Disasters and Triumphs: 10 Major Environmental Stories in IN Country During 2014

EPA/PETER FOLEY / Actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo join other celeb faces in accompany the Alberta oil sands activists in the People's Climate March in New York City, a highlight of the year for Indigenous Peoples and the environmental movement.

Disasters and Triumphs: 10 Major Environmental Stories in Indian Country During 2014

The 10 most prominent environmental stories of 2014 constituted a wide range of events—extreme weather, natural disasters, major administrative decisions and potent activism. Some of the issues were ongoing. Others surfaced for the first time. And still others rose from a slow burn to a sudden burst of headlines.

Among them were these:


The drought that has been plaguing California for the past few years began affecting the daily lives of tribes, many of whom were forced to declare water emergencies.

As Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide emergency, and signed drought legislation into law, conflicts arose over water allocation. A spate of deluge rains at the tail end of the year caused floods and mudslides but did not fill the water gap.

Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP Low water levels in Folsom Lake, California, during third consecutive year of drought.


A pair of industrial accidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) nuclear storage facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in February leaked radiation and contaminated more than a dozen workers.

The facility was closed down indefinitely, with a potential cleanup cost topping $500 million. As the story unfolded, it emerged that officials at the facilities had covered up safety violations and lapses, compounding the problems. In December the state of New Mexico levied $54 million in fines against the facilities.

Photo: Department of Energy


In March, a slice of rain-saturated hillside obliterated a neighborhood outside Oso, Washington, about 55 miles north of Seattle. The wall of mud and debris killed 43 and devastated the region. But as the disaster unfolded, area tribes stepped up with aid and comfort.

Photo: Associated Press / The scope of the landslide that obliterated a neighborhood outside Oso, Washington, in March 2014.


Wildfires were especially fierce this past summer, and many of those that raged this year took place in, or affected, Indian Country. Washington State battled the biggest wildfire in its history, which burned a hole of 250,806 acres—392 square miles—in its center, leaving a veritable moonscape in its aftermath.

Oregon was in similar straits, contending with the 395,747-acre Buzzard Complex fire, as well as another blaze on the Warm Springs Reservation itself.

Photo: InciWeb / Washington State wildfire in July 2014.

The Navajo Nation declared a state of emergency as the Assayii Lake Fire destroyed precious artifacts and ceremonial items, causing evacuations and burning more than 13,000 acres.

A 20,000-acre fire on the Colville Indian Reservation prompted evacuations, and a fire in Yosemite National Park leapt from 19 to 2,600 acres in just one day, growing even worse before it was contained.


In a landmark award, the Navajo Nation received $1 billion of a $5.15 billion settlement that the federal government reached with Kerr-McGee Corp. and its parent Anadarko Petroleum Corp. for Superfund cleanup around the country. The Navajo settlement is for remediating extensive uranium contamination from abandoned mines and processing plants in Cove, Arizona, and Shiprock, New Mexico. The award came in the wake of a bankruptcy court’s 2013 ruling that Anadarko and Kerr-McGee were liable for damages.

Photo: Rick Abasta/Navajo Nation / Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly meets with environmental leaders before the historic settlement


Northwest tribes exulted as some salmon species returned to spawn in record numbers. The fall Chinook comeback, dubbed “The Return of the King,” was the highest to the Columbia River basin in 75 years. In addition, salmon began making their way back to the Upper Elwha River after the last part of the dam had been dismantled. They remembered the way even though they had not made the journey for 100 years or more.

Photo: Bonneville Power Administration / Spawning salmon through the observation window at Bonneville Dam.


Bison were on the radar in a big way throughout the year. A young activist was arrested trying to defend Yellowstone bison, which were being slaughtered—because of supposed overpopulation, for wandering outside the park’s bounds seeking food, and amid ranchers’ fears that they would spread brucellosis to livestock.

However, the Interior Department set out a bison reintroduction and preservation plan in July, paving the way for innovative solutions. These included sending the Yellowstone bison, which are genetically pure, to tribal lands with the goal of bringing the animal back as much as possible.

The move paved the way for sending bison that had been quarantined and found to be brucellosis-free to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, as well as to the Cherokee Nation.

Photo Courtesy Cherokee Nation

In addition, tribes on both sides of the U.S.–Canada border signed a historic treaty to work together on bringing back the iconic animal to both sides of the 49th Parallel.


The struggle of Alaska Natives to protect the largest wild salmon run in the world from mining went on a roller coaster ride this year. The Environmental Protection Agency set limits on the plan for the world’s largest pit mine—slated for the pristine Bristol Bay watershed region—that were so strict that they practically scrapped the proposal under the Clean Water Act. Then, in November, a judge ruled that the EPA had overstepped its bounds on one small point. However, on December 16 the region itself received recognition from President Barack Obama when he halted all future oil and gas drilling leases there. It remains to be seen whether mining will follow.

Photo Courtesy Cherokee Nation


The Keystone XL pipeline, as always, ranked high on the list of environmental concerns. This year saw an unusual collaboration between American Indians, ranchers and others who oppose the project. This Cowboys and Indians Alliance, as they called themselves, rode on horseback across the country to Washington, DC to camp out and protest the pipeline on Earth Day.

This took place against the backdrop of the long-awaited environmental report from the State Department, which all but skirted the issue and said that any impact on carbon footprint and thus climate change from this particular project would be negligible.

Meanwhile a Nebraska judge struck down a law that had allowed the governor to approve the route through the state, putting that portion of the pipeline back to square one.

Frustrated, the House passed legislation that would have forced the approval of the pipeline—a vote that Rosebud Sioux Tribe leader Cyril Scott called an act of war.

When the Senate voted down its version of that bill, Lakota activist Greg Grey Cloud broke into an honor song from the observation gallery and was arrested. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said she welcomed indigenous voices: “They know their lands better than we do,” she told MSNBC’s José Díaz-Balart.

Greg Grey Cloud being led away by police after breaking into an honor song in the Senate gallery after Keystone XL pipeline legislation is narrowly defeated.


This year marked Indigenous Peoples’ “arrival” in mainstream consciousness as important advocates, environmental stakeholders and experts in both facing and adapting to climate change. Indigenous Peoples at the grassroots were finally recognized as the original stewards of the land, being at the forefront at the People’s Climate March on September 21; a wide range of notables tapped and acknowledged their expertise. The boldface names who recognized Indigenous Peoples’ place in the debate ranged from President Obama to actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The latter marched with the Tar Sands contingent along with other celebrities, including actor Mark Ruffalo and Sting, putting Indigenous Peoples firmly on the global radar.

Photo: EPA/PETER FOLEY / Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and others accompany Alberta oil sands activists and other Indigenous Peoples in the People's Climate March in New York City on September 21.