The Roadgrader

Originally published in the 20th Anniversary edition of The Earth First! Journal

By Jean Eisenhower

“Put the grader in park!  An activist is locking on!” I shouted to the man at the controls of a paused-but-still-chugging yellow road grader clearing the way for construction equipment to ascend to the High Peak of Mount Graham, just across the border in southern Arizona.

I glanced to where my new acquaintance had disappeared beneath the front end, and hoped the construction worker wasn’t considering anything heroic like putting the machine in reverse, which could break his neck.

The driver’s hands danced on the controls.  What was dancing in his mind, I couldn’t know.  He was half-risen from his vibrating metal seat shaped like a pair of hands, each cupped for one buttock.  I cupped my hands and repeated my directions.

“Put the grader in park!  An activist is locking on!” I shouted again.

After a pause, he cut the engine, and the hellish sound gave over to birdsong and the bubbling of the mountain creek.  The worker stood for one last strange look at me before leaping from his platform and loping down the highway to tell his boss.

I ran to the front of the grader, breathless at what I’d done without any planning.  I’d come to the mountain with this friend of my husband’s, to watch for development, and Dwight had shown me his lock only seconds before racing down the hill toward the grader, leaving me to follow, wondering what would transpire.  This wasn’t the “affinity group” planning I’d trained for, but I was willing to be a support person anyway.

Dwight had fixed a motorcycle U-lock around his neck and the grader’s front axle.  He held up a bike U-lock toward me.  “Wanna lock on?”

Unprepared, but also impulsive, I paused only a moment before deciding this was one of those life opportunities not to be missed.  Thirty seconds later, I was committed for the rest of the day.  There were others who would, fortunately, support us until we were arrested and jailed.

The “sky island” of Mount Graham has been called an “evolutionary museum” because at 10,720 feet – a vertical mile and a half above the surrounding desert floor – it has been isolated from similar forests since the end of the last ice age, 11,000 years ago.  A very wet range with 14 perennial streams in the middle of the desert, it hosts a high number of endemic species, few of which are officially protected.  It also supports the largest black bear and mountain lion population south of the Mogollon Rim in Arizona, as well as the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel, an indicator species for the whole ecosystem.

Dzil Nchaa si an is the Apache name for the mountain, central to the San Carlos Tribe’s sacred lands.  Congress removed this vitally important site from the reservation in 1873, though the mountain has remained a place to gather sacred water and herbs.  Today, though, with this new development, the Apache are prohibited from doing so without a permit.

The fight to save Mount Graham began in 1984 as a one-man show:  Wayne Woods against the University of Arizona.  The UA planned a $200-million astrophysical project with 14 telescopes.  Over the years, the fight has united thousands of activists around the world to lobby their governments to pull out of the project.  Every major conservation group in the US has taken a stand against it.  But it was the local EF! groups in the US and Canada that created actions and campaigns to convince the Universities of Texas, Ohio, Toronto, Chicago and Notre Dame to back out.  EF!ers in DC hit the project hard when they dressed as catering staff and placed faux-official brochures on every plate at a dinner of lawyers attending a Smithsonian-sponsored conference on environmental ethics.  The materials prompted pointed questions, unanswerable by the Smithsonian speaker who stammered and stalled.  Within weeks, the venerable institution announced it too was pulling out.  (Unfortunately, the Universities of Ohio and Notre Dame were convinced to rejoin.)

The Vatican has also been a major player.  Its PR man once explained its interests as involving the conversion of extraterrestrials to Christ.  Honest.  We protested in front of Catholic churches and gave enough information to a nationally syndicated cartoonist to inspire this cartoon.  The church has been unrepentant.

The project would have died an early and appropriate death but for the valiant work of Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini.  After midnight at the end of the 1988 Congressional session, he attached to a totally unrelated bill a rider allowing the project to move forward without the impediment of environmental law or the Native American Religious Freedom Act.  Apache activists have sued repeatedly over this circumvention, but their lawsuits have been thrown out over technicalities and have never been heard.  Environmentalists’ lawsuits sat for years on the desk of a UA-booster judge before he finally announced in 1995, after critical work for the project had been completed, that the UA needed to revisit their Environmental Impact Study.

Over the decades we’ve seen tree-sits, protests, sabotage and road blockades on the mountain and in the city, letter campaigns.  Our presence on the mountain once included a helicopter owned by a wealthy supporter who landed it in the meadow in front of Forest Service employees and Sheriff’s deputies who stood gape-mouthed in shock at what this ragtag group of activists could muster.

Ola Cassadore, traditional woman of the San Carlos Apache, and her husband, Mike Davis, have worked tirelessly, speaking, lobbying Congress, visiting European environmental groups, and hosting blessing ceremonies for activists.  They’ve caused this fight to be recognized internationally as representative of all struggles of indigenous peoples for religious freedom.

Today there are three telescopes on the mountain and the UA has plans for four more.  They also plan to run a power line through the forest and pave the road to the very top, encouraging more traffic.

Last August I returned to Mount Graham for the Eighth Annual Mount Graham Sacred Run. The first one was held in conjunction with our EF! Rendezvous in 1993.  Relay runners began on the reservation at 3 a.m. and by afternoon were climbing the mountain.  In 2001, returning to a mountain reunion, I passed them in my vehicle and stopped at Sycamore Canyon where 12 years earlier Dwight and I had passed the day under the steel road grader’s frame.

An eight-year old Apache boy waited in the dappled shade of an old sycamore for the runner below to bring up the sacred baton, which he would relay to the next runner above.  He seemed willing to chat.

“I fought for this mountain, too,” I offered – unnecessarily, slightly embarrassed of myself.

“Yeah?” he asked politely.

“Right here,” I said, “I was arrested for locking my neck to the front axle of a road grader.”

His eyebrows rose.  “When?” he asked.

“Twelve years ago,” I answered, and realized then that he had not yet been born.

But he was here now, ready to carry the sacred baton, ready to carry on the fight.

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