Carbon Nullius: the Alberta Agenda

Contributed by Maia Wikler

In northern Alberta, the Athabsca River flows north past boreal forest, peat and muskeg. This forested landscape and watershed are the traditional lands of the Cree, Dene and Metis among other First Nations, who have lived a semi-nomadic foraging lifestyle since time immemorial. The boreal forest is also 1.3 billion acres of wild habitat home to an array of species — from large carnivores to nesting migratory birds to thousands of plant varieties, while simultaneously capturing carbon pollution and filtering millions of gallons of water. Yet, in the era of global warming and relentless fossil fuel development, Indigenous communities are now the frontlines to protect the forests and ecosystems necessary to combat the excess of industrial emissions. With an oil-hungry border neighbor, the U.S., importing 99% of Canada’s oil exports, and Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau gleefully declaring, “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” the boreal forest, water ways and frontline communities are along the path of devastation.

As forests are cleared, waterways drained, borders and territories demarcated, pollutants released into the atmosphere — northern Alberta has become ground zero. The very space is a fraught historical product, from which enlightenment thinking and a Newtonian view of space manifested in treaties as a political technology to control indigenous mobility and exploit the oil sands terrain. The very nature of tar sands development has changed the local atmosphere into one of dangerous toxicity, while intensifying physical effects upon the frontline communities, which are mostly Indigenous. This is being called a slow industrial genocide. The stakes are high in Alberta, set by petro-politics, and Indigenous communities are fighting for their lives in a landscape of contested power.

Photo by Stuart Hill

Photo by Stuart Hill

To understand Canada’s relation to this space, history must recognized. Although Canada’s rapid expansion of oil sands took off in 2004, coinciding with a rise in oil prices, sights had been set on developing tar and oil from the banks of the Athabsca as early as 1793. Explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie noticed tar and oil oozing from the banks of the Athabasca that other explorers had failed observe and speculate on its future potential. Following his discovery, the Geological Survey of Canada pursued this lucrative petrol potential and published a report in 1875 revealing ‘almost inexhaustible supplies’ of oil and estimated that there were 4,700 million tons of tar in the region as well as natural gas, bitumen, oil and pitch. These surveys and exploratory observations confirmed that the area was richer in mineral resources than previously thought. This promising discovery spurred unregulated settlement and the beginning of resource extraction in the north. The production of territory by the Canadian state begins.

Just as the intellectual and physical mapping of Alberta spurred this petrol manifesto, the common premise of resources for the taking is evident in Canadian logic for territorial control. By reducing place to a pin-pointed spot, as done with the Geological Survey of Canada, space becomes absolute and purely quantifiable, measurable and a dominant tool in not only the sciences but for the state. The Newtonian notion of absolute space having no relation to something external and remaining the same no matter what happens in its midst is relevant in settler space production. This 17th century approach toward space as if it were a disembodied entity creates a crude reductionism of space that perpetuates its ability to be commodified and sold in its purely abstract view. This idea of making space out of a blank environment entails that to begin with there is a spatial spread waiting for cultural configuration, which is the driving notion behind settler-colonialism.

In 1899, Treaty 8 was signed, which covers most of northern Alberta, parts of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon — 840,000 square kilometers. The treaty process was a direct result of the Geological Survey of Canada and served Western notions of property, economy and progress. The treaties were created to secure mineral resources, extinguish aboriginal title and allow further settlement in the area. The British empire’s legal term terra nullius, thus Canada’s colonial logic, conveniently deemed an area uninhabited even if Indigenous people lived there to justify their seizure and settlement of new colonies. Abstraction was the state’s ultimate tool.

Treaty 8 Lands, Collections Canada Archives

Treaty 8 Lands, Collections Canada Archives

For Canadians, the treaty was a legitimate surrender, but for Indigenous peoples, the concept of private, let alone state property, did not resonate with such absolute power. Most treaties and land ‘surrenders’ were signed after First Nations had already lost control of their territory and the only choice was to lose land with a treaty or to lose it without one. First Nations viewed the most vital aspect of the treaty to be their right to subsistence from the land as their lives and culture depend upon hunting, fishing and plant harvesting. By considering the legal and technical together, the relation of the state to the emergence of space, the complexities of Alberta’s territory can be better understood as it continues to impact human and environmental rights in the 21st century.
Whereas terra nullius was the term for treaty logic, “carbon nullius” has been used to describe how boreal forest carbon management and climate change discourse designates the Canadian boreal forest as a carbon reservoir and wilderness space, thus erasing the up to 35,500 aboriginal people situated throughout it.

Technological control of terrain operates from enlightenment notions of space and science that negates the connected affects of all entities such as land, water, air, plants etc. Indigenous peoples in northern Alberta have developed a particular sensitivity to what they are interacting with, in this case the pollutants and toxins in their environment. There is heightened awareness of land and wildlife changes from increased levels of toxic contamination in waterways and deforestation. At the core of the tar sands conflict in Indigenous communities is the tension between what the body can and can’t do in such altered spaces. The Western norms where autonomy and control is held by humans is a driving principle behind oil sands development, however perceptive frontline communities challenge these norms.

Northern Alberta is ground zero for what has been dubbed a ‘slow industrial genocide.’ Tar sands mining has changed Northern Alberta from a pristine environment rich in cultural and biological diversity to a landscape resembling a war zone marked with 200-feet dip pits and thousands of acres of destroyed boreal forest. The oil sands development not only alienates native peoples from their land by driving them off it but also by way of its toxic contamination. Smokestacks release pollutants into the air while toxic tailings wastewater leaks at 11 million liters per day into the ground and flows downstream into Indigenous communities. Rivers, lakes and wetlands are drained to subsidize the enormous quantities of water needed to force bitumen from the ground. As 82 percent of Athabasca’s river water is used for tar sands extraction, the little water that remains is poisoned by toxins released from above and below-ground discharges that leach out of tailing ponds. This river, the primary source of water and nourishment for Indigenous communities and the wildlife that sustains them, now has elevated levels of several contaminants including naphthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heavy metals.

Athabasca River Pollution (Global News)

Athabasca River Pollution (Global News)

“It had to have been something from the water, air or land,” a 17-year old Indigenous girl said when she contracted cancer. Her cousin has testicular cancer, her aunt died of uterine cancer and her sister has terminal cancer. Chemicals found in the water include arsenic, led and phenols. Dene, Cree and Metis First Nations live close to or actually in the midst of these tar sand deposits, mostly along the Athabasca River basin area. People most at risk of health effects are those who eat food from the land and drink the water, which is almost inevitable since Indigenous communities continue to subsist on a diet of fish and wild game. The remote Fort Chipewyan community, for example, has an 80 percent subsistence diet.
The physical and lethal impacts of such atmospheric changes were made public in 2006 by local doctor, John O’Connor who exposed the abnormal rates of deadly diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma, lupus, colon cancer, Graves’ disease, bile duct cancer among others that are a direct consequence of steadily rising carcinogens in sediments and waterways from tar sands mining.

Dr. John O’Connor (Photo by Andrew S. Wright)

Dr. John O’Connor (Photo by Andrew S. Wright)

In response to Dr. O’Connor, the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons brought a formal complaint against him for causing “undue alarm,” while the government continued to ignoring evidence of toxic contamination on downstream Indigenous communities. Do the elusive affects of atmosphere and materiality rid federal government and oil industry of responsibility? Current mainstream perceptions of the body, space and connected affects conveniently disqualify bodily reasoning. The oil industry and Canadian government plan to expand tar sands production to six million barrels of oil per day, which would increase ocean acidification, contribute astounding levels of CO2 into the atmosphere, and toxic carcinogenic pollution would be carried around the earth by wind, water, tankers and pipelines. The oil sands logic continues to reside in bounded notions of space and 17th century notions of human control.

These manufactured landscapes are far from being static yet imaginations of science combined with legislative technology continue to justify its expansion. For example, Judge Tremblay-Lamer accepted Imperial’s claims that peatlands, which are destroyed by tar sands mining, could be reclaimed even though Imperial agreed with environmental groups’ assertion that how to reclaim peatlands is not even known. And, even if all reclamation projects on approved tar sands mines are achieved, 29,555 hectares of peatland will be lost which would result in the release between 41.8 and 173.4 million tons of stored CO2. Environmental changes will not stop at the boundary of the resource nor do they function on a horizontal plain of predictability. This is the ultimate ‘fallacy of concreteness’. Despite treaty right infringements and potentially devastating climate impacts, tar sands expansion continues under the guise of Canadian values for the efficient mastery of nature.
In a convergence of technology, history and geography, the concept of borders works to be a productive tool for the U.S. and Canada. The homogeneity cultivated in these shared borders works in favor of both state’s interests and the interests of capitalist conglomerates. The most important factor in this oil partnership is border reliability as other large oil reserves is no longer sufficient with the Western world’s war on terror. Regions with large oil reserves, like the Persian Gulf with 725 billion barrels, are high risk. Vulnerable supply routes and military threats means most sources of conventional oil supply carries with it its own spatial, logistical, and political complications, preventing the US from the security and sufficiency of supply it needs. Canada has the world’s second largest oil reserve, the tar sands, and offers reliable political and geographical convenience . With the legislative support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, 90 percent of US imported natural gas is from Canada. There is even a popularized trope of ethical oil as opposed to conflict oil from oppressive and environmentally reckless regimes.

Through complex relations between the state, national security forces, private industry, the rapid and massive proliferation of oil sands development in the Athabasca tar sands have all been made possible by notions of boundaries and dismissal of Indigenous sovereignty. Yet, both industry and government recognize its territory, bounded through political jurisdiction, is becoming increasingly porous due to shifting global interconnectedness and ideologies and in response have criminalized dissent to the tar sands project. The establishment of legislative and organizational structures that position any opposition to oil sands development as an affront to Canadian identity has become key.
The technologies of settlement and domination are shared between the government and stakeholders. In a 2009 report for the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs institute, author Tom Flanagan suggests eco-terrorists, mainstream environmentalists and the First Nation and Metis people will incite violent and extra-legal resistance to industrial projects. The report was prepared for a leading oil and gas lawyer, former Enbridge and TransCanada Pipelines Limited executive, a Royal Banks executive, Vice President of the Calgary Petroleum Club, a Senator and several members of the Canadian Armed forces — all of whom make of the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs institute.

In this spectacle of surveillance begins the disappearance of spaces for democratic dissent, without these individuals can’t participate in critical engagement. This is a key theme in politics of inclusion and exclusion, operated through the discourse of terrorism and enforced through legal technology. Canada has a long history of surveilling indigenous peoples, from the Indian Act Status cards and the reserve pass system to Inuit numbered identification disks. Surveillance combined with military actions used by the colonial state are instigated by fears of indigenous resistance to colonial projects and the potential economic and political costs of activism, protests and blockades. Flanagan was concerned that if people united for a single movement, they could become a serious obstacle to development. To avoid this unity of people, the government and oil industry promotes a strategy of division and non-cooperation as the best way to ensure the ‘security’ of the tar sands. While the national RCMP surveillance program monitored First Nations communities from 2007–2010 share intelligence reports about First Nations with the private sector. In 2007, Defense Minister O’Connor released a report on the ‘rise of radical Native American organizations.’ Two years later, the RCMP and Criminal Intelligence mandate focused on conflicts in Indigenous communities that may escalate into civil disobedience and unrest with focuses on threats to infrastructure.



While the oil companies influence the public through greenwashing campaigns, the police, military, intelligence and border control agencies combine forces to criminalize and surveille any resistance to the tar sands. The state deals with such fears through legislation. Harper’s government built a ‘legislative fortress’ around the tar sands with oil companies and the Alberta government in the 2007 greenhouse gas emission legislation that allows industry to increase overall emissions to ensure industrial growth and that the ‘Alberta Agenda’ is not affected. Following this, Bill C-45 was passed in 2012 which gutted environmental assessments and changed the Navigable Waters Act by removing protections from 2.8 million bodies of water to less than 100. This attitude of power and control is the driving spirit of the technical-state system.

The European-colonial gaze of nature as external to culture — something that humans can manage and control through technical scientific knowledge or extract and commodify through a capitalist economy, is the epitome of Canada’s identity and relationship to terrain. However, First Nations are strongly asserting their opposition to tar sands destruction and colonialism, especially after the Supreme Court ruling that gives them greater power to control such projects on their land. This resistance presents a rupture in the colonial concept of land ownership through dispossession that has persisted in Canada for centuries. The battle over the ongoing tar sands expansion has come down to the fundamental right to exist. Many indigenous communities feel they are in the final stages of a battle for survival that began in the late 17th century. Tar sands development has entirely changed the Athabasca delta and watershed landscape with massive deforestation of the boreal forests, open-pit mining, depletion of watersheds, toxic contamination, and severe forcible disruption of Indigenous communities.

Public futures are at stake where multiple technologies interact to create complex terrains in which consequential health, human rights and environmental impacts are neglected. Yet, Indigenous communities and allies are asserting an embodied connection to space through mobility and resistance, directly challenging colonial spaces.

Keystone XL Protest (Photo from Al Jazeera)

Keystone XL Protest (Photo from Al Jazeera)

Because capitalism tends toward homogeneity without fully accomplishing it, differential space exists in Indigenous resistance as spaces are produced against the domination of abstract space under capitalism. Activists and allies took to the streets in what was one the largest protests of the tar sands in Washington D.C., 2011 to demand President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone Pipeline. That same year, environmentalist Bill McKibben and 64 other protestors were jailed for a sit-in at the White House to oppose the tar sands with the slogan “We Sit in Against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Obama Will You Stand Up to Big Oil?”. As Deleuze wrote, whoever can conquer the streets also conquers the state. Indigenous and non-Indigenous self-determined assertions of movement are important forms to reclaim power in a space that the state works so tirelessly to control. It is clear both industry and government recognize its territory is becoming increasingly porous. As both indigenous and non-indigenous communites continue to rise, reclaim, and engage tar sands resistance, it might not be, as climatologist James Hansen says “game over for the climate.”


Sources Used

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Meet Your New Uplift Coordinator!

Uplift is excited to introduce the newest member of our team: our recently hired Uplift Coordinator. We interviewed her so that you can get to know her a bit. Read on for her story!


Where are you from?

       Hello! My name is Eva Malis and I am 21 years old. I grew up in the sunny suburbs of Los Angeles County and was fortunate to spend many of my growing years romping through the Eastern Sierras. I have spent the more recent years of my life in the SF Bay Area as a UC Berkeley student, and have experienced the Colorado Plateau through the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program.



            In my time as a student, I’ve learned that our power comes from rising together--especially for young people facing oppression. Coming together to learn, share stories, and be in community with each other might just be the most vital form of resistance and healing right now. That is why Uplift is so important--we must claim our collective power in the continued fight for all forms of justice.

       I see the Colorado Plateau as a place with so much potential to set a precedent for the kinds of landscapes, policies, sustainable and just communities we want to see. Through Uplift, I cannot wait to work with youth on the Colorado Plateau to collectively shape the future of the region and the field of conservation itself!



            I spent the latter half of 2016 organizing the Power Shift West Convergence with the California Student Sustainability Coalition and the Power Shift Network. It was a gathering of hundreds of youth from around the western US to reshape and redefine the mainstream environmental movement into an inclusive, intersectional movement that centers the people most impacted by environmental degradation and climate change.

       I also have spent the last two years organizing with the Students of Color Environmental Collective (SCEC), providing safe space and opportunity for students of color to be involved in environmental organizing. Recently, SCEC has partnered with Students with Standing Rock to provide support for the resistance of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

       My first introduction to organizing was with Students Against Fracking and then the fight against Keystone XL. Ever since, I have been redefining what activism means to me in search of intersectionality and collective liberation.



            It is so hard to choose a favorite! If I had to go with one, it would be Arches National Park. I was first introduced to the Colorado Plateau by reading Desert Solitaire, and was charmed by Abbey’s raw descriptions of his surroundings, so Arches holds a special place in my heart. My favorite arch is Double Arch! Other favorite places include Canyonlands, Monument Valley, and Sedona.



            I just started reading The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Favorites that I’ve read recently include The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty, Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto, and Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko--would definitely recommend these for the soulful revolutionary!

Love and Vibrancy Behind the Movement


Meet Elea Ziegelbaum, an 18-year-old climate activist living in Flagstaff, Arizona. She is currently in her senior year of high school at Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy. We first met Elea when she walked into a Flagstaff community meeting last July, and have learned more about her work since Uplift in August 2016.  We asked her the following questions to get a better sense of the interplay between Uplift and other regional movements.



Why did you decide to participate in Uplift? How did it connect with your existing work and passions?

I decided to participate in Uplift because I wanted to meet other passionate youth fighting for climate justice. As I am the leader of an EarthGuardians Crew at my school and have done activism as well as conservation work around the Colorado Plateau, I wanted to make  connections with fellow youth so as to learn from one another, compare our experiences in this work, and collaborate with each other to create the sustainable future we want.

What ideas or connections from Uplift have been most impactful? Did Uplift introduce anything you hadn't thought about before?

One very valuable thing that Uplift taught me was that climate justice and social justice go hand in hand. All human matters relate to each other in some way, thus, the fight for climate justice is also a fight against social and economic injustice. The system which is perpetrating climate change is also the same one which wages war, keeps people in poverty, treats men and women unequally and oppresses racial groups, among many other things. Social justice is a fundamental matter of climate justice, as we will never be able to attain the future we demand in a system which values wealth and power over human rights.

What does your environmental work/activism/organizing look like right now? Do you see it changing in the near future? Tell us a little about what you've found to be the most effective and where you need to grow.

Photo courtesy of Flagstaff Earth Guardians

Photo courtesy of Flagstaff Earth Guardians

The environmental work I am doing right now is especially focused on empowering my peers in my community and school to realize the immense power they hold in their voice, and that with it, they can create the change they want to see in our world. I mainly do this through the Earth Guardians chapter I run at my school. The crew has done a lot of good work this year, such as protesting and rallying, raising awareness at our school about climate change, creating art, and doing community service work.
Our focus as a club has lately turned to taking any possible action to safeguard our lands and strengthen environmental regulations before president-elect Donald Trump takes office. We have been signing petitions and pledges and are in the process of writing letters to our local representatives urging them to take action against Trump's anti-environmentalist agenda.
What I have found to be most important in this work is to stay positive and motivated. It sometimes proves to be difficult to stay engaged when I get negative feedback for the work I do, but reminding myself of the importance of climate justice always makes the occasional let-down more than worth it.

You grew up in Flagstaff. What are your most pressing concerns in our area?

Having grown up in Flagstaff, I have seen its landscape and the landscape of Northern Arizona in general undergo drastic change. Rising temperatures, desecration of indigenous land, a shrinking water supply, development, mining, and a growing population are all among the issues that cause me deep concern for the beautiful Colorado Plateau. I think it is important for us, as inhabitants of this unique region, to mobilize ourselves to fight against the big mining and energy companies that the Southwest is most vulnerable to, to urge our representatives to craft responsible and progressive water policy, and to advocate for and support local business and initiatives to discourage the big corporate chains which have slowly been overtaking Flagstaff. I think it is also crucial for non-indigenous people to offer themselves as allies for Native peoples of this region, as they almost always bear the brunt of this desecration.

What gives you hope?

What gives me hope is the love and vibrancy behind the environmental movement. Uplift was just one of the many examples of the innovative, scintillating, and enthusiastic minds which are making up this movement, and who are making up our future. What gives me hope is knowing that I will be inheriting this world with these inspiring and compassionate individuals, who are the creators of a future which embraces equity, harmony, and peace for all beings on Earth.

From the Colorado Plateau to COP22

by Brooke Larsen

Five SustainUS Delegation who participated in the 2016 Uplift Climate Conference including (right to left) Remy Franklin, myself, an organizer of Uplift, Kayla DeVault, Morgan Curtis, and Daniel Jubelirer.

Five SustainUS Delegation who participated in the 2016 Uplift Climate Conference including (right to left) Remy Franklin, myself, an organizer of Uplift, Kayla DeVault, Morgan Curtis, and Daniel Jubelirer.

It’s been three months since Uplift’s powerful gathering of young climate justice activists from across the Colorado Plateau. Five of us who dreamed, schemed, and learned at Uplift now find ourselves bringing heart to COP22—the UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco. 

    When Kayla reflects on Uplift, she feels that Uplift “strives to incorporate the local voice and have difficult conversations connecting social issues to the environment.” The SustainUS delegation has tried to bring a similar approach to COP22, focusing on learning about the struggles of frontline communities in Morocco. 

Local Moroccan activists are highlighting the ways the Moroccan regime are using COP22 to greenwash their crimes. Photo by Remy Franklin. 

Local Moroccan activists are highlighting the ways the Moroccan regime are using COP22 to greenwash their crimes. Photo by Remy Franklin. 

Across Morocco there are parallel stories to the American West. When listening to local activists talk about drought conditions and the creation of national sacrifice zones, I can’t help but think of the looming megadrought in the American Southwest and the communities experiencing destructive extraction.—from Black Mesa to tar sands in Utah

Some delegates had the chance to venture outside of Marrakech to witness the environmental injustices happening on the ground in Morocco. Daniel and Kayla spent one of their first days in Morocco at a “Systems Change Not Climate Change” conference in Safi, a town a couple hours away from Marrakech experiencing environmental and cultural destruction from a phosphate mine. OCP, the phosphate company, is one of the sponsors of COP22. Niria Alicia, a SustainUS delegate from Oregon, connected Safi to global water struggles (read her powerful blog here).

Toxic waste spilling out into the ocean near Safi. Photo by Niria Alicia. 

Toxic waste spilling out into the ocean near Safi. Photo by Niria Alicia. 

The greenwashing of COP by the Moroccan regime is clear. 

Kayla spent three days at Imider, an indigenous Amazigh community 300km south of Marrakech. For three decades, the villagers have faced exploitation, and most recently they’re fighting against the largest silver mine in Africa. In 2011, the community closed off a key valve delivering water to the Imider mine and have been occupying the area ever since. Kayla reflected on the clear connections between the struggle at Imider and the struggle in Standing Rock. We need global solidarity.

Kayla (Anishinaabe/Shawnee) meets with the Ait Atta tribe at the mider protest camp. Photo by Nadir Bouhmouch. 

Kayla (Anishinaabe/Shawnee) meets with the Ait Atta tribe at the mider protest camp. Photo by Nadir Bouhmouch. 

It can be hard to feel a sense of place at COP22. What is the role of personal story and community struggles in an international space? A protester from Imider spoke to this question at a press conference organized by REDACOP, the democratic alternative to COP. He said one of the best ways to stand in solidarity with the people at Imider is to work on the struggles in your home community. 

We make sense of our experiences here by comparing them to the stories we know. Our thoughts lingered back home, most strongly in the aftermath of the election. When I think of returning home, I remember what brought me to this movement: the red rock. I feel the red earth bleeding. My home state of Utah has been a national sacrifice zone for decades—from nuclear weapons testing to fossil fuel extraction. But the potential loss feels magnified. How many more cuts will the new Republican regime create?

With Trump threatening to pull out of the Paris Agreement, the future of the U.S. in the UNFCCC is uncertain. Even if the U.S. stays in the Paris Agreement, it’s almost certain we can expect little to no climate action from the federal government. Thus, youth at COP22 are focusing on the power of people. At our post-election action, we unveiled a “People’s To-Do List” to turn the focus to the power of our movement, rather than the power of Trump. 

In the wake of the U.S. election, SustainUS organized an action with youth from around the world to grieve and denounce a Trump presidency. They unveiled a “People’s To-Do List” emphasizing the critical role of people power over the next four years. Photo by David Tong. 

In the wake of the U.S. election, SustainUS organized an action with youth from around the world to grieve and denounce a Trump presidency. They unveiled a “People’s To-Do List” emphasizing the critical role of people power over the next four years. Photo by David Tong. 

When I think of the power of our movement, Uplift is on the front of my mind. Now more than ever we must build on the momentum from the Uplift Conference to form active networks that will support one another year-round. We must support one another to resist fossil fuel development, share knowledge and experiences for community-driven, decentralized renewable energy, and celebrate one another and our wild home through art, music, and story. To stand in solidarity with our global allies, we must fulfill our commitments to climate justice by acting in our local communities. 

The true value we’re gaining from COP is in the relationships we’re building and shared knowledge we’ll take back to our home communities. For example, Remy found connections to his work back home in Tucson, Arizona during a high-level evening event called “100% Renewable Energy for 1.5C.” Remy’s research focuses on a just transition. “Almost everyone in Tucson has access to incredibly reliable, relatively affordable electricity,” he says. “This doesn’t mean energy poverty isn’t a problem in Arizona (many struggle to pay their utility bills and there are thousands of un-electrified homes on the Navajo Nation) but in cities, at least, the U.S. specializes in reliable electricity supply. This isn’t the case for many parts of the world.” The question of the hour is, how can we leverage this relative privilege?

Attending COP22 and building community with the SustainUS delegation helps forge the relationships needed for national and global solidarity. By learning from one another, we will create more resilient communities. Just like people left Uplift with relationships, story, and skills to bring back to their homes, the SustainUS delegates will leave COP22 empowered to organize.

    In the wake of an election that laid bare continued injustice at home and our questions about the efficacy of international climate negotiations, I can’t help but think about the struggles in the Southwest. I feel more committed than ever to work on climate justice at a local level. 


Reading is a Radical Act

Reading is a Radical Act

by Claire Martini

A professor of mine once justified a syllabus comprised almost entirely of male writers with the flip comment that perhaps women had not yet written a "seminal" body of work. Therefore, women did not belong in the Western cannon. Now, I know this to be false. Yet it demonstrates how as women writers and women readers, we are tasked with shouldering the work to undo the sexism, racism, and classism upheld within the literary establishment.

The work begins with our bookshelves. In hopes of sparking internal dialogue and community conversation, I'm collecting women writers who have been influential and important to me. Reading is a radical act; little else can supplement lived experience in its power to change minds. Who are your favorite women writers?

1. Terry Tempest Williams

The Hour of Land

Terry is an unparalleled storyteller, naturalist, and mentor. She is also an activist; most recently, she and her husband Brooke bid on BLM oil and gas leases near Arches National Park, and they continue to hold the ground for alternative energy development. Her most recent book, The Hour of Land, celebrates our National Parks as a microcosm of our very American problems as she asks what we may learn.

Terry's words always push me to go deeper: "We lose nothing by loving."


2. Luci Tapahanso

Blue Horses Rush In

There’s a reason Luci Tapahanso was honored as Navajo Nation’s first Poet Laureate. Prayer meets place with her lyrical words. I revisit Blue Horses Rush In whenever I need to be reminded of what's at the center.

Listen to Luci Tapahanso's poem "This is How They Were Placed for Us" in English and Navajo.


3. Claire Vaye Watkins

Gold Fame Citrus

Full disclosure: I’ve only just finished Battleborn, Watkins’ literary debut, but can’t wait to get my hands on Gold Fame Citrus. Watkins is part of a growing genre of “Cli-fi”(climate fiction) that deals with global warming. NPR describes Gold Fame Citrus as plausible reality, the day after tomorrow: "Just over a too-near horizon where everything is drought and lack and death. Where the water is gone and the people are gone and the southwest has become a wild, weird, rolling apocalypse that, sure, is a fiction today but might be history by next year."



4. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

From colonialist expansion to indigenous resistance, this peoples’ history “explodes the silences that have haunted our national narrative” for 400 years. Her work is of particular importance to contextualize contemporary struggles here in the Southwest. Fun fact: Dunbar-Ortiz was a prominent activist in the '60s and '70s, working primarily on labor and war issues.

She writes, “The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism—the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.” 


5. Amy Irvine


From the opening line of Trespass--"My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones"--I knew I would love this book. It echoes Refuge (by Terry Tempest Williams), but with a cast and tone all its own. Irvine tells the story of her retreat to canyon country after her father's suicide and the all-too-human struggles she encounters in Monticello, UT working to protect Utah's wilderness.


6. Leslie Marmon Silko


Leslie Marmon Silko tells us why we need stories: “They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.”

Reading this landmark novel is the first step towards seeing the world with Silko's eyes, where the sacred unfolds every day. "I see myself as a member of the global community," she says. "My old folks who raised me saw themselves as citizens of the world. We see no borders. When I write I am writing to the world, not to the United States alone."


7. Judith Nies

Unreal City

Have you ever wondered why the Southwest's water, energy, and people are the way they are? Well, chances are Nies will answer your questions in her investigation of coal, water, tribes, and politicians. With journalistic rigor, Nies comes through with policy analysis (she tells us the coal and water leases "violated every guideline the Department of the Interior had set up for leasing on public lands") yet never loses sight of the contemporary implications of all this politicking. If you work on climate justice issues, Unreal City is a must-read.


8. Ellen Meloy

The Anthropology of Turquoise

Meloy’s writing changed the way that I see in the desert. “The Anthropology of Turquoise” focuses on color and light across cultures and throughout history, chasing the importance of this particular blue-green straight to Meloy’s heart (and mine). To be fair, I love everything she's ever written. Try "Eating Stone” for the world's funniest account of bighorn sheep mating rituals and “The Last Cheater’s Waltz” for a serious look at the Southwest's role in nuclear armament and why we're still affected, generations later.

Ellen asked questions about home that I had not yet learned to form. Her urgency lives on: “I would like to do whatever it is that presses the essence from the hour.” 


9. Gretel Ehrlich

The Solace of Open Spaces

A friend gifted me with her dog-eared copy just before we graduated. I toted the short book on multiple backpacking trips to reread Ehrlich's spare prose and feel the harsh Wyoming winds. She opened my city-girl mind to the solitary struggles of ranch life, while retaining a deep wonder for the world. This is a classic. Here's one of my favorite passages: “All through autumn we hear a double voice: one says everything is ripe; the other says everything is dying. The paradox is exquisite. We feel what the Japanese call aware--an almost untranslatable word meaning something like beauty tinged with sadness.” 


10. Isabel Allende

Hija de la Fortuna

Wild card! You’ve probably read Allende’s House of the Spirits and are wondering what she's doing on a list of Western writers. But one of Allende's lesser-known novels tells the story of a young Chilean immigrant chasing gold (and love) in California. From a true master of the form, this is an abundant and multicultural tale about the part of the west where our water goes.


A few other favorite Western writers to watch: Tacey Atsitty, Ashley Davidson, Jaqueline Keeler, Brooke Larsen, and many more.

Happy reading!

P.s. Make sure to support your local, independent booksellers and public libraries.

The Power of Connection

By Frankie Beesley

Alice Walker once wrote:

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. 

I remember the day that everything changed for me. I was eighteen years old and a first-timer to the mountain town of Flagstaff that I have called home for six years now. In 2010, destiny saw me involved in home weatherization efforts, bringing low-income community members into a program provided by the city. One of our outreach efforts involved a group of six of us (undergraduates, graduate students, and professors) door-knocking in a predominantly Latina/o part of town. Many of the homes were trailers with missing windows, roofs caving in—living conditions that can be harrowing during our short but bitterly cold months. We were face-to-face with different community members as we spoke to them on their front porches. Many told us they did not have the means to pay their utility bills. One woman was in tears as she recounted how her family was unable to make ends meet and unable to heat their home during the winter.

Hearing people’s stories and seeing them eye-to-eye caused my brain to make certain connections that day. I realized that I needed to take action to address social injustices. I made connections as to why certain people are more impacted by climate change in the long run over others. I realized how socio-economic disparities can be visceral. They’re happening anywhere if you’re willing to see them. Personal stories connected all of this for me. Seeing someone face-to-face was all that it took for me to vow to spend my life addressing climate justice issues.

Collective power becomes clear when you’re in a group of people or collecting stories with a few other folks to make you realize the agency and collective power that we all have. Stories are what connect all of us and they are the fodder for creating beyond needed change within our communities. Flagstaff isn’t the only place where this happens, but it was the first place where I saw this taking place in real time, in my life. Change is a hard process. We live in daunting times of social and environmental upheaval, where public input and participation are falling to the wayside. For some, our very homes are threatened due to poor planning and the ever looming threat of climate change.

Flagstaffians at city council, fighting a student housing project that would displace low-income families.

Flagstaffians at city council, fighting a student housing project that would displace low-income families.

Fossil Free NAU student organizers calling on President Rita Cheng to divest NAU from fossil fuels.

Fossil Free NAU student organizers calling on President Rita Cheng to divest NAU from fossil fuels.

The Colorado Plateau, in particular, is one of the threatened and precious places that this is happening to. With all of this happening at once, it’s hard to realize that there are things that can be done to address and alleviate them. It’s hard to even get out of bed some mornings. But it does not have to remain this way. More and more people are gathering and planning every single day, even here on the Plateau and in our mountain town. And many of these people are young and innovative, thirsty for change and driven by a passion. This passion feels like deep anger and love at the same time. Many of these people have grown up in a world where climate change has always been real, where economic situations aren’t getting better, and where many of our elders have lost most of their faith or have for some reason begun to place some of the blame on us, the youth--the ones that we are all counting on. 

In late August, youth from various backgrounds of the Colorado Plateau will gather just outside of Durango, CO, in efforts to share their lived experiences within this region, to listen to the work that others are doing to fight against climate injustice, and to create action plans to protect these sacred spaces and irreplaceable people that we call home. Uplift, which has a planning team made up solely by youth and for youth, is changing the climate conversation. We’re envisioning new ways of addressing the world’s biggest problems and we are doing this through an important means: by the collection of narratives, the connection of story, and by the tenacity to create action from these combined stories. 

It’s easy to forget the power that we have in times like these. It’s easy to become complacent and to expect only the worst. And yet, amidst the chaos of our daily lives, there is nothing like the feeling of gathering together; like the feeling of connecting; like the feeling of creating action to protect and preserve the places that we love and the people that we call home. There’s nothing quite like knowing what it means to truly be human and to truly have the power to create lasting change. 

We invite you to gather for a community meeting at Firecreek Coffee Company on Thursday, July 21st at 5:00pm to discuss your connection to the Colorado Plateau, why you personally feel it is an important place to save, and how we can collectively work to continue preserving and protecting it for generations to come. 

Flagstaff Speak Up meets at Firecreek in 2014.

Flagstaff Speak Up meets at Firecreek in 2014.

Press Release: Uplift Joins Native American Tribes in Calling For President Obama to Protect Bears Ears As A National Monument

July 15, 2016

Young leaders across the Colorado Plateau thank the Administration for convening a public meeting in Bluff, Utah to discuss ways to best protect the area. We urge officials from the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Forest Service to recommend that President Obama protect the Bears Ears region in Southeastern Utah as a national monument.

The Bears Ears Buttes framed with summer wild flowers. Photographer: Tim Peterson

The Bears Ears Buttes framed with summer wild flowers. Photographer: Tim Peterson

“For my generation, protecting Bears Ears is a chance for healing past injustices and restoring respect to tribes,” said Brooke Larsen, Uplift Organizer from Salt Lake City. “Protecting Bears Ears is a necessary step towards more diverse and inclusive public lands.” 

The Bears Ears region is the ancestral homeland of many southwestern indigenous tribes and a landscape with more than 100,000 Native American cultural sites. Yet, it remains unprotected despite decades of efforts to safeguard this area.

“I first understood the depth of Native American history in the Bears Ears region while hiking the Grand Gulch. From the San Juan River, one experiences hundreds of pieces of painted and coiled-clay pottery, myriad granaries and dwellings built into cliffs, and faded hand-prints and shamanic figures staring down from sandstone walls,” said Marcel Gaztambide, Uplift Organizer from Salt Lake City. “The littered beer cans, candy wrappers, and other human refuse made the need for enhanced protection obvious. The value and fragility of this place demands monument status.”

Petroglyph graces the Comb Ridge. Photographer: Josh Ewing

Petroglyph graces the Comb Ridge. Photographer: Josh Ewing

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has recently stated that they are currently investigating nearly a half dozen looting and vandalism cases in the area, highlighting the urgent need to protect Bears Ears now.

In addition, the area faces growing threats from oil and gas development and potash and uranium mining. Such development would permanently damage this culturally and ecologically important landscape.

“Keeping all fossil fuels in the ground may be unrealistic, but our leaders must have the courage to protect our most sacred and wild places from the destruction of extraction,” said Larsen. “The deep time of the red rock inspires hope in our capacity for restraint.”
In 2016, a coalition of five sovereign Native American Tribal Nations requested that President Obama protect the area as a national monument. This effort has support from the outdoor recreation industry and other business leaders, archeologists, communities of faith, and conservation groups. In addition, recent polls showed that 71 percent of Utahans support a Bears Ears National Monument.  

 “I moved to the Southwest and began working to protect public lands because of the Bears Ears region,” said Claire Martini, Uplift Coordinator. “As young people, we rely on the actions of our elders to make our future better. Bears Ears is a tremendous opportunity for the President to safeguard our cultural heritage and environmental quality for future generations.”

Fall color in the Abajo Mountains. Photographer: Tim Peterson

Fall color in the Abajo Mountains. Photographer: Tim Peterson


Uplift, a youth-organized climate action community, was formed in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust and the Landscape Conservation Initiative in November 2014 to empower and unite young leaders to address critical environmental issues across the Colorado Plateau. The youth-directed movement that emerged from these efforts, Uplift Climate Conference, has worked to elevate youth voices and support creative discussion to help further the climate movement. This year’s conference is August 18-20 in Durango, CO. The inaugural conference was held in Flagstaff in April 2015.

Let's be real

6 "Learning Experiences" from the Uplift process

By Claire Martini


In any given room, Uplifters may not have the most academic degrees, years of experience, or published papers, but let’s get something straight: Our action is rooted in love for this place, sacred rage regarding the threats, and a need to protect our communities. We don’t know everything, but living here teaches us enough to start.

When I tell people about Uplift, often they’re interested in outcomes. They want to know: How many people did you reach? What have you accomplished? I cringe at the implication of "deliverables." Because as I’ve come to appreciate, the process is often one of the best parts.

Uplift began with little more than the idea of shaping conservation by “doing something” with young people. At the first Uplift planning retreat in fall of 2014, we took markers to oversized blank pages and combined our visions to put on the inaugural Uplift gathering in April 2015. Almost 100 people showed up! The discussion of conservation as it pertains to young desert dwellers on the Colorado Plateau impressed our sponsors enough to make them invest in Uplift again, and now we're honing in on climate change and the need for enhanced collaboration across the region. Uplift is growing!

But it's not always an easy ride. Along the way, our Uplift organizers (a dynamic and mostly volunteer team) have had some pretty hilarious moments. In the name of transparency, we want to share them with you.

Check out six moments we affectionately call "learning experiences" from the Uplift organizing process:

Remind me, where's home?

Remind me, where's home?

1. One of our team members has moved a grand total of 6 times since November. We're talking big, interstate moves. It's the perfect illustration of why our demographic is hard to organize. Young people are transient! Life happens. And we've got a lot of it unfolding.

When we’re moving around and working crazy hours at our day jobs, staying connected means…

Slack-ing all day.

Slack-ing all day.

2. Using Slack to stay in touch. So. Many. Messages. To be exact, we've sent 2.9K since November. Current emoji totals unknown.

Welcome to the struggle bus.

Welcome to the struggle bus.

3.    We’re trying to get hip with the times and reach out to more people through social media. But sometimes, that doesn’t go so well…like when we had trouble getting Facebook to display the right time zone for an event.

Uplifters Anonymous.

Uplifters Anonymous.

4.    We brought Uplift on the road! Which was a success overall, but some meetings looked like this for a while…which taught us we had to up our communication and collaboration with partners on the ground.

Community organizing happens by building relationships, one conversation at a time. Listen in on the conversation in Moab.


5.    Conference calls. These can be productive. Or, they can be ridiculous. A favorite moment of mine was when Brooke and I were calling in from the BLM offices in Salt Lake City, another organizer from rural Maine, and one team member took the call from a noisy coffee shop in Flagstaff. Midway through giving an update on the program, she yelped “Biscotti! In my coffee! I just dropped my biscotti in my coffee!” Typical conference call. If you haven’t seen this spoof, watch it. It’s too real.

So, why is it worth it?

Growing Uplift to where it is now has taken years, sweat, and a few tears along the way. But we’re honoring the process of Uplift by sticking with it, even when things don’t turn out exactly perfect because we still believe that “doing something” is the best place to start. Take the first step by joining us this August 18-20 in Durango! Don't forget your sass.

Meme: "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person"

Attention, young lovers of public land! If you hike, bike, camp, climb, farm, boat, or study in the West, we'd like to hear what public lands mean to you. Share your words and images!

Why? We're making memes to spread the word about Uplift and climate justice to tell the world (or at least the internet) that young people care about Western public lands.

What we'd like:

1.    Your name, age, and hometown

2.    A glamour shot of YOU on public lands

3.    Answers to one or more of these questions:

  • Why are you excited about Uplift?

  • For me, climate justice is…

  • Why us (youth), why now?

  • What does the Colorado Plateau mean to you?

  • What do public lands mean to you?

We'll post submissions we receive to Instagram and Facebook, and you'll be helping us get the word out about Uplift. See ideas of what we're looking for:


Meme: “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person”

We can't wait to hear what you have to say! Please send your photos and answers to


Guest post by Emily Gillit, who wrote about Uplift for a journalism assignment this spring:

Emily Gillit has lived in Northern Arizona for the majority of her life. She is currently attending Northern Arizona University to study Photography and Journalism so she can share the beauty and wonder hidden in plain sight here in Arizona.

Over the weekend of April 17-19, 2015 at Camp Colton, the Grand Canyon Trust hosted Uplift, their first climate conference for young people, by young people. The goal of the conference, according to the Grand Canyon Trust website is “to empower and unite young leaders to address climate change on the Colorado Plateau.”

The Grand Canyon Trust’s mission is “to protect and restore the Colorado Plateau — its spectacular landscapes, flowing rivers, clean air, diversity of plants and animals, and areas of beauty and solitude.” A youth conference was the perfect way for the Grand Canyon Trust to connect to young and young-at-heart people to inform them of the issues within the region and help them understand what they can do to help.

In explaining the name of the conference, Claire Martini, coordinator for Uplift and for youth engagement for AmeriCorps, said, “we called ourselves Uplift, after the geologic phenomenon that defines the Colorado Plateau. For us, home lies within the elevated contours and aridity that define this broad sweep of high desert.”

The Grand Canyon Trust used Camp Colton to set the tone of the conference, by getting all of their participants to connect with the outdoors. Camp Colton is “a residential environmental education center that is owned by the Flagstaff Unified School District,” according to the Friends of Camp Colton website.

The Colorado Plateau is a region that encompasses a wide range of natural features spanning across the four corners region. The plateau takes up the majority of Northern Arizona, Southeast Utah, West Colorado and the Northwest of New Mexico.

The conference made itself available to everyone. The fee for Uplift was a minimum donation of $5. The Grand Canyon Trust also offered the opportunity for registration fee waivers and travel scholarships.

Uplift attracted people from across the country, including students from Washington, from all types of backgrounds and ethnicities, drawing them into the conversation about conservation of the Colorado Plateau. The variety of backgrounds lent itself to expanding the conversation.

The first panel attended by all participants discussed the state of the land, water and politics in relation to the Colorado Plateau. The general goal of the panel was to spark the discussion that would be at the center of the conference, informing all of the participants of the current issues facing the region.

Discussions and workshops took up the majority of the three-day conference. The Grand Canyon Trust gave participants the option of choosing the workshops he or she wanted to attend. Options ranged from ‘Wilderness and Wildness’ to ‘Black Mesa Water Coalition: Just Transitions and Restorative Economy’ and ‘Save the Confluence’ to ‘Passion for Place: Photography in Conservation’ among many others.

In reflection on Uplift, a conference attendee said, “ I now feel empowered with knowledge to carry forward and make actual change. It was so important to bring people together from diverse backgrounds so we can learn from each other...also, [I was] so inspired to see an event this effective organized by people my age!”    

Approximately 90 young and young-at-heart people attended the conference, working together and participating in discussions and workshops.

Each Uplift participant left Camp Colton with a greater understanding of the Colorado Plateau, with connections to people who were as passionate as they were and with the knowledge of how to make a difference in issues facing the region.

Uplift laid the groundwork for future conferences by the Grand Canyon Trust as well as expanding the network of people interested in the issues relating to the Colorado Plateau. The 2015 conference was planned over six short months by 10 coordinators. The Grand Canyon Trust is already working on Uplift 2016, currently planned for August 18-20 in Durango, Colorado. The Grand Canyon Trust and Northern Arizona University’s Landscape Conservation Initiative make Uplift possible.

The Eyes of the Young

By Brooke Larsen

This piece is part of the Red Rock Stories project. The first phase of the project is a chapbook titled "Red Rock Testimony" that Torrey House Press Publisher Kirsten Allen and writer Stephen Trimble will deliver to the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration later this month. Part of Brooke's story is featured on the opening page. The story will also appear in the Red Rock Stories online community in the coming months and Red Rock Stories: Three Generations Speak on Behalf of Utah's Public Lands forthcoming in 2017 by Torrey House Press. 

As I descend the sticky sandstone cliffs into the Dirty Devil wilderness, anxiety seeps over me. Heading into the backcountry for three days makes me stop and run through any unsent emails before leaving cell service behind. Initially, my unease in disconnecting from technology overshadows my relief in reconnecting with nature.  But as a child of the red rock, that feeling quickly fades. My jaw loosens, my eyes come alive, and I howl. I hear the echo as a reminder that I am untamable.

I am in my early twenties. My generation is screen saturated and nature deprived. We find constant connection in our digital world, yet we hunger for depth. Our friendships grow in quantity rather than quality. Our relationship with our self and our environment degrades as our fear of solitude and silence grows. It’s not revolutionary to say my generation needs wilderness more than ever.

I reach the Dirty Devil and sink my feet in the mud at the river’s edge. Joy tingles every inch of my flesh, awakening my wild spirit. For me, few things match the beauty and awe of flowing water in a landscape of red. Even the rivers run red. One could say this landscape is parched earth, but as long as rivers flow, life seems in perfect balance. If I have children, will they also find a flowing Dirty Devil in 50 years?

The forces trying to desecrate this landscape not only leave initial scars, schisms and spills. The oil rigs and natural gas flares contribute to a much more existential threat—climate change. For my generation, it’s impossible to separate the need for wildness from the need for climate justice. Protecting this landscape is not just protecting our human spirit—it’s protecting the future of all life in the region. With daunting climate change predictions, it’s realistic to wonder if the Dirty Devil will still flow for the next generation. The economic, legal and biological ramifications of a water-stressed Colorado River Basin are well known. But what about the spiritual?

Crossing the Dirty Devil River, I head towards the canyons of the Robbers Roost. In popular culture, Robbers Roost is known as the outlaw hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. For desert dwellers, it’s known for its wildness. Here, I follow coyote tracks rather than human footprints. I respect the power of water and wind to carve stories into walls. I experience desperately needed solitude and silence.

The red rock wilderness is my spiritual refuge and teacher of humility. In a society where young people can navigate anywhere with an app, I learn from navigating based on geologic layers and topographic lines. In a culture where we can have food delivered to us in minutes, I learn from planning my survival around the dependability of perennial streams. We realize our own insignificance. We realize our vulnerability.

For me, protecting this place is deeply personal. My family has called Utah home for six generations, but I didn’t grow up with religion. I grew up questioning. My story is written in carved slot canyons and desert washes. Wildness became my spiritual refuge—particularly the red rock wilderness of southern Utah. So if I respect the churches of others, why are the leaders of my state constantly disrespecting mine?

My red rock story is one of self-preservation. As the lands and people around me grow increasingly tamed, I fear I will lose my own wild, human spirit. Each drop of oil extracted digs me into a deeper existential crisis as I wonder if under a changing climate this region will remain livable.

The eyes of young people are closely watching. The spirits of future generations are pleading. The deep time of the red rock inspires hope—from the geologic story told in layers of orange, pink and red to the rock art left by ancestors of Native Americans who still call Bears Ears home. However, increasingly it feels like we are running out of time.

Our leaders must choose between greed and restraint. Our leaders must choose between preserving the American spirit and destroying it. Our leaders must choose a healthy, safe future for their grandchildren or immediate profit for themselves. If we think ethically and compassionately, the decision is not hard. As a young person, I implore you to act wisely and lovingly.

From concrete to ethereal: lessons from the road


The Uplift team has returned home from the first round of community conversations. We owe a big “thank you” to those who contributed to the discussion, and we’re inspired to see the broad range of youth-led climate work happening already across the Colorado Plateau!

In Prescott, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Durango, Moab, and Salt Lake City, the climate priorities communities identified were fairly consistent even as the organizing approaches and individuals varied. Young people spoke with care about water use and protection, curbing fossil fuel extraction, protecting wild and sacred spaces, and supporting sustainable communities. Many expressed concern about a non-receptive political climate at a local, regional, and national level. Read more about Uplift’s community conversations, from a reporter’s perspective.

What to do about it? Solutions may lie in ideas ranging from concrete to ethereal: education, networking, creativity, art, protest, community, uncertainty, democracy, affordable housing, restoration, language, traditional knowledge, and more.

Myriad young people are already fighting the good fight. For the people we spoke with, work to address the climate conundrum ranged from protesting at BLM lease auctions to building affordable and sustainable housing. They’re already using innovative ways to reach people, from putting art and creativity at the center, to enhancing inter-generational collaboration.

Here's where Uplift comes in: as a connector between various groups and individuals working across the expanse of the Colorado Plateau.

Meetings were best attended when we had personal connections or made contact with existing networks, and we learned about the areas where we have more work to do building relationships and community. As a group, we aim to highlight and support the amazing work already taking place on the ground, and weave it into a larger story for our region. If you have meaningful opportunities for young people to speak up and engage, whether organizing events, campaigns, rallies, or something else, please let us know and we’ll send it out to our networks! To stay connected on social media, you can find us on Facebook and Instagram.

Looking forward, we’d love for you to join us at the conference August 18-20 in the San Juan National Forest outside Durango, Colorado.

As you probably already suspect, this isn’t your typical “conference.” It’s a celebration of what’s at stake. Uplifters can plan on camping amidst the ponderosa pines for three days of panel discussions, storytelling, and regional break-out groups to help strengthen the work you’re doing, or give you the tools and connections to dive in. We hope you’ll share your presence and ideas at Uplift this August. Please get in touch, because we can’t wait to work together and build community across this wild home of ours.

(If you need support to attend, please let us know, as limited scholarships for registration or travel are available.)

Story: The Most Powerful Renewable Energy

by Brooke Larsen

Storytelling is easier at Kane Ranch—an old homestead nestled in the vast House Rock Valley on the North Rim. The Vermilion Cliffs urge you to speak from the heart, welcome vulnerability, and respect deep time. At the Uplift planning retreat this past November, oil lamps flickered as the Uplift leadership team shared the origins of their love for the Colorado Plateau and an unyielding passion to protect their home.  Story was the focus: we grew closer by sharing our  story of self, the story of us and the story of now.

Recognizing the importance of storytelling for the climate justice movement, Uplift seeks to share climate stories from young people across the Colorado Plateau. In preparation for the Uplift Climate Conference this August in Durango, Colorado, a group of young organizers from Uplift will be traveling from April 29-May 16 holding community conversations across the Colorado Plateau. We want to learn, what does this region mean to you? What agitates you to act on climate?  What are your hopes? What do you love too much to lose?

My climate story is one of self-preservation. My family has called the Colorado Plateau home for six generations. The forests of the Wasatch and the red rock of Southern Utah are my spiritual refuge and teacher of humility. What do I love too much to lose? Burnt orange sand. Rivers that run red. Coyote tracks. Sticky sandstone beneath my soles. Slot canyons with unknown stories. Forgiving aspens. Pink skies at dawn and dusk. Solitude. Vulnerability. Wildness. My self.

A dear friend once told me he could see it in my eyes—they come alive in the red rock wilderness. As the lands and people around me grow increasingly tamed, I fear I will lose my own wild, human spirit. Every new cut, spill, scathe on the red rock leaves a scar on my heart. Every year we tolerate air quality along the Wasatch Front that puts children and the elderly in the hospital and blurs the view of the peaks that ground us in place, I feel trapped in a much more deadly smog—the smog of apathy, greed and injustice.

However, story has power to clear the smog. Our personal stories motivate us, but our shared story sustains us. Climate justice is deeply personal yet so universal—we all have a climate story even if we haven’t articulated it yet. In Uplift, young people find a community that dares to speak from the heart. We howl. We howl with the understanding that we are the daughters and sons of the Coyote Clan.

The organizers of Uplift feel a fierce sense of urgency. As Uplift Coordinator Claire Martini says, “Climate change is the biggest threat to a livable future in the region.” We seek to create a united climate action community across the Colorado Plateau that demands youth voices be heard. We see story sharing as a critical first step. Because it is story that unites us. It is story that makes us a movement, a community, a force.

To share your climate story and connect with other young desert dwellers, find a climate conversation near you. For more information, email or follow us on Facebook for important updates! 

Dancing towards a Different Future

Originally published on February 29 2016 at

By Marcel Gaztambide

Growing up in the Utah Basque Club, I was raised among the high kicks, pointed toes, and spirited lunges of the Utah’ko Triskalariak—a beautiful bunch of bullheaded Basques bent on inflicting their silly clothes, strange ways, and traditional dances unto the world. Through participation in everything from small, local get-togethers to large, international festivals, I learned that being Basque is largely about celebrating your culture as loudly and as often as possible. Herein lies the secret to Basque longevity: our communities still exist largely because we make a point of celebrating our existence, and since traditional dance is central to most Basque celebration, it’s an important way that we grab hold of our cultural identity and shimmy it along into the future.

Stepping forward and back

Another consequence of this excessively Basque upbringing (besides always having a back-up Halloween costume) is the understanding that celebration plays an important role in preservation, and that dance, like other art forms, can be mysteriously powerful.

Terry Tempest Williams offered an important sentiment when she told me that although conservation is often considered a fight, she prefers to think of it as a dance. She explained that the problem with calling something a “fight” is that it presupposes the need for winners and losers. In fights, people end up wounded, feeling slighted, possibly seeking revenge. Dancing, however, requires balance, partnership, and trust, and it implies a willingness to step forward and back while recognizing that everyone is occupying the same space and moving in the same direction.

The organizers of Uplift 2016, a climate conference for young activists on the Colorado Plateau, recognize this idea as crucial in an increasingly polarized world. It’s something that we hope to employ in a new kind of conservation effort.

The climate dance

At a time when the world’s wildest, most authentic landscapes are at their most vulnerable, perhaps the lessons of Basque perpetuation and thinkers like Terry have something to offer. Imagine, for example, that when changes to public policy threatened the loss of our public lands, the reliability of our water resources, or the quality of our air, an energetic group of dancers would appear in practiced formation, persistently causing a ruckus in celebration and defense of their homes.

The organizers of this year’s Uplift conference plan to set the stage for this new kind of “climate dance,” choreographed and performed by a diverse community of youth that are capable of both emphatic celebration and substantive discussion. We envision the myriad young voices of the Colorado Plateau being uplifted in a way that allows us to voice our concerns, declare solidarity in our principles, and demand that our ideas for the future be taken seriously.

In preparation for our main conference held August 18th-20th, Uplift will soon be hosting a series of community meetings across the plateau, inviting young people to join the dance and share their ideas. The leaders of Uplift first became involved with this project because we recognized the need for better, more inclusive conversations. We can no longer afford to allow the implementation of policies that ignore the realities of climate change, the finite nature of resources, or the constant diminishment of wild spaces. It’s our hope that these meetings, and the conference in August, will allow for previously excluded voices to be included in the crafting of policies affecting our future.

So please join us! For more information, contact the Uplift organizers at or follow us on Facebook for important updates.

In wildness,
The Uplift 2016 team

*Marcel Gaztambide is an editorial assistant at the Journal of the American Chemical Society who moonlights as a part-time ranch hand, and Basque dancer.


Young Organizers Plan Regional Uplift

Originally published January 12 2016 at

By Claire Martini

Ten of us shivered in unison, gazing out over the House Rock Valley towards Marble Canyon. Though we’d gathered to talk about the warming world, November in northern Arizona was—clearly—still cold.

For the second year, young leaders convened at Kane Ranch (on the North Rim) for an intensive planning retreat focused on the future of Uplift, an annual conservation conference for young activists.

In just over four full days together, we dove deep. Our goal? To orchestrate a summer 2016 gathering of young residents of the Colorado Plateau. At the innagural summit in April 2015, our conversations were foundational. In 2016, we’re growing from last year’s roots, galvanizing climate action and moving toward climate justice.

Now is certainly a scary time to be young. Seeing Kane Ranch shrouded in snow one winter, my thoughts took on a historic air when I began to wonder—if my hypothetical children returned to this place in 2040, when I’m 50, would they experience this blinding white? Being young and chronically concerned is sometimes like this: a vague, constant gnawing anxiety. It’s one of my main motivators to organize.

Other Uplift organizers are motivated by preservation of cultural vitality, love of wildness and wilderness, the desire to build community, or the fundamental goal to protect inheritance of a livable future in this place.

Over coffee on the last morning, I cracked the spine on a writing manual by Anne Lamott that I’d been nodding off to for a few days and found this anecdote:

“Thirty years ago,” Lamott wrote, “my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.”

It sounded like the climate crisis we’re currently in, though instead of three months, our predecessors have had three decades to work on sustainability. The deadline looms tomorrow.

Lamott continues, “Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

And I realized, that’s exactly how we’ll protect a livable future in the high aridity of the Colorado Plateau—person by person, place by place, and bird by bird.

For updates on Uplift 2016, follow us on Facebook and sign up for our mailing list!

Uplift 2015 Sneak Peek

Originally published on March 30 2015 at

By Ana Miller-ter Kuile, 2015 Uplift Coordinator

Have you registered for Uplift yet? Join us for an action-packed weekend full of workshops and awesome speakers. Learn how to use film for advocacy, hone your writing skills, and see how young activists are creating change on the Colorado Plateau.  Enjoy this sneak peek of the line-up!


Justin Clifton

Using film for advocacy

Flagstaff-based filmmaker Justin Clifton spent a decade curating film festivals before transitioning to advocacy-based filmmaking. Clifton knows film is a powerful medium for change, and his new documentary Our Canyon Lands calls attention to threats facing public lands in southeastern Utah. Learn how to create effective media with Clifton and enjoy a private screening of his film at Uplift. 



Nicole Horseherder

Protecting Navajo environmental heritage

Diné activist Nicole Horseherder works to protect water near her Black Mesa home and is co-founder of To Nizhoni Ani ("Beautiful Spring Speaks"), an indigenous environmental group. She has also worked with Black Mesa Water Coalition and other organizations to fight proposals like 2012 Arizona Senate Bill 2109, which proposed transferring water rights away from the tribes. She'll speak on the fight and more during Uplift.


Seth Muller

Writing as advocacy

Author and journalist Seth Muller's nonfiction and poetic work focuses on the Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau. He plays with words, rhythm, and cadence to create powerful stories about the places he holds dear. As editor of Mountain Living Magazine, Muller has years of experience crafting powerful stories and will share this expertise with Uplift participants. Learn how to engage your audience and improve your craft in Muller's workshop!



Water & Energy: Taking ownership of and responsibility for our resources

Do you know where your drinking water and electricity come from? Who owns these resources? This workshop, led by Colleen Cooley and Janene Yazzie, will encourage participants to take ownership of and responsibility for their resources. 

 Join us at Uplift, April 17-19! See the full schedule of Uplift speakers here ›

Tired of the Same Old Climate Conversation?

Originally published at

By Claire Martini, Uplift Coordinator

Ready to innovate? Join a community of young conservationists building a platform to advocate for solutions on the Colorado Plateau.  We’re recruiting for the leadership team to plan the 2016 Uplift Climate Conference—apply now!

Here’s the backstory: last April, a group of young (or young-at-heart) activists and conservationists gathered outside Flagstaff to talk about the future of the environmental movement. About 90 people participated in discussions and workshops on a wide range of subjects, from direct action to writing and native plant propagation.

We called ourselves Uplift, after the geologic phenomenon that defines the Colorado Plateau.  For us, home lies within the elevated contours and aridity that define this broad sweep of high desert.

We grew up in the San Juans, or on the reservations; in Las Vegas, Portland, or Salt Lake City.  Our families hail from within a stone’s throw of Four Corners, New York City, and back East.  We were born as far away as Trinidad, Florida, and Santiago, Chile. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest but fell in love with the redrock canyons and sagebrush steppes I found here in the Southwest. I wanted more. Shortly after starting an AmeriCorps position coordinating citizen science volunteers at the Grand Canyon Trust, I was asked to help plan the gathering that would become Uplift…and I jumped at the chance.

Our diverse leadership team for Uplift 2015 included farm girls who grew up to be scientists and fossil fuel “divestistas” who’d worked with in college, to advocates for wilderness, community organizers and community gardeners. For months, we dreamed, planned, and schemed what the inaugural gathering would look like. From our various offices, homes and colleges, we kept in touch with email and weekly conference calls. “What are we doing?” Someone would invariably moan. “This is too big! Too much. Too ambitious,” another would complain. Someone else would invariably provide encouragement, and, lo and behold, we crafted a mission, recruited young folks and workshop leaders, and made it happen.

In 2015, Uplift began a dialogue. Looking forward to 2016, we’re continuing the conversation and building a community of young conservationists to focus on climate change and the Colorado Plateau. Through this year’s planning process, we’ll structure the weekend (slated for August 2016) around meaningful outcomes and actions. We aim to change the way we talk about conservation and to use this platform to voice concerns of young activists and environmentalists to listening environmental organizations.

We’re looking for the dreamers, the wild ones, the folks who aren’t afraid to make a change.  Have an idea to bring to the table? Join the Uplift leadership team and help direct the conversation. It’s time to address climate head-on.

The Uplift wikiHow: Three Easy Steps

Originally published at

By Ana Miller-ter Kuile, 2015 Uplift Coordinator

I never dreamed I’d plan, as one Uplift attendee (“Uplifter”) stated, the “primary conference of sustainability-focused young minds on the Colorado Plateau.” Here's what I learned.

The Goal: Host a gathering that inspires young activists and strengthens a network of young conservation-minded people on the Colorado Plateau.

1. Find a group of nine young people to plan Uplift with you

They’ll be passionate and driven. They’ll help you take care of all the logistics, outreach, and programming for Uplift.

2. Spend five months planning

Actually, don’t inflict that on yourself – give yourself at least nine months to plan. You’ll hit a lot of roadblocks: where do we hold Uplift, is anyone coming, do we have speakers and workshops that draw a crowd and inspire? Keep charging through; all the pieces fall into place eventually.

3. Host the inaugural for-youth, by-youth Uplift event at the base of the San Francisco Peaks!

Don’t worry too much about technology failures (i.e. projectors failing to connect to computers that die as you tangle yourself in every extension cord at Camp Colton). Enjoy the community of young activists conversing at the dinner table with you. They are changing the world.

Note: If you’re lost, confused, anxious, frustrated, stressed, overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and more at any point(s) in this process, don’t worry. Say, for example, you planned the event before all the venues in Flagstaff opened for the season, and you don’t know how you’ll feed eighty people, and you don’t have a recruitment flyer until three weeks before the event, and you wake up the morning of the event to an inch of snow on the ground? According to an Uplifter, you’re “not alone in the struggle.” Your leadership team (see Step 1) will be right there sharing those emotions with you! 

I studied ecology in college so I could measure trees, catch spiders, crunch data, and spend my days in the woods with a GPS unit, waterproof notebook, and my own company. But I felt something lacking. What’s the use of studying the world’s ecosystems if no one else knows or cares about them? Would I be alone in the woods watching species disappear and food webs fall apart?

Commence my three-year journey to find my niche in science and conservation education. My journey led me to the most amazing place in the world – the Colorado Plateau – where I’ve gotten dirty working with high school and college groups in springs, meadows, forests, and canyons of the plateau in the name of conservation. I’ve worked with coworkers and volunteers who have lived and toiled in this place for decades. And I’ve dreamed the Uplift dream – bringing a group of young activists together to strengthen a young, intersectional conservation movement on the Colorado Plateau.

Uplift has come and gone, but my adventure to find my place between education and ecology isn’t over. That’s the journey of my whole life, but Uplift informed what this path looks like in the future. I need to be a fighter; I need to find communities of passionate folks to join forces with, and I need to team up with people of all ages who care about the planet.

When that Uplifter said she was energized knowing she wasn’t “alone in the struggle”, she wasn’t actually talking about the struggle ten people went through to get eighty-five Colorado Plateau movers and shakers up to Camp Colton on April 17. She was talking about the struggle for the future of our Colorado Plateau region and the world. After Uplift, I know I’m not standing in the woods, or in the desert, or on the rim of a canyon, by myself watching ecosystems disappear; I’m part of a band of young fighters who will always take a stand.