Writes on the Range: Tar sands mining, up front and grotesque
Heartbreaking, dehumanizing, toxic — these aren’t the words most people would pick to describe the boreal forest of Canada. But in the far reaches of northern Alberta, this description seems accurate to me. This lush forest of larch, aspen and spruce — a place where wood bison used to roam — has degenerated to ravaged Mordor, the hellish land described in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
For the past two summers, I’ve made the long, nearly 1,300-mile trek from Boise, Idaho, to Fort McMurray, Alberta, to see the tar sands up close. I wanted to bear witness to the horrific scraping away of the land and to experience, even just for a moment, what it is like for the people who live with this industry in their backyard. But I didn’t go there just to gape at the largest, most destructive industrial project on the planet: I went to walk.
The tar sands Healing Walk, organized and led by Canada’s First Nations people of the Athabasca region, began with a three-day gathering held mostly along the shores of Willow Lake. It featured workshops, local speakers and a glimpse into First Nations culture. This year marked the fifth and final Healing Walk.
The walk drew hundreds of people from across North America, from Midwestern ranchers fighting to stop the Keystone XL pipeline to folks from Houston, Texas, who deal with the impacts of tar sands refineries.
In Idaho, we are struggling to stop these corporations from using the narrow, winding road along the Lochsa, a designated wild and scenic river, as a shipping corridor for their super-sized equipment. These “megaloads” are as long as a football field and weigh up to 900,000 pounds.
The Healing Walk itself started just north of Fort McMurray and follows a two-lane highway where traffic rivals that of a large metropolis. The Walk is not a protest, and no one carries anti-tar sands placards. Instead, we are focused on healing the land, water and people who are impacted by the tar sands industry.
Along the peaceful journey, we felt a mix of sadness and outrage as we walked for 8 miles through an industrialized landscape of large open-pit mines and refineries. Where conifers once stood, smokestacks now belched fire and toxic smoke. Birdsong has been replaced by the incessant booming of the propane cannons that are used to discourage wildlife from entering the unlined chemical tailing ponds, which resemble large lakes. Everything seemed desolate and devoid of beauty or life.
Throughout the walk, First Nation elders paused to conduct ceremonial prayers and make offerings to each of the four directions. In these quiet moments, the full impact of the harm being done to the land and people hit hard, bringing many in the crowd to tears.
The pollution from the tar sands sickens not just the animals and the land, but the people, too. You can watch all the videos you want in the media and online, but until you witness it with your own eyes, it’s hard to understand the enormity and complexity of it all. When you see it, you realize that no matter how much we need oil, this practice is wrong.
The earth is ripped apart by machines the size of three-story buildings just to get at the tar sands. All of the “overburden” — plants, animals, trees, soil and people — must first be removed to get at the sticky, viscous, tar-like substance.
Yet burning tar sands oil for energy emits three times more carbon dioxide than burning conventional crude. To make matters worse, getting at it destroys the boreal forest — millions of acres of evergreen trees composing the world’s largest intact forest that functions as a carbon sink. According to James Hansen, the NASA scientist who became an activist to alert the public to the dangers of human-caused climate change, the tar sands industry spells “game over for the climate.” This is an industry we need to halt, he said.
Although this was the last walk, it is not the end of our opposition. The organizers hope to highlight other tar-sands struggles happening across North America. Who knows: Perhaps a Healing Walk will even come to Idaho.
James Blakely is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the founder of 350 Idaho, the state chapter of 350.org, and lives in Boise, Idaho.
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