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Publish or Perish for the Goshute Tribe

Publish or Perish for the Goshute Tribe

Cedar trees mark the site of the Swamp Cedars Massacre, which killed 300 of Rupert Steele's ancestors in the late 1880s. The Goshute tribal elder is concerned that pulling groundwater from beneath these sacred sites to top off Las Vegas reservoirs would kill the trees, and decimate communities who have been living sustainably within the regions’ limited water supplies for over a century.

Working to prevent this verdant pocket of land on the Utah/Nevada border from drying up and blowing away, Rupert and the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute took an unorthodox approach, producing a book about their people, the desert landscape and the threats from the proposed groundwater pipelines. The group’s research included seeing their land as none of their fellow Goshute ever had before - from the air.

The arid western US is thirsty and quenching that thirst is getting harder to do. Burgeoning cities need more water for residential and industrial use. More is needed by agricultural operations to feed growing populations. Oil and gas operations, especially the new fracking technologies, also require tremendous amounts of water. The Colorado River, the region's largest source of water for urban and agricultural use, is so heavily utilized that it no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez. Throughout the West, people are seeking new ways to secure the water they need.

Proposed groundwater development project. Finding Water in the Desert
The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) has a big job. They have to secure water for the present and future needs of homes and businesses in Las Vegas Valley and beyond. Currently, ninety percent of their water comes from the Colorado River, but they need to reduce their reliance on the River and buffer the impacts of long-term drought on the river system. To do this, the Water Authority had to look elsewhere; they had to go underground.

In March 2012, the Nevada State Engineer approved SNWA's application to extract up to 150,000 acre-feet of groundwater each year (enough for 450,000 average households) from the Great Salt Lake Watershed Basin and pipe it 300 miles south to Las Vegas. However the groundwater that SNWA had in its sights is tied to the traditional and legal homelands of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation. The state engineer's approval is being challenged in court by the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, local governments, ranchers and others who believe the project will ensure economic and environmental doom to the rural areas.

Dots of green mark the Swamp Cedars sacred site for the Goshute. photo: Asher Koles/LightHawkKey to a Culture
The Goshute people live in isolation in a green oasis at the foothills of the Deep Creek Mountains on the Utah/Nevada state. Because of their remote location, they have been able to maintain their culture and traditions through hunting, gathering, ceremonial, and spiritual activities. They visit and care for sacred sites throughout the region including the Swamp Cedars, a mile-long band of green fed by springs. It was here in 1863 and 1897 that members of the Goshute and Shoshone tribes were massacred and where swamp cedar trees now stand in remembrance of those tragedies.

The Goshute also hold many springs, meadows, and wetland areas - including the plants and animals found within them - as integral components of their cultural and spiritual way of life. So it comes as no surprise that they are concerned about water throughout the area, not just beneath their reservation. They fear that when the pipeline from southern Nevada starts drawing from the groundwater, it will lower the water table, drying up springs, and fundamentally changing access to water over this vast region for plants, wildlife, and people.

The flight crew (L:R) Gavin Noyes, volunteer pilot Larry Swanson, Chris Noble, Rupert Steele, Sylvester Lahren, Barbara Dugelby in Wendover, NV. photo: Asher Koles/LightHawkCountering with Scientific Study
The Goshute were not content to sit back and let that happen. They worked with scientists, interviewed tribal elders, and conducted hydrologic and wildlife studies to discern what would happen if groundwater was taken from the Great Basin and what that would mean to the Goshute People. After two years of study and information gathering, Round River Conservation Studies and the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation turned to LightHawk.

LightHawk flights were needed to gather images to educate tribal members, decision-makers, scientists and the general public about this vast, isolated landscape that very few people have seen from the air. The flights would also present a unique opportunity for tribal representatives to experience their sacred sites and landscapes from the air, while archaeological and ecological experts collected information and shared their specialized knowledge of the region while in flight together.

Volunteer pilot Larry Swanson. photo: Ron Dubuc/Western Resource AdvocatesTricky Airspace
When longtime LightHawk Volunteer Pilot Larry Swanson first saw the Goshutes' requested flight route, he was concerned. The area over and around the Goshutes' land is riddled with heavily used military airspace. Just the week before the request, Larry had attended an FAA meeting which featured a video of a near-miss between a Cessna 152 and an F-16 in which both aircraft were following regulations. Only luck made it a near-miss rather than a collision. Larry didn't feel comfortable sharing airspace with military aircraft so he got on the phone and started writing letters. Two weeks later he had secured permission for a two-hour flight window in three restricted areas (R-6405, R-6406 and R-6407) the morning of the flights.

Rupert Steele. photo: Stephen DarkWriting their Future
In the end, Larry flew Rupert and his other passengers without an F-16 sighting. The flights produced high quality images of cultural, historic, spiritual and ecologically unique places in and around the Goshutes' land. A book relying heavily on the photos from this flight will be published shortly. Complementing the scientific data and stories they've collected, these photos will demonstrate how special this land is to the Goshute and how taking groundwater from it for the Las Vegas pipeline poses a significant threat to its survival.

As Rupert Steele commented after flying, "During the flight, I [could] see how the Tribes used the grasses and seeds in the valleys and the mountains for sustenance and how they lived in harmony with the entire fragile ecosystem. [This experience] will be used for educating the young tribal members about the significance of the valleys." Ultimately, the flights made a substantial contribution to protecting lands critical to Goshute People, strengthening the Goshute scientifically, culturally and spiritually.

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