manhasset. Note, some of the photos may not seem exactly seasonal since I started this project several weeks ago. For each segment, I stay on public roads that get as close to the shore as possible. I don't go on dead ends and I avoid dangerous stretches where walking is problematic due to traffic. Hopefully, the series of photo essays will provide insight into the geography of this region at this particular point in time.
The starting point at my place in Manorhaven.

Manorhaven street view. It is the most densely populated village in New York.

Private boat clubs abound on the island... do boat storage areas.

Sheets Creek.

Shore Road in Port Washington.

A Port Washington pier.

One of many signs on the Bay Walk in Port Washington.
This one highlights the region's history in commercial air travel.
The popular town dock in Port Washington.

Lower commercial district in Port Washington.

One of many yacht clubs on the island.

A typical north shore residential neighborhood.

Running trail near Plandome.

Looking toward New York City and Connecticut from Plandome...

...another view.

Plandome Heights.

A typical small Long Island Park, this one in Plandome Heights.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline -- Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions

Click for photo credit.
Today concludes my series on The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. News broke recently that the pipeline will be rerouted. However, the issues brought up by the pipeline are far from over. Indeed, the decision is an executive branch decision via the U.S. Army. The executive branch is currently changing hands and the decision could be reversed or modified. While many who fought against the pipeline are cautiously optimistic, the issue is not closed.

My goal was to provide some materials for those interested in teaching or learning about the issue. The set of posts can be used as introductory reading materials in classes or they can be mined to select content of interest. In addition, I hope that the posts will be useful not only for teachers and students, but for those interested in the topic who are readers of On the Brink. I have found that most people do not fully understand the complexities of the issue and some of you may find the content interesting, if not enlightening. If anyone finds any errors, please let me know so that I can update the posts for accuracy. Please note that I will tried to link as much as possible to primary resources that can be used for supplemental material or further reading. In addition, for each section, I have included questions that can be used for in-class discussions or homework. In today's post, I have interspersed a series of critical thinking questions that would be appropriate for essay questions on exams or for classroom discussion prompts.

The series consists of several parts:

Part 1. North Dakota
Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale
Part 3. The Pipeline Project
Part 4. The Heart of the Matter:  The Missouri River
Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux
Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest
Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions

Click for photo credit.
The Dakota Access Pipeline crossing of the Missouri River 1/2 mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation was stopped by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently. Yet since it is an executive branch decision, and the executive branch is changing hands in a month, it is unclear at this time if the decision is temporary or permanent. There are several main ethical considerations that are worth reviewing.

1. If Missouri River crossing at Bismark was rejected due to concerns over the impact of water quality on the city, why was it okay to locate the pipeline 1/2 mile upstream from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation?

2. The Sioux have claimed the unceded territory noted in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty (see Parts 5 and 6 of this series) that includes the area where the pipeline was to cross the Missouri River. Do the Standing Rock Sioux have a reasonable claim to the land?

3. Many have noted that fracking leads to boom bust economies and some have suggested that the North Dakota boom is going bust fast (see Part 2 of this series). Plus, some have noted that we are developing new dirty energy sources at the very time we should be moving rapidly to alternative energy. At the same time, some argue we need to develop U.S. energy resources to promote energy independence. Is it appropriate to build a pipeline that impacts so many people at this moment in time?

Click for photo credit.
4. The Native Americans who fought the pipeline project called themselves water protectors, not protestors. How we are recognized by others matters in how our personal stories are told. Think about how the Millennial Generation is portrayed in the media in positive and negative ways. These generalities about a generation are not always accurate. In the case of the Standing Rock Sioux, which term do you think is appropriate for those who fought the pipeline: water protectors or protestors? Who has the right to name them?

The issues brought out in this series are not over with the closure of the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. Native American land rights, environmental justice, and climate activism will continue in different ways. How do you see each of these issues moving forward in the next few years or decade?


Note, if you like this series, you may like my textbook, Introduction to Sustainability available from Wiley.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline -- Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest

An August protest in San Francisco in support of the Standing Rock Sioux.
Click for photo credit.
Over the next week or two I will post several essays and resources on The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. My goal is to provide some materials for those interested in teaching or learning about the issue. The set of posts can be used as introductory reading materials in classes or they can be mined to select content of interest. In addition, I hope that the posts will be useful not only for teachers and students, but for those interested in the topic who are readers of On the Brink. I have found that most people do not fully understand the complexities of the issue and some of you may find the content interesting, if not enlightening. If anyone finds any errors, please let me know so that I can update the posts for accuracy. Please note that I will try to link as much as possible to primary resources that can be used for supplemental material or further reading. In addition, for each section, I have included questions that can be used for in-class discussions or homework.

The series will consist of several parts:

Part 1. North Dakota
Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale
Part 3. The Pipeline Project
Part 4. The Heart of the Matter:  The Missouri River
Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux
Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest
Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions

The last five posts provided a geographic and historic context for understanding some of the issues associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. In today's essay, I focus specifically on the legals issues and close with a summary of the status of the protest.

In my mind, there are three distinct legal issues associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline in the context of the Standing Rock protests.

1. Land ownership rights.
2. The permitting process.
3. Sacred sites.

While there are other issues, these three themes have emerged as the main points of contention. Each will be briefly reviewed.

Youth from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation protesting in New York
in August. Click for photo credit.
Land Ownership Rights

As noted in yesterday's post, the site where the pipeline is proposed to cross, or more accurately go under, the Missouri River is one-half mile upstream from the border of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in land that can be classified as "unceded territory". This land, described in the Treaty of For Laramie of 1868, noted that some areas outside of the reservation were unceded and thus an unclear compromise zone. Since 1868, the Sioux never officially gave up rights to the land. Nevertheless, the land was given away by the government to private land holders. The Sioux continue to claim the territory. They took their land claim to the Supreme Court in 1980 and won the case. However, one of the outcomes of the case was that the Supreme Court decided that the Sioux should be paid for the land and ordered the U.S. to pay the Sioux the just value. The Sioux refused the money and continue to claim the land. To the U.S. government, the pipeline is going through private property. To the Sioux, it is going through land that they never sold or agreed to give away. The land was taken from them in direct opposition to the rules of their signed treaties. However, from the pro-pipeline perspective, the company believed that they had all permits in place to construct the pipeline on privately owned property. The Missouri River crossing is one of the last pieces to complete.

The Permitting Process

Click for photo credit.
When the pipeline was first proposed, it was designed to cross the Missouri River upstream of Bismark, North Dakota. The Army Corps of Engineers rejected the route because in case of a leak, the project would harm the water supply of Bismark. As a result, the pipeline was rerouted to cross just 1/2 mile north of the border of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. This is widely seen as an environmental justice issue by many in the environmental community. The Missouri River is the main source of water for the people on the reservation. It is standard practice to get input on large projects like this from the impacted communities. In fact, the U.S. has rules that require special consultation on issues that can impact tribal lands as per a 2004 Executive order by George W. Bush. The pipeline company believes they did their due diligence in trying to consult with the Standing Rock Sioux in working to attain the permits to cross the Missouri upstream of the reservation. However, from the Standing Rock Sioux' perspective, the consultation was not adequate and as a result the permit should never have been granted.

Sacred Sites

Large projects like a pipeline need to undergo not only an environmental assessment, but also an archaeological evaluation to determine if the project will disturb any important archaeological resources. Typically, this is done by standard archaeological survey techniques, but in cases when there are Native Americans living in an area, they are usually consulted as well. According to many sources, a basic survey was completed that noted the lack of significant archaeological remains on the construction site. However, when the Standing Rock Sioux noted the presence of sacred places, stone rings, and burials, the state did not take this information into account and construction crews bulldozed the site. This action came to the attention of the archaeological community in the United States and prompted the Natural History Museum to start a petition denouncing the destruction of the sacred site. The petition letter notes that the destruction of the site is against federal law, specifically the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Click for photo credit.
Given these three issues, the Standing Rock Sioux believe that the pipeline is moving forward illegally. To prevent its construction, they have organized protests that continue to this day.

The Protests

At this point, it is important to note that those in the field working against the pipeline do not identify as protesters. They identify as Water Protectors. They do not see themselves as against development, but for protection of the earth. Certainly as part of the pro-earth agenda, they are against the pipeline, but they frame their action as a protection, not a protest. Certainly, by definition, their actions are within the realm of protest and civil disobedience. But I want to note that their is a distinct difference in how they perceive themselves and how they are sometimes portrayed in the media.

USA Today has a timeline of the project and associated protest here. The pipeline company is adamant that they are moving forward and the Water Protectors are adamant that they are staying. The Standing Rock have been joined by many in the environmental movement who are concerned about global climate change and pollution. There have been hundreds of arrests at the site and the police have used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons against protestors. See the video below for interviews with some who are on the site.

A pro Standing Rock event in Central Park earlier this fall. Photo
courtesy of Heidi Hutner.
The protests have spread throughout the country. In New York, there have been several events supporting the Standing Rock Sioux. A colleague of mine, Heidi Hutner, who is in charge of the Sustainability program and an Associate Dean at Stony Brook University has gone to some of the events. I asked her, What is it about the situation that calls you to action? Her response was, As a mother, I feel a deep spiritual call to unite with and support the mothers and women and indigenous people at Standing Rock, who are standing up for Mother Earth and Future generations. This battle is not about indigenous rights alone (although this is vital and enough is enough regarding the oppression and domination of native peoples). All people must come together now. All must stand up and act as loving warriors to protect our earth. We have one home. Earth. We are destroying it. The destruction must stop. As Casey Horinek-Camps (Ponca Elder, grandmother and mother) says, native peoples "are the first environmentalists." We must support and follow their lead. That's what Standing Rock means to me. I have spoken with many who feel the same way as Dr. Hutner. The Standing Rock issue has galvanized the environmental and social justice community in ways I haven't seen in some time.

There is growing national and international support for the Standing Rock protesters. As winter is starting to set in, there does not seem to be any abatement in activity. Both sides are digging in for a long winter. CNN's Sara Sidner posted this live report from the site on November 30th that provides a good review of not only the conditions on the site, but also the current issues.


1. Which side do you think has the most legal standing on the land ownership issue, the pipeline company or the Standing Rock Sioux? Why?

2. Take a look at this document Suggested Best Practices for Industry Outreach Programs to Stakeholders published by the Federal Energy Commission Office of Energy Projects Division of Gas, Environment, and Engineering. It provides guidance on how to conduct outreach to stakeholders who are impacted by large projects like pipelines. Based on information in the document, who or what is a stakeholder? What are the appropriate procedures for outreach to stakeholders?

3. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act protects Native American burials and other important sites. According to the text of the law here, what group is charged with the enforcement of the law?

4. The people protesting the pipeline project near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation see themselves as Water Protectors. Why do they utilize that appellation?

5. Protests in support of the Standing Rock Sioux have occurred throughout the country and throughout many parts of the world. What types of protests took place in your community or state? How do they differ from other types of historical protests?


Note, if you like this series, you may like my textbook, Introduction to Sustainability available from Wiley.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline -- Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux

A model of the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota.
Click for photo credit.
Over the next week or two I will post several essays and resources on The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. My goal is to provide some materials for those interested in teaching or learning about the issue. The set of posts can be used as introductory reading materials in classes or they can be mined to select content of interest. In addition, I hope that the posts will be useful not only for teachers and students, but for those interested in the topic who are readers of On the Brink. I have found that most people do not fully understand the complexities of the issue and some of you may find the content interesting, if not enlightening. If anyone finds any errors, please let me know so that I can update the posts for accuracy. Please note that I will try to link as much as possible to primary resources that can be used for supplemental material or further reading. In addition, for each section, I have included questions that can be used for in-class discussions or homework.

The series will consist of several parts:

Part 1. North Dakota
Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale
Part 3. The Pipeline Project
Part 4. The Heart of the Matter:  The Missouri River
Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux
Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest
Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions

A typical vista on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Click for photo credit.
In the first four parts of this series, I explored a number of issues that provide context to the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. I reviewed the geography of North Dakota, provided background on fracking and the Bakken Shale, summarized some basics of pipeline infrastructure and the pipeline project itself, and dove into the complex geography and history of the Missouri River drainage basin and the Great Plains. These four essays provide an interdisciplinary and geographic frame of reference for approaching the study and greater understanding of the pipeline project and the associated protests. In today's post, I focus on the people involved with the protests, the Standing Rock Sioux. This essay will briefly review the history of the Standing Rock Sioux and provide some contemporary general statistics about them.

One of the treaties that relegated the Sioux to a narrow piece of land
in Minnesota denied them access to this pipestone quarry (now
Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota) which was the main source of
stone (quartzite) trading goods for the Sioux. Materials made from this
quarry were traded throughout North America. Many of the materials
were made into spiritual objects. Thus, the quarry had tremendous symbolic
value to the Sioux. Click for photo credit.
As I mentioned in a previous post, at the time of initial contact with European explorers, the Sioux were semi-nomadic peoples who lived in the upper Midwest in the area of the Great Lakes. As European settlement moved from east to west throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly after the voyage of Lewis and Clark in the early 1800's, the Sioux were forced to abandon their ancestral homes for lands to the west. Resources, particularly water-based resources, were not as abundant and the Sioux quickly adapted to utilize the horse, another European transplant, to assist with hunting and rapid movement to seek resources or outrun enemies. As the Sioux moved westward, they came into conflict with other peoples in the Great Plains. This period was not particularly peaceful for Native Americans.

Of course, as settlers continued their westward expansion, they came into greater conflict with the Sioux who found themselves in difficult situations because they were increasingly pinned in by European settlers and poor environmental conditions. Although the U.S. Government made treaties with the Sioux and other Native Americans for their land, the agreements were not always fulfilled. By the 1850's the Sioux were near starvation and desperate largely due to the loss of their agricultural and hunting grounds to settlers. In Minnesota, which was where most of the Sioux were living at this time, the non-native population of the state in 1850 was about 6000. By 1860, the population was about 172,000. In just ten years, 166,000 non-native people moved onto the land once controlled by the Sioux. A treaty, which promised compensation for relocation to a narrow strip of land, was fulfilled by the Sioux, but not by the Americans. The money never came as promised. Not only did they lose their land, they were never compensated for it.

This is a photo of the painting called the Treaty of Traverse de Sioux which
shows the signing of the ceding over of Sioux lands in exchange for
reservation status and annual payment. Click for photo credit.
Click here for the full text of the treaty.
Of course, the Sioux were not happy about this situation. They saw their land disappear under the plow as they found themselves in increasingly difficult situations since their treaty was unfulfilled and they had no access to funds for food and supplies. Throughout the 1850's and 1860's the prairie was a powder keg. In the summer of 1862, the powder keg exploded. The Sioux held a tribal council and decided to attack white settlements to try to force them out of their lands. Of course, we know how the story ends. Hundreds of white settlers were killed. The military intervened and forced the Sioux to move out of Minnesota to the Dakotas and Nebraska after the government executed 40 Sioux warriors. As an aside, the bodies of those executed were buried, but dug back up and utilized for public dissections and collections.

Black Hills gold. Click for photo credit.
By the 1870's the Sioux and the Cheyenne were settled in large reservations in western South Dakota and that extended into sections of bordering states (including North Dakota). However, once gold was discovered in the Black Hills on the reservations, settlers moved into the area and requested support from the U.S. government which attempted to negotiate transfer of the Black Hills from the Sioux and the Cheyenne Indians to the U.S. Government. Of course, given the history of broken promises, many of the Sioux and Cheyenne were not comfortable with giving up their reservation rights and refused to negotiate. By 1876, the U.S. and the Native Americans of the region were at war. Some notable battles, including the Battle of Little Big Horn, occurred. By 1877, the overwhelming power of the U.S. military effectively ended the war. With the Death of Crazy Horse by bayonet in September of that year, the conflict was largely over, but the violence and land acquisition continued.

Like many oppressed peoples who are forced into difficult situations, the Sioux and other Native American tribes started to find unique ways to express themselves culturally thereby unifying diverse and dispersed groups within a single cultural expression of the noted Ghost Dance. Part tradition and part spirituality, the Ghost Dance spread throughout the west. It celebrated native culture at the very moment that the U.S. government was trying to enforce assimilation. Local white settlers and the military were threatened by the Ghost Dance movement. Its expansion across the west led to a degree of panic among the military and the settlers. This panic is somewhat understandable given the degree of violence in the region. Nevertheless, there was no indication that the Ghost Dance movement sought to resume the war and many experienced with Indian affairs in the American government thought the panic was ridiculous.

This is an 1894 film by Thomas Edison of the Sioux Ghost Dance. The accuracy of the dance has been questioned. It
was filmed in Edison's New Jersey studio. The performers were with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Nevertheless, the dancers were Sioux and this dance may be the closest contemporaneous example.

One of the centers of the Ghost Dance movement was the Standing Rock Reservation. Here, in the midst of the panic, the military was sent to stop the dances and to arrest leaders. One of the leaders, and one of the most famous Native Americans of the period, Sitting Bull, was killed on December 15, 1890. Just 13 days later, the notorious Wounded Knee Massacre which saw the death of between 150 and 300 Sioux, many women and children, occurred in southern South Dakota. The small band of Sioux were killed by the military during the whole Ghost Dance panic after someone let off a shot while the military were trying to confiscate the guns of a small group of Sioux. The military opened fire with automatic weapons while most of the small band were defenseless. Two dozen U.S. military also died in the fight, most from crossfire of the automatic guns.

This memorial marks the mass grave of those Native Americans who died
at Wounded Knee. Click for photo credit.
This period in the Great Plains from 1850 to the 1890s' remains etched in the memory of not only the Sioux, but also all who recognize the difficult time in the history of the U.S. The real historical players from this period are larger than life: Sitting Bull, George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse, and so many others. Yet the actions taken by the Americans and the Sioux during this relatively brief period led to long standing issues that continue to resonate in our modern era. After the 1890's the Sioux were relegated to various reservations which were significantly smaller than the larger reservation.

Before getting to the 20th century, it is worth reviewing the geographic history of the Sioux reservations in the Dakotas. In 1868, after the Sioux were displaced from Minnesota, a treaty called the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 created the Great Sioux Reservation which included all of western South Dakota west of the Missouri River and portions of Nebraska. The treaty also granted extensive hunting rights to the north, west, and south in what many call Unceded Indian Territory. In 1887 and 1889 (General Allotment Act and Dawes Allotment Act), congress passed two acts which broke up the Great Sioux Reservation into the current reservation configuration of the region. However, it must be noted that a Supreme Court decision of 1980 stated that the land of the Black Hills was taken illegally and that the Sioux should be given compensation for the loss of the land. The Sioux refused the money and wish to recoup the land. Today, the money, worth well over 1 billion dollars, is managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. What is also important to note is that the Standing Rock Indian Reservation contains a portion of the Unceded Indian Territory in North Dakota along with a swath of the original Great Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Importantly, the pipeline is crossing the Missouri River just one half mile north of the Standing Rock Reservation in a portion of the Unceded Indian Territory that is now in private hands that the Standing Rock Reservation claims as theirs. To the Sioux, the land was never given up by them and they still have rights and privileges granted to them by the Fort Laramie Treaty. To the Sioux, the passing of the pipeline infringes on their rights. For maps and a review of the history of the territory, see this site.

By 1889 the Sioux were left with these tribal lands. Click for photo credit.
After the close of the disastrous 19th century, the Sioux spent much of the 20th century building new institutions within the reservation system. This was challenging because the reservations were not built of homogeneous cultures. In some cases, disparate groups were brought together to form new tribal governments. By 1959, the Standing Rock Reservation developed their own constitution. The tribal government consists of an elected tribal council along with council chair and vice chair. There is also a tribal judicial system. In other words, the Standing Rock Reservation works as a separate governmental entity from the United States. Indeed, the Standing Rock Sioux assert that they are a nation separate from the U.S. with full rights and responsibility of separate governance.

Some general population statistics for the Reservation from 2010 can be found here.  Generally, there are approximately 6400 people on the reservation in both North and South Dakota. While this sounds like a low number, the population density is not all that different from the surrounding areas. However, as the maps in this article show, there are a number of problems on the tribal lands such as unemployment, lack of education, and health disparities. The pipeline is not the only problem facing the Standing Rock Reservation.

Coming up in the next post, I will cover the legal issues and the protest.


1. Take a look at the census information for your community here. What is the Native American population for your community, county, and state? How has it changed over time? Why?

2. American Indian activism and resistance did not stop in the 1890's. Organizations like the American Indian Movement emerged throughout the 20th century. Take a look at the history the organization provides here. What events in the timeline have connections to the 1800's history outlined in the above essay?

3. South Dakota is approximately 50 million acres. In 1868, the Great Sioux Reservation in South Dakota had an area of approximately 9 million acres. Today, the area of Indian Reservations in South Dakota is about 5 million acres. What percent of South Dakota was/is controlled by Native American in 1492, 1868, and today?

4. The 1868 Treaty of Laramie is considered one of the more important documents in Native American history. Why do you think it is so important? Do you think the treaty was fair? Why or why not?

5. One of the great unresolved issues, at least to the Sioux, is the issue of the "unceded territory" outlined above. Today, that land is in the hands of private owners. What rights do you think the Sioux have to this land?


Note, if you like this series, you may like this textbook, Introduction to Sustainability available from Wiley.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline -- Part 4. The Heart of the Matter: The Missouri River

The Missouri River. Click for photo credit.
Over the next week or two I will post several essays and resources on The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. My goal is to provide some materials for those interested in teaching or learning about the issue. The set of posts can be used as introductory reading materials in classes or they can be mined to select content of interest. In addition, I hope that the posts will be useful not only for teachers and students, but for those interested in the topic who are readers of On the Brink. I have found that most people do not fully understand the complexities of the issue and some of you may find the content interesting, if not enlightening. If anyone finds any errors, please let me know so that I can update the posts for accuracy. Please note that I will try to link as much as possible to primary resources that can be used for supplemental material or further reading. In addition, for each section, I have included questions that can be used for in-class discussions or homework.

The series will consist of several parts:

Part 1. North Dakota
Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale
Part 3. The Pipeline Project
Part 4. The Heart of the Matter:  The Missouri River
Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux
Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest
Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions

In the last three posts, I reviewed quite a bit of background information that set the stage for understanding the geography of North Dakota, the geologic conditions that led to the development of the North Dakota fracking fields, and the pipeline itself that is the center of the controversy. In today's post, I continue to explore another key background issue critical to understanding the context for the protest, the Missouri River. It truly is central to the many complex issues associated with the cultural and environmental issues in the region. In the following paragraphs, I review some of the basic facts and figures about the river, the prehistoric and historic cultural setting, and some of the important environmental challenges facing those who live within its drainage basin today. Please know that much has been written about the Missouri River and this post only provides a quick review from one person's perspective. The Missouri is one of the most important rivers in the world. I could start reading all that has been written about this river and still be reading decades from now. If there are some aspects of the river that interest you, please talk to your local librarian to find more resources on the topic.

A biker riding on a bridge over the Missouri River near
Washington, Missouri. Click for photo credit.
Like many of the readers of this blog, I grew up near a river. In my case, it was the Fox River, one of two Foxes in Wisconsin. My childhood home of Waterford is bisected by the smaller of the two and Oshkosh, where I did my undergraduate degree, is bisected by the larger, more industrial Fox. Although I knew both of these rivers well, neither of them prepared me for the grandness of the Missouri River. I saw it first in St. Louis where it empties into the Mississippi and saw it much more near Washington, Missouri, the boyhood home of my father. As a youngster, I was stunned to see huge barges carrying grain from the west to processing facilities downstream. Tall metallic bridges spanned the stream as erector set engineering marvels. I could see mysterious currents, deep whirlpools, and splashing catfish. This river was a mystery and unlike any other stream I knew.

While many think the Mississippi is the longest river in North America, it isn't. It is the Missouri which extends from Western Montana 2300 miles to St. Louis. To put this length into perspective, a drive from Tampa, Florida to Los Angeles, California is about 2500 miles. Of course rivers bend much more than roads, so the 2300 miles is not a straight line. When the Missouri River is combined with the Mississippi River it becomes the fourth longest river in the world.

The drainage basin of the Missouri River.
Click for image credit.
But it is not really the length that is so impressive about the Missouri. To me, it is the vastness of its drainage basin. For those unfamiliar with the term, a drainage basin is that area of land in which any precipitation falls has the potential to enter any the drainages connected to the stream. In total, the area of the Missouri River drainage basin is approximately a half of a million square miles, roughly 1/6th of the United States.  It includes portions of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, and all of Nebraska. Any rain that falls in these areas has the opportunity to enter the Mississippi River at St. Louis. This basin, which includes portions of the northern plains, the high plains, and the central and western midwest, is one of the most productive agricultural drainage basins in the world.

Precipitation map of the United States. Click for image credit.
One would assume that the region has abundant rainfall given the overall agricultural productivity of the region. However, that is not the case. While eastern areas of the basin may receive 40-50 inches of precipitation a year, western areas can receive only 5-10 inches a year. Eastern reaches are watered by moist air coming from the warm Gulf of Mexico. But the higher western reaches are dry since they are in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. As a result, the flow of western tributaries of the Missouri River are often heavily influenced by local rainfall and the seasonality of snowmelt.

Flooding on the Missouri River in 2011. Click for photo credit.
The discharge of the river varies from year to year, but averages about 90,000 cubic feet per second. This is not all that impressive of a discharge given the very large length of the river. Yet the relatively low discharge makes sense given the comparatively dry environment of much of the drainage basin. Nevertheless, the discharge is significant and ranks as the 9th largest river in the U.S. for overall discharge. As I mentioned, the discharge can vary significantly year to year or season to season. Sometimes, in spring after heavy snow years, the river can overflow its banks to cause massive flooding. The largest discharge was 8 times the normal flow rate in 1993. When the Missouri River floods, it tends to flood big. You can check out real time information on flow of the river within the drainage basin by clicking on this interactive map from the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Missouri River is sometimes divided into an Upper Missouri River region and a Lower Missouri Region with Sioux City, Iowa as the dividing line. Below this point, the river is navigable for barge traffic and there are no dams. The slope of the channel is gentle and there are no significant rapids or falls. Above Sioux City, the slope of the stream is much greater. Hydroelectric engineers have taken advantage of areas of steepness in the channel to build fifteen hydroelectric dams and many more in tributaries.

Monks Mound, Cahokia. Click for photo credit.
The prehistory of the Native Americans who lived in the Missouri River basin is complex and impossible to detail here. For 10,000 years or more, prior to contact with Europeans, Native Americans lived within the region and left behind evidence of their presence. During this time different cultures rose and fell and regional differences emerged. One of the more important prehistoric settlements in the region was in an area near the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi River in a place called Cahokia in what is now East St. Louis in Illinois.

Cahokia, which once had a population of about 40,000 in about 1200, was the most important, and largest, Native American city north of the Aztec world in Mexico. The culture, which anthropologists have named the Mississippian culture, had a tremendous influence throughout the Mississippi and Missouri River basins. While Cahokia was without a doubt the cultural capital, archaeological artifacts related to the culture and many settlements have been found from Florida to Wisconsin and from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains.

A Mississippian site in Wisconsin (Aztalan). Click for photo credit.
Based on archaeological excavations in Cahokia and elsewhere, it is evident that the Mississippian culture was different from previous and contemporaneous cultures in other areas in several key ways. One of the most important discriminating pieces of evidence is that they built large earthen platform mounds and divided their communities by social status. In addition, they developed farming practices that allowed them to live in permanent communities. The stability of the communities created an artisan class that made fine tools, household objects, and ornaments. They clearly had a chiefdom or kingdom society and there is evidence that they practiced human sacrifice. They had a distinct pattern of urban development that included plazas, mounds for religious purposes or for settlement of high status individuals, and a ceremonial center. In addition, some of the communities had calendars, or woodhenges, that allowed them to note the passage of time.

Houses of the Plains Indians were designed
for semi permanence. Click for photo credit.
In contrast, the native population in the plains to the west were more migratory and did not live in such dense concentration. Due to the semi arid nature of the region, natural resources were not as abundant. People had to move with the resources, including the American bison. Instead of well planned cities, the peoples of the plains were more nomadic. While permanent and semipermanent communities emerged, they were not as common as those associated with the Mississippian culture to the east. As a result of the different life ways, the archaeological artifacts from similar times from the Native American plains sites and the Mississippian sites are strikingly different.

Of course, contact with the Europeans changed everything.

By the time people of European origin made it to the region of the Missouri River basin, smallpox and other diseases decimated the Native American population. Some estimate that 90% of the population was lost, some due to the intentional introduction of disease. Early explorers in the region encountered communities that were clearly recently empty with some bodies unburied. The plagues, along with forced evacuations and concomitant violent conflict during the contact period caused considerable social, economic, and geographic stress on those who survived the early ravages of the new diseases.

One Bull, a Sioux Chief. Click for photo credit.
The expansion of American settlers west from the Atlantic seaboard caused considerable migration of Native Americans westward, particularly after the famous voyage of Lewis and Clark up the Missouri. This caused predictable conflict among Native American groups who were forced into difficult circumstances due to influx of population into areas with limited resources. One group which was forced to leave the Great Lakes region moved to the Great Plains and eventually became part of a broad group known as the Sioux. I will return to the discussion of the Sioux in the next post. However, by the turn of the 20th century, most of the Native American peoples in the Missouri River basin were displaced and forced to live in reservations. Their land was taken from them via dubious agreements and trade deals and distributed to American settlers from the east. In the 19th and early 20th century their children were taken from them to be educated using western traditions.

After American settlement and statehood, the region became distinctly agricultural in nature. Even its larger cities, such as Omaha and Sioux City, are built around agricultural processing. The Missouri River became a highway for moving food from the plains to the larger populations to the east. St. Louis, with it centrality, became a major city and a gateway for westward expansion. However, that all started to change late in the 20th century.

The Gateway Arch which commemorates westward
expansion from St. Louis. Click for photo credit.
The loss of the family farm and the expansion of agribusiness, which started in the 1980's, caused yet another migratory change. Young people started leaving and moved to cities or out of the region entirely to find economic opportunity elsewhere. Today, many of the census tracts are significantly older and less densely populated than they were earlier in the 20th century. As our society changed over the last 20 years into one that is more technological and global, the crossroads of our country changed as well. We no longer looked inward, but outward. The economic centers became our global cities which were increasingly coastal. Places like Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Houston saw expansion while places like St. Louis and Detroit experienced challenges as they saw their influence decline in the new globalized world.

Prosper, North Dakota. Click for photo credit.
In the midst of all of this change, a new economic opportunity emerged in the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota. In a region fighting for relevance in the new globalized economy, government officials and those seeking to advance economic growth worked hard to promote the development of the energy sector. While some have applauded the growth, some are concerned about the eventual bust that follows a boom.

Yet it is important to note that the development of the energy sector is not the only environmental issue facing the Missouri River basin. While water pollution is a perennial concern in most regions of the world and is an issue in the region, particularly pollution from animal holding lots, two broad environmental issues can limit the long-term sustainability of the region: soil erosion and depletion of the aquifers.

An image from the famous Dust Bowl of the 1930's in the Great
Plains. Click for photo credit.
Many of the soils of the Great Plains are classified as Mollisols, which are distinctly rich soils found in grasslands. In the Great Plains, they have a deep rich surface A horizon which formed in wind blown silt that was deposited at the close of the last Ice Age. The soil is perfect for growing crops like wheat. The A horizons formed over thousands of years as season after season of grasses provided organic material to the soils. Unfortunately, when disturbed or left unvegetated, the soils are highly erodible. We know what happened in the region during the dust bowl. Today, it is estimated that 2.5 tons per acre per year are lost due to soil erosion. Over 171 million acres of land are experiencing soil erosion at rates that are twice the tolerance level for long-term sustainability. The lost soil clogs waterways and causes significant environmental damage. Some question weather or not our grain belt can sustain itself into the next century with the rate of soil loss the region is experiencing.

Irrigated circular fields in Nebraska. Click for photo credit.
Another serious issue for sustainability in the plains is groundwater depletion. Millions of acres in the region require irrigation to remain productive. In Nebraska, for example, over 6 million acres of land are irrigated every year. Most of the plains states utilize the Ogallala Aquifer which extends from Texas to South Dakota. Some portions of aquifer are expected to go dry this century. For the last few generations the Great Plans have been seen as the breadbasket of the world. Soil erosion and groundwater depletion may limit the region's ability to maintain the ability to provide at current rates.

As a whole, the Missouri River drainage basin is complex. It has a distinct history, a dynamic environment, and a challenging future. When considering the issues associated with Dakota Access Pipeline, it is important have a broad geographic and historical context.

Coming up next, a look at the Standing Rock Sioux.


1. Everyone lives in a drainage basin. What is yours? What is the area of your drainage basin?

2. Compare and contrast the climate of Bismark, North Dakota with that of St. Louis (Chesterfield), Missouri.

3. Do some research on the Internet and find examples of prehistoric artifacts from the Mississippian culture near St. Louis and the prehistoric Plains Indians of the Great Plains. Describe their differences and similarities. What can you infer about the differences in their lifestyles from the artifacts?

4. Take a look at the maps in this document. Based on the maps, what is unique about the Great Plains compared to the rest of the United States?

5. Read this article from Scientific American about the Ogallala Aquifer. What steps can we take to ensure the long-term sustainability of the aquifer and of agriculture in the plains?


Note, if you like this series, you may like this textbook, Introduction to Sustainability available from Wiley.