Friday, April 19, 2013

Protest, Nebraska style

This week, Nebraskans had what may be their last formal chance to comment on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.  Many attended public hearings that the U.S. State Department hosted at an events hall in the state fairgrounds at Grand Island, in central Nebraska.  Dan Frosch reported for the New York Times, describing the scene:
Hundreds of people braved heavy snow and wind on Thursday, streaming into this central Nebraska town to speak out on the Keystone XL pipeline at what may be the final public hearing on the project. 
The hearing, conducted by the State Department, drew hours of emotional testimony, mostly from opponents of Keystone XL, who whooped and applauded when anyone from their ranks spoke, and solemnly hoisted black scarves that read “Pipeline Fighter” during comments by the project’s supporters.
Nebraska rancher Ben Gotschall was among those who spoke in opposition to the pipeline at the hearing:
The Keystone ‘Export’ pipeline is not in the national interest, and it is most certainly not in Nebraska’s interest.  ... Our landowners have been left to fend for themselves against an onslaught of dishonest land agents and corporate bullies.
While opponents of the pipeline seemed to considerably outnumber supporters at the Grand Island meeting, an Omaha World-Herald poll last year indicated that Nebraskans support the pipeline by a ratio of 2 to 1.  But another poll, this one by the University of Nebraska’s Center for Applied Rural Innovation, found that 65% of respondents believed the pipeline should avoid the Sand Hills and the Ogallala Aquifer.  Whether the path currently proposed for the pipeline would avoid the Sand Hills and the Aquifer is debatable.  

The day before the Grand Island forum, Mary Pipher of Lincoln published this op-ed in the Times, titled "Lighting a Spark on the High Plains."  In it, Pipher describes the strategies Nebraskans have used to oppose the pipeline, and I found her characterizations reminiscent of at least one strand of rural culture. Here's an excerpt:
Newly minted activists organized potlucks, educational forums, music benefits, tractor pulls, poetry readings, flashlight rallies, wildflower drops in Capitol offices and pumpkin-carving protests. Grandmothers created the Apple Pie Brigade and arrived every Monday at the governor’s mansion with small gifts and letters opposing the project.

* * *  
Our activism was polite and respectful. Our common language was our love of our state and our hopes for our children.
* * *  
In part, our unity came from our shared history and geography. Many of us are the relatives of homesteaders and modern farmers and ranchers. Whatever our politics, we all believe in the sanctity of home.  (emphasis added)
Mary Pipher quotes Nebraska activist Randy Thompson to illustrate how "[f]armers, ranchers, urbanites, Republicans and Democrats, students and senior citizens as well as native peoples" have come together to to oppose the pipeline:
There is no red water or blue water, there is clean water or dirty water.
Pipher closes by highlighting the unexpected in all of this, as well as Nebraska's place in a larger environmental movement:
Our remote, conservative, flyover state seems like an odd place to make a stand for clean water and fertile land, but we will be at the heart of those battles. We are fighting not only for ourselves but for people all over the world.
As for what comes next, President Obama will make a decision about the pipeline later this year.  Or, as Randy Thompson expressed it, "We're about at the final bell" in this "heavyweight bout between the ordinary citizens of this country and a foreign corporation."

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