Standing Rock: Can We Bring the Buffalo Home?

We, living now, in the time before, have choices. We can remember what it is to be animals on this planet and remember and understand what it is to live and die such that our lives and deaths help make the world stronger. We can live and die such that we make possible a time after where life flourishes, where buffalo can come home, and the same for salmon and prairie dogs and prairies and forests and carbon and rivers and mountains. – Derrick Jensen, 2016, environmental activist and writer, April 6, 2016

It was late December 4, when news came down that the Dakota Access pipeline had been denied, at least temporarily. December 4 also happened to be the eve of World Soil Day. The symbolism, though coincidental, wasn’t lost on those of us who believe that protecting and regenerating the Earth’s soils, combined with reducing fossil fuel emissions, represent our only hope for restoring climate stability.

If we don’t reverse global warming, it won’t matter how many pipelines the energy companies bury. Likewise, as history has proven, the civilization that fails to prevent the degradation of its soil will ultimately fail, itself. Either way, unless we turn things around through renewable energy and regenerative food, farming and land use, we’re doomed.

Reporters and activists are, rightfully so, holding up the Standing Rock victory as a shining example of how, by breaking out of our single-issue and limited-constituency silos, and by standing our common ground against corporations and politicians, we create a powerful synergy capable of protecting our common home. We should follow this example more often, as Naomi Klein recently suggested:

The line between resistance and results is bright and undeniable. That kind of victory is rare precisely because it’s contagious, because it shows people everywhere that organizing and resistance is not futile. And as Donald Trump moves closer and closer to the White House, that message is important indeed.

Couldn’t agree more. Let’s replicate this model of solidarity and resistance over and over as we face what could well turn out to be the greatest threats in modern history to our health, our environment and our basic rights.

But let’s not stop there.

What if instead of declaring victory and moving on to the next battle, we could leave the Standing Rock community with the inspiration and tools and resources to restore their land to the fertile, biodiverse, productive resource that it once was? What if, instead of limiting ourselves to staving off the next attack, we applied ourselves, with equal passion, to the task of collaborating with the water protectors to build the foundation for a cleaner, healthier environment, a healthier and stronger community, and improved economic and climate stability?

What if we altered the course of the future for our brothers and sisters at Standing Rock, and made possible “a time after where life flourishes, where buffalo can come home, and the same for salmon and prairie dogs and prairies and forests and carbon and rivers and mountains?”

From badlands to productive grasslands

According to the Nature Conservancy (TNC), “vast expanses of grass and sky once covered about 110 million acres in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota,” providing habitat for “some of our most iconic animals from the majestic bison to the black-footed ferret and the greater prairie chicken.”

Today? Not so much says TNC:

Today grasslands are the most imperiled habitat on Earth, with a rate of destruction exceeding that of tropical rainforests. Temperate grasslands alone, like those in the Midwest and Great Plains, are being lost at a rate eight times faster than they are being protected.

A big part of TNC’s job is to protect U.S. grasslands. But the environmental group isn’t just “protecting” or “conserving” grasslands, at least not in the sense that it’s roping them off like a room full of rare art objects, to be admired but not trespassed upon. Instead, TNC is testing the Savory Institute holistic grazing model. Savory and TNC, under the banner of regenerative agriculture, are working with ranchers to not only restore and protect grasslands, but to also restore the land’s productivity as well as the soil’s capacity to draw down and sequester carbon—all while generating a healthy profit for ranchers.

You can find more on TNC’s work on restoring grasslands through proper grazing techniques here. But in a nutshell, the essence of regenerative grazing is this. When we think of restoring once-thriving ecosystems, it’s important to remember that in addition to pulling pollutants from the atmosphere and water, helping to prevent flooding and soil erosion, and capturing and storing carbon dioxide in the soil, perennial deep-rooted grasslands once supported tens of millions of grazing herbivores like bison, elk and cattle—which in turn fed the humans who lived in harmony with their surroundings.

The Wall Street Journal reports that sales of grass-fed beef rose nearly 40 percent in 2015, compared with 2014 sales. Sales of grass-fed bison are also on the rise.

Could the Savory Institute and TNC’s work restoring grasslands through proper grazing techniques serve as a model for regenerating land, local economies—and hope—for communities like Standing Rock? And by extension, for the planet as a whole?

Moving beyond single issues

One of our favorite themes at OCA is the need for all of us to move away from single-issue organizing to galvanizing our many movements—peace, social justice, food and farming, campaign finance reform, faith, environment and climate —around a shared determination to stand up to corruption and to defend our basic rights and our common home.

If we can break out of our single-issue silos, we will create a movement, indeed a revolution, so powerful that we will succeed in redirecting our financial and human resources toward the regeneration of our soils, our food, our economies, our health. And in so doing, restore climate stability.

That’s why the Standing Rock protest was so inspirational. Because it united us.

Five hundred clergy members from 20 different religious groups gathered at the Standing Rock camp.

Musicians Bonnie Rait, Jackson Browne and Jason Mraz held a benefit concert.

Bill McKibben, and other climate groups got involved.

The Code Pink peace and human rights activists participated, as did actress and 60s anti-war activist Jane Fonda.

And then there were the thousands of veterans who descended on the Standing Rock camp, vowing to defend the water protectors from any attempt by “law enforcement” to remove them.

At OCA, what started out as a fundraising drive to provide an organic Thanksgiving dinner for the water protectors, turned into something bigger. We knew that our message—that we are all connected, that we are all fighting the same battle, that we are all one movement—resonated when in just two days our members donated $40,000, ten times more than the $4,000 we asked for, to provide food and other supplies for the camp.

The overwhelming response to our donation plea inspired us to look for ways to make a difference beyond Thanksgiving dinner. We’re now working with Dream of Wild Health, an indigenous food program that operates a 10-acre farm north of St. Paul, Minn. The farm teaches children how to cook and sell organically grown native foods, some of which OCA will purchase with the donations we collected, and send to the water protectors who have vowed to remain at the camp until they are assured that the pipeline decision won’t be overturned.

We’re also buying grass-fed buffalo meat from South Dakota-based Brownotter Buffalo Ranch to send to the Standing Rock camp.

We’re grateful for the response from our networks to support the water protectors, and for the radical and inspirational example of united resistance inspired by the standoff at Standing Rock. The next challenge to our networks, to consumers, to the many movements working independently on so many important issues is this: Let’s grow this #consumerrevolution and #politicalrevolution so we can turn every campaign into an opportunity to not only head off disaster, but to build a better world.

Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.

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