Jul 252013
blockade practice

[Jump to: Part Two: Downstream Community Leadership Training]

From Thursday, July 18 to Sunday, July 21, people from diverse communities and backgrounds gathered in Moab, Utah to organize a grassroots resistance to proposed tar sands and oil shale mining operations , as well as  a proposed nuclear power plant within the upper Colorado river watershed.

Bill McKibben and moderator Christy Williams

Bill McKibben  indroduced by moderator Christy Williams  before panel Thursday’s discussion (Photo: Lee Gelat)

Participants from  “downstream communities”, including the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation in southern California; the Gila River Indian Community in Sacaton, Arizona; Pheonix, Arizona; as well as Moab and Castle Valley, Utah, came together for both a lecture/panel discussion and later, an immersive two-day nonviolent direct action training workshop.

The gathering began on Thursday with a public discussion in the auditorium at Grand County High School. Topics varied, but the central theme of the night was regarding the importance of grassroots organizing in addressing the climate crisis. Speakers included David Harper, Traditional Spokesperson for the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe of the Colorado River Indian Tribes; Bradley Angel, Executive Director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice; John Weisheit, Conservation Director of Living Rivers and the Colorado Riverkeeper of the Waterkeepers Alliance; Kate Finneran, Co-director of Before it Starts; and Bill McKibben, co-founder of the international organization and bestselling author of the End of Nature. The evening was moderated by Moab local Christy Williams, Programming Director at KZMU 90.1 & 106.7 FM and former Moab City Council member. The event was organized by Moab-based nonprofit Before It Starts, which is dedicated stopping proposed massive tar sands and oil shale projects in the United States by activating a national resistance, led and informed by frontline communities.

With a little help from the audience, Co-Founder Ashley Anderson is blockaded inside the auditorium. (Photo Lee Gelat)

With a little help from the audience, Co-Founder Ashley Anderson is blockaded inside the auditorium. (Photo Lee Gelat)

Kate Finneran of talked about her background working on mountaintop removal issues as National Field Organizer for Appalachian Voices, and why she came to settle in Moab.

Event organizer and Before It Starts Co-Director Kate Finneran greeting folks at the door  before her speech.

Event organizer and Before It Starts Co-Director Kate Finneran greeting folks at the door before her speech.

Bradley Angel spoke about the threat posed by a planned nuclear power plant on the Green river (primary tributary of the Colorado River), and closed by pointing out that it is important to talk about health when working on movement building to address climate change, because health is a concern we all share, and impacts all people equally regardless of background. Read more about Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice here.

John Weisheit, whom is responsible for the litigation which has prevented tar sands and oil shale mining for over ten years, pointed out that he was very grateful, because “three years ago, there was no activism around the tar sands and oil shale, except for the lawsuits brought by my organization and our lawyers. It’s encouraging beyond words to see groups like Before it Starts, Canyon Country Rising Tide, Peaceful Uprising, Utah Tar Sands Resistance, Grand Canyon Trust, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and now even and other local and international groups jumping in to form a true grassroots direct-action resistance.”

David Harper talked about the importance of spiritual health in our activism and asked, “Where is our [communities along the Colorado river] movement? Maybe this is the beginning”

Clockwise from top left: Bradley Angel, John Weisheit, Bill McKibben, David Harper (Logan Hansen Photography)

Clockwise from top left: Bradley Angel, John Weisheit, Bill McKibben, David Harper (Logan Hansen Photography)

Bill McKibben took the stage (sitting on the edge of it, actually) and spoke about the emerging people-led movement to combat the climate crisis. He spoke about the fact that tar sands and oil shale mining at the scale we’re looking at in Utah not only destroys the land and pollutes the water for 30 million people, but represents a threat to all people everywhere for the carbon it would release into the atmosphere. (Recoverable tar sands and oil shale deposits in the region represent nearly a trillion barrels of fossil fuels, far more than is currently being mined in Alberta, Canada) “It’s important for people everywhere to rise up and oppose any fossil fuel industry projects that would contribute to climate change,” Bill said.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Bill, do you think we can win? Do you think it is too late to avert complete climate disaster?’ And I have to tell them, ‘I don’t know if it is too late. I don’t know if we’ll be able to turn it around in time, but if the last four years have taught me anything, it’s that we aren’t going down without a fight.’”

From left, Bradley Angel, Bill McKibben, John Weisheit, Kate Finneran, Christy Williams, and David Harper. (Photo: Lee Gelat)

From left, Bradley Angel, Bill McKibben, John Weisheit, Kate Finneran, Christy Williams, and David Harper. (Photo: Lee Gelat)

More photos of the event by Lee Gelat

Part Two:  Downstream Community Leadership Training

July 20, 21, Moab Arts and Recreation Center and Swanny City Park, Moab, Utah

The DCLT was part of more than a week of complementary events and activities taking place in various locations in eastern Utah, all of which are designed to educate, activate, and empower activists and non-activists alike; to bring communities from both the front lines of imminent industrial development in the area, such as tar sands/oil shale mining, and a proposed nuclear power plant, together with concerned people from around the country. The DCLT offered a two-day nonviolent direct action 101 training with a focus on communities in the Colorado river bioregion, which offered an alternative for folks who cannot attend the more immersive and in-depth five-day Canyon Country Action Camp, which will take place on the shores of the Green River from July 24-28. (Click to support the camp and help us reach our fundraising goal.)

The morning began at the Moab Arts and Recreation center with breakfast and coffee. After that, John Weisheit of Living Rivers led a 20-minute introduction to three specific watershed threats: tar sands and oil shale mining, and a proposed nuclear power plant. John pointed out that the main reason behind building a nuclear power plant on the Green river was not to supply power to “the grid”, as it’s proponents claim, but rather, to run the infrastructure that would be necessary for tar sands and oil shale mining in the nearby Tavaputs Plateau.

John Weisheit, Colorado Riverkeeper and Conservation Director of environmental nonprofit Living Rivers

John Weisheit, Colorado Riverkeeper and Conservation Director of environmental nonprofit Living Rivers

Another important point that John brought up is that the “oil” being sought in the region through mining tar sands and oil shale wasn’t even for use in vehicles, rather, that it would be turned into low-grade diesel which powers cargo ships and products like paint thinner. “It won’t alleviate gas prices and will not reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

John’s presentation concluded with a question from a participant: “I guess I just don’t understand the other side. I mean, these tar sands and oil shale projects seem like such a risky proposition, and they are so filthy and dangerous, and the lack of water, and now this resistance, not to mention climate change…why do these people [the executives at U.S. Oil Sands and the other start-ups seeking investment capital to begin mining] do this? Why are they pursuing this business?”

“Because they are speculators and they have no conscience.” More background information: Tar Sands | Oil Shale | Green River Nuclear Power Plant | U.S. Oil Sands

Next up was Bradley Angel from Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and David Harper Traditional Spokesperson for the Mojave Tribe of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, to talk about non-violent direct action. Instead of a lecture about definitions and abstract history, Bradley used multimedia, including television news clips, to illustrate examples from his direct experience advocating for environmental justice during the last 15 years. Examples of victories can be found here.

Bradley Angel giving examples of nonviolent direct action and environmental justice

Bradley Angel giving examples of nonviolent direct action and environmental justice

The presentation included a screening of “Defending the Sacred”, a documentary about the remarkable 113-day occupation of Ward Valley, which was ultimately successful in defeating the US government’s plan to use sacred Indian lands a dumping ground for nuclear waste. It is a remarkable story about frontline communities and activists from outside the area working together to achieve an unlikely victory.

Watching "Defending the Sacred"

Watching “Defending the Sacred”

Bradley also gave examples from other successful campaigns to stop industrial polluters, which were supported by Greenaction but led by the communities directly involved. (Instead of the other way around, as is often the case with environmental organizations.)

After lunch, we circled up the chairs in the adjacent meeting space and local-international organizer/activist Celia Alario facilitated as the group layed out some ground rules to guide the rest of the training.

After that, a go-around of brief introductions revealed the surprising diversity of people that had gathered together for the weekend. There were retirees from Castle Valley and Moab, some recalling their experiences protesting the Vietnem war; a group of students from the University of Colorado at Boulder, who were on a weeks-long trek around the Southwest to learn about environmental justice issues with a program called INVST –many of whom were eager to experience direct action training for the first time, and some of whom had been active in Occupy; a group of young activists from the Gila River Indian Community, a couple of whom were living in Phoenix, some of whom had already been involved in acts of civil disobedience and/or Occupy Phoenix. Two were rising hip-hop artists from Shining Soul who gave us a surprise an awesome a Capella show later on; and more. [update: the author was just informed that 2/3 of Requiem participated in the training. Check it out!]

An example of simple ground rules for a nonviolent direct action training. (Celia Alario facilitated this portion)

An example of simple ground rules for a nonviolent direct action training. (Celia Alario facilitated this portion)

Alex and Franco, aka the duo from Shining Soul perform  at the end of day one

Alex and Franco, aka the duo from Shining Soul perform a cappela on day one

After that, we did an exercise called the “Spectrogram”. The facilitators put up four signs on the four walls of a room, with signs reading “effective” and “not effective” opposite each other, and “violent” and “non-violent” completing the other axis. Participants are given scenarios and asked to stand in the room nearest the coordinates that agree with their opinion. For example, “burning the US flag” would be a given prompt, and participants who thought it violent would go to that side of the room, but perhaps on the “not effective” side. After people take their positions, the facilitators go around and let attendees expound on why they chose the place they did. Participants who hear something that changes their perspective can change their position in the room.

The "Spectrogram" exercise  is very engaging, and always seems to go longer than planned. Which is great!

The “Spectrogram” exercise is very engaging, and always seems to go longer than planned. Which is great!

The final exercise of the day was something called “hassle lines”, where the group forms two lines, each person across from someone else, and are given scenarios where one person is agitated and the other practices calming them down. It is intended to provide skills in “de-escalation”, and it can get pretty animated!

Day two

Day two began at Swanny City Park with plenty of sunshine, breakfast and coffee.  Participation grew to include parents who brought their young children.

breakfast at the park

breakfast at the park

Amanda Starbuck, an organizer from Rainforest Action Network with extensive experience in direct action training and planning (and friend of Before it Starts) traveled from San Fransisco as a volunteer to lead the morning’s workshops.

Amanda Starbuck on roles in a direct action

Amanda Starbuck on roles in a direct action

Amanda opened by inviting participants to share stories and experiences with direct actions and civil disobedience.

We then split into two groups and were asked to form a “blockade”, or a human barrier that would stop a theoretical truck from continuing on a road. Participants were intentionally given no preparation time, which led to an in-depth discussion and lesson on the different roles activists take when preparing for and carrying out direct actions like this.


Kate and Bradley demonstrated a device called a “lock box”, which is sometimes used to chain protesters together, making it more difficult for authorities to remove them.

dave harper approaching one of two groups roleplaying a blockade

Dave Harper approaching one of two groups role-playing a blockade

Following the lesson on roles, participants were given another hypothetical scenario in which they were forming a blockade to prevent equipment which would be essential for commencing strip-mining operations from reaching a mine site. Many folks had a part to play, some acting as law enforcement, hostile television reporters, and so on. David Harper played a very convincing truck driver who was being interrupted just trying to do his job. It was a lot of fun.

After lunch we went back for two lessons from Amanda Starbuck: challenging corporate power and “knowing your legal rights” in an action scenario. She also talked about one of Rainforest Action Network’s current campaigns, which includes a “Pledge of Resistance” against the KeystoneXL pipeline (if it is approved by President Obama). Over 70,000 people around the country have already taken the pledge, which can be found here. 


The last activity was an exercise borrowed and adapted from the 99% Spring Training Guide, in which we practiced refining our personal stories of who we are, what we are struggling against, and what we want the future to look like. Groups of four were formed (with people that hadn’t spent much time interacting grouped together) to write out their stories, then share them with the rest, then, as a group, discuss the commonalities they observed. They then filled in the blanks: We are _____, ____, and _____, and we struggle with _____, _____, and _____, and we want a future where _______, ______, and ______. The groups then sent representatives up to the front to present their statement, which was written down with all the others on a single piece of butcher-block paper. After that, we “mic-checked” the entire statement.

(Unfortunately, the group from the Gila River Indian Community had to leave right before this exercise, but they promised to complete it later and send us what they came up with so we can add it to the document) 

The three days of speakers and workshops ended with a feedback session. Participants suggested that we do more media training, that we do the last exercise first next time, and that overall, it was empowering and fun, and that they were truly glad that they came. One comment that came up multiple times was that “At first I was nervous, but it’s been so encouraging to meet other people that want to do something. I feel like I am ready to take more action.”

The organizers were grateful that a self-motivated community of activists had taken shape, and look forward to working with these individuals for a long time to come.

Click here for information, updates and ways to spport the Canyon Country Action Camp near Green River, Utah

Join Before it Starts

Contact: ashley@beforeitstarts or kate@beforeitstarts

 July 25, 2013  Posted by at 10:47 am Events, Uncategorized
May 152013

For Immediate Release: May 14, 2013
Contact: Kate Finneran, Before It Starts, 435-260-0662 or

Opposition Against Tar Sands Grows in Utah as US Oil Sands, Inc meets for Annual Shareholder Meeting in Calgary

Meme shared on social networks:

Meme shared on social networks:

Front Line and Downstream Communities Call for Protection of Colorado River, Vow to Stop Canadian Company’s Bid For Tar Sands Extraction

Calgary, Alberta~ An unprecedented coalition of Utahns delivered a powerful message to US Oil Sands, Inc. today as investors gathered for an annual and special meeting of shareholders at the Calgary Petroleum Club: “US Oil Sands: We Will Stop You…Before it Starts.” Investors received a group photo from the alliance, with the picturesque backdrop of Arches National Park and the Tavaputs Plateau, and a promise protect their community.

US Oil Sands (which changed its name last year from Earth Energy Resources) hopes to begin construction in 2013 on what would be the first tar sands mine in the United States, located in the Tavaputs Plateau region of Southeastern Utah. But a growing alliance of Utahns has pledged to stop the project before it starts. The company has galvanized Utah locals and downstream communities committed to the protection of Colorado and Green River waterways.

“We want current and potential investors of US Oil Sands to know they will meet resistance on the ground,” said Kate Finneran, local Moab mom and organizer with Before it, an organization committed to keeping Utah tar sands and oil shale free. “We will use every avenue available to us; legal, legislative, policy, organizing and even direct action to protect our communities and our future.”

As the Arid West braces for another dry, hot summer, growing concerns about water use and pollution from the project have also moved farmers, ranchers, hunters, anglers and others to join in saying ‘No thank you’ to the Canadian company and its tar sands mining plans.

“Tar Sands projects are simply short sighted gains at the expense of long-term habitat conservation. Some type of fossil fuel extraction can be done with minimal environmental impact but tar sands are not in that category. They destroy habitat that can never be restored to anything that resembles what was lost. It is a losing proposition,” said Jay Banta of Back Country Hunters & Anglers.

The company has also drawn fire from small business owners over impacts on air quality and ‘viewscapes’ in the nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, which attract over one million visitors a year to Moab and surrounding areas, fueling a thriving tourism economy. Ty Markham runs a small hospitality business near Capitol Reef, one of Utah’s spectacular red rock national parks.

“I know how the polluting process of extracting tar sands near ANY of our national parks will impact my business, along with all the other businesses here that exist due to the strong tourism and recreation we have in our part of the state,” Markham said. “When those blue skies, broad vistas and clear rivers and streams are no longer pristine, visitors to our area will decrease and our businesses will struggle. Then it won’t be long before we’re laying off employees and our local economies die. We’re not going to be fooled by the empty promises of boom-bust industries.”

The proposed tar sands operation has faced legal challenges by Living Rivers and Western Resource Advocates, and although the company was recently given the green light by the state of Utah, US Oil Sands may find it more difficult than expected to operate in the region, due to growing objections by locals. Some groups are organizing a camp in July to train local residents in civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action in anticipation of a summer of peaceful protests against US Oil Sands’ plans.

For the photo card sent from Utahns to US Oil Sands investors visit:

For more information:

 May 15, 2013  Posted by at 9:45 am Actions, Events Tagged with: , , ,
Mar 162013

The Tavaputs Plateau, which is slated to be strip-mined for tar sands, can be seen on the horizon. The photo was taken from Professor Valley near Moab, Utah. The Colorado River is visible.


Two years of litigation by Living Rivers (our parent nonprofit,) Colorado Riverkeeper and Western Resource Advocates has so far  prevented the development of a proposed strip mining operation for tar sands. If U.S. Oil Sands Inc., (USOS) prevails in court, this operation would become the first large-scale mining project for the processing of tar sands in the USA. In Utah, 570,000 acres have been identified for potential exploitation of this dirty fuel.

PR Springs is located on the East Tavaputs Plateau in east-central Utah. The elevation is about 8,100 feet. The higher elevations of the Tavaputs remain roadless and meet the criteria of the Wilderness Act.

PR Springs is a watershed divide for three rivers: White, Green And Colorado. All are tributaries of the Colorado river, which supplies water to over 30 million people in the Western United States. The landscape is a mixed forest of fir, pine, juniper and oak, and is essentially old growth. The animal life is abundant and includes: deer, elk, bear, bison, turkey, grouse, owls, hawks and eagles.

The proposed operation will deforest the Tavaputs, obliterate the near-surface aquifers, and completely consume the ground-water at depth.

The corporation is required to salvage the topsoil and re vegetate the abandoned waste pits, but the disturbance will be too massive and the soil cover too thin to generate a robust recovery. Wind and intense thunderstorms will remove the topsoil and the area is destined to become a wasteland of rubble. 

Continue reading »

 March 16, 2013  Posted by at 4:11 pm Impending US Tar Sands operations
Jan 142013

[UPDATE March 31 2013: Water bottle label now available in high resolution to improve readability. Click to view]  

The prospect of tar sands and oil shale mining (i.e. “unconventional fuels”) made this year’s Governor’s Energy Development Summit in Utah anything but conventional.

Media coverage of the conference was dominated by multiple protests going on both inside and outside the convention center, much to the dismay of the companies that are seeking investors for their upstart tar sands and oil shale projects.

Utahns protest outside the Annual Governors Energy Development Summit.

Utahns protest outside the Annual Governors Energy Development Summit.

One company in particular, U.S. Oil Sands, Inc., bore the brunt of the protesters concerns–and direct actions.

Close-up of the label on dozens of water bottles passed out during the 2012 Governor's Energy Development  Summit

Close-up of the label on dozens of water bottles passed out during the 2012 Governor’s Energy Development Summit (click for an even closer look)

Anderson proudly distributing "biodegradable carcinogens"

Anderson proudly distributing “biodegradable carcinogens”

Before it Starts co-founders Ashley Anderson and Kate Finneran took part by smuggling in unsanctioned water bottles and table cards and distributing them widely. The water bottles were adorned with custom labels listing the ingredients in U.S. Oil Sands’ processing solvent. The table cards let the industry folks who were eating lunch with the Governor and Utah’s Congressional delegation know that the water they were drinking had been treated with some of the “safe” solvent. The idea was to let people know exactly what U.S. Oil Sands was referring to as they championed their “environmentally friendly” extraction process, and to bring attention to their first national action, which calls for people around the country to email U.S. Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd demanding a do-over on disputed testing of their mining permits.

standing card placed on tables for the Governors luncheon

standing card placed on tables for the Governors luncheon

For one reason or another, no one in charge of the conference seemed to care that someone was distributing water which claimed to contain extremely poisonous chemicals.  ”I thought we’d get arrested, or at least thrown out. I even gave one to someone from the Governors office. I guess we’ll need to be less subtle next time.” said Finneran. Table Cards


Anderson and Finneran also had the opportunity to chat at length with U.S. Oil Sands’ CEO Cameron Todd following his presentation at the first Unconventional Fuels breakout session. Todd had just stated to the audience that his company was publicly owned, therefore accountable to it’s shareholders for everything it claims in public, unlike the “detractors” who were opposed to his company’s plans. Anderson reminded Todd that as a Utah resident expecting his first child, he was rightfully concerned, and didn’t appreciate being referred to as a detractor.  Todd also answered some straightforward questions about these concerns, which Before it Starts is in the process of validating now.  A full video and transcript of this conversation coming soon.

While this was going on, two protesters from Utah Tar Sands Resistance seized the mic in the main staging area and gave the Governeor a special award, before being forcefully thrown out by security.  From then on, the Unconventional Fuels breakouts were heavily guarded by police–unlike the other three sessions that were in the same hall.

Later that day, Utah’s Congressional delegation discussed ways to stop environmental organizations from getting in the way of unconventional fuels development. They were clearly referring to Living Rivers, which is the plaintiff in the legal challenges that have held oil shale and tar sands projects at bay for years. (Living Rivers is also the parent organization of Before it Starts.)

On day two,  BIS’ Anderson was given the mic at the end of the final Unconventional Fuels breakout session, and took the opportunity to remind the participants that their perceptions of the protesters were inaccurate. You can read his post about what he said and why here.

Outside, a large rally pulled together by members of HEAL Utah, the Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Tar Sands Resistance, Before it Starts, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and others took off around 12:30. After some speeches, they started singing “This Land is Your Land” and stormed the Salt Palace Convention Center, until they were turned around by security. (This was in the tradition of a 2010  rally outside the Utah Capitol surrounding HB477 , during which over 100 protesters flooded into the capitol rotunda and up to the legislative chambers, scaring lawmakers enough that they quickly overturned the controversial law.)

“I am proud of what we are doing here in Utah, as concerned citizens from a wide range of backgrounds, to confront this kind of energy development. This Summit proves we are good at working together. But the first tar sands and oil shale mines in the United States are a national issue. Our work at Before it Starts is to serve fill the role of on-the-ground liaison to organizations and individuals from all over the country that are already working on the issue or want to become involved,” Anderson said.