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Dakota Protesters Celebrate Federal Decision – But Know It’s Not Over

By Ernest Scheyder and Terray Sylvester

CANNON BALL, N.D. (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters in North Dakota celebrated after the federal government ruled against a controversial pipeline project on Sunday, even though many recognized that the fight is likely to continue into next year.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it rejected an application to allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to tunnel under Lake Oahe, a reservoir formed by a dam on the Missouri River.

The decision came after months of protests from Native Americans and climate activists, who argued that the 1,172-mile (1,885-km) Dakota Access Pipeline would damage sacred lands and could contaminate the tribe’s water source.

The mood has been upbeat since the rejection was announced on Sunday afternoon at the Oceti Sakowin camp in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Activists were seen hugging and letting out war cries in response to the news.

Still, with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump supportive of the project, activists worried a reversal of the decision could be in the offing.

“This is a temporary celebration. I think this is just a rest,” said Charlotte Bad Cob, 30, from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “With a new government it could turn and we could be at it again.”

The camp’s numbers have swelled in recent days, as hundreds of U.S. veterans have flocked to North Dakota in support of the protesters. Some of those in a long line of traffic along Highway 1806 heading into the camp hollered and honked their horns after the news was announced.

The pipeline, owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP, is complete except for a one-mile segment to run under Lake Oahe. That stretch required an easement from federal authorities.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it will analyze possible alternate routes, although any other route is also likely to cross the Missouri River.

FIGHT MAY BE A ‘LONG HAUL’

Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II, in a statement, said he hoped ETP, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple and Trump would respect the decision.

“When it comes to infrastructure development in Indian Country and with respect to treaty lands, we must strive to work together to reach decisions that reflect the multifaceted considerations of tribes,” he said.

Trump has yet to react to Sunday’s decision. He could direct authorities to approve the line, even if before he takes over from Democratic President Barack Obama on Jan. 20 federal authorities will be studying alternative routes.

Tom Goldtooth, a Lakota from Minnesota, and a co-founder of Indigenous Environmental Network, said he expects Trump to try to reverse the decision.

“I think we’re going to be in this for the long haul. That’s what my fear is,” he said.

Energy Transfer said late Sunday they do not intend to reroute the line, calling the Obama Administration’s decision a “political action.”

In November, ETP moved equipment to the edge of the Missouri River to prepare for drilling, and later asked a federal court to disregard the Army Corps, and declare that the company could finish the line. That ruling is still pending.

Several veterans recently arrived in camp told Reuters they thought Sunday’s decision, which came just as Oceti Sakowin has seen an influx of service members, was a tactic to convince protesters to leave.

“That drill is still on the drill pad. Until that’s gone, this is not over,” said Matthew Crane, 32, from Buffalo, who arrived with a contingent of veterans last week.

(Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Tom Hogue)

IMAGE: Native American “water protectors” celebrate  that the Army Corps of Engineers has denied an easement for the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline inside of the Oceti Sakowin camp as demonstrations continue against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline adjacent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, December 4, 2016.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

U.S. Veterans Stand With Dakota Pipeline Protesters

CANNON BALL, N.D. (Reuters) – In the back reaches of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp, U.S. military veterans, armed with saws, hammers and other tools, are quietly building barracks, an infirmary and a mess hall.

Despite the bitter cold and an evacuation order from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the veterans hope to erect enough space to house at least several hundred peers making their way into the Oceti Sakowin Camp here in Cannon Ball.

Veterans interviewed by Reuters gave a plethora of motives for traveling here. Some felt it was their patriotic duty to defend protesters, especially since Native Americans have historically had an active presence in the U.S. military.

For others, coming here offers a sense of purpose they have lacked since returning to civilian society. For all, the camaraderie with those who have also shared military service was important.

“Our commitment has not expired because we took off the uniform,” said Charles Vondal, 51, an Army veteran and Native American from Turtle Mountain, N.D. “We understand what it means to put our lives on the line.”

The response last month to a call for 2,000 veterans to act as a barrier between activists and law enforcement was much swifter than expected – with organizers having to stop accepting volunteers.

The veterans arriving say their presence will make it less likely that police will resort again to aggressive tactics, after water cannons and tear gas were used on a group of protesters in sub-freezing temperatures two weeks ago.

More than 500 activists have been arrested over the last several months.

“I felt it was our duty to come and stand in front of the guns and the mace and the water and the threat that they pose to these people,” said Anthony Murtha, 29, from Detroit, who served in the U.S. Navy from 2009 to 2013.

Local law enforcement said the specter of having thousands of military-trained veterans in the area was of concern, but they were not expecting any melees.

“If (veterans) come to this area and they want to protest peacefully, if that’s what they want to do and have their voice heard, then there’s absolutely no issues with that,” Kyle Kirchmeier, sheriff for Morton County, North Dakota, where the pipeline is routed, said in an interview Saturday.

Some veterans groups are unhappy with those coming to support the protesters, saying they are standing up for illegal behavior. They also note that many law enforcement officers are veterans. North Dakota’s state veterans coordinating council, in a letter last week, asked the veterans who want to stand with the protesters not to come.

“We don’t want to see veterans facing down veterans,” said Lonnie Wangen, commissioner of North Dakota’s Department of Veterans Affairs.

But veterans at the camp say pictures and video of water hoses used against Native Americans spoke to their concern of heavy-handed tactics used by law enforcement.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to grant a permit for Energy Transfer Partners to drill under Lake Oahe, a reservoir that is part of the Missouri River.

This one-mile stretch represents the last unfinished portion of the line in North Dakota, which will stretch as far as Illinois.

Native Americans serve at a high rate in the armed forces, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A 2012 report showed more than 150,000 veterans of Native American descent. U.S. Defense Department data as of 2014 put Alaskan/Native American service members at more than 24,000.

“It’s symbolic for people who stood up for this nation’s freedom to stand up for the first inhabitants of this nation,” said Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, on Saturday.

Veterans Stand With Standing Rock, which organized this weekend’s rally and other events, has warned veterans they could experience flashbacks to combat experience.

“We’re under constant surveillance with helicopters and planes flying over. There is a military boundary with barbed wire,” said Angie Spencer, 34, a clinical psychologist from Seattle who has worked with veterans.

The surroundings, she said, mean counselors are vigilant for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

On Friday, the rally organizers met with law enforcement on the Backwater Bridge, the site of two of the most heated confrontations between police and protesters in the last several weeks. They said they were there to protest peacefully.

The chances that the pipeline will be stopped at this point seem slim. President-elect Donald Trump last week voiced support for the project, which has been delayed twice since September by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Opposing the pipeline, standing with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, was an opportunity to again find a personal mission, some said.

“You kind of lose your purpose when you’re out (of the military),” said John Nelson, 25, from San Diego, who spent seven years in the Navy. “I think that’s why it’s so easy for so many veterans to jump on board.”

(Reporting By Ernest Scheyder and Terray Sylvester; Additional reporting by Alicia Underlee Nelson in West Fargo, N.D.; Writing by David Gaffen and Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Chris Reese)

IMAGE: Veterans attend a Sioux tribal welcome meeting at Sitting Bull College as “water protectors” continue to demonstrate against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, in Fort Yates, North Dakota, U.S. December 3, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith