by Page Lambert
John and I are driving down an unfurling ribbon of highway en route to the Black Hills of Wyoming and the small town of Sundance, population 1222. I’m doing battle with the State’s Department of Transportation, which has decreed to realign a major state highway through the pristine heart of the ranchland where my children were reared.
I was a mere caretaker of my children compared to the land that raised them. My daughter ran up and down deer paths. My son explored high ridges and deep gullies. They gathered sheep off the hayfield before nightfall, howled at coyotes before bedtime, fed calves before daybreak. They saved the money they earned from raising and selling their animals toward college tuition and weanling colts. They helped old cows die and young ones be born. They learned the lay of the land, her meadows and oak forests, her rolling hills and steeply rooted ponderosas. The land taught them to speak an ancient language—to seek southern slopes during winter storms, to protect brittle grasses during seasons of drought.
The land taught them to speak an ancient language—to seek southern slopes during winter storms, to protect brittle grasses during seasons of drought.
By the time they were teens, my children understood the concept of a shared landscape clear to the marrow of their bones. They understood it like their great-grandparents, five generations back, when the first grandparents left Maine by wagon to bring their asthmatic son to the healing, high country air of the Rocky Mountains.
Today, I can barely catch my breath. An eminent domain fissure has sliced open my heart. The Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) has become my nemesis, my Goliath—and, like David, I’m grasping at stones to slay the giant.
In a few hours, John and I will walk the ground on the heels of an archaeologist hired by the Department to look for cultural artifacts as part of the Environmental Assessment required by the National Environmental Policy Act. “Have John go with you,” friends advised. “Even if he never opens his mouth, it will make the archeologist sit up and take notice.”
At 6 feet 4 inches tall, John can be imposing. He’s a full-blooded, enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. It would be rare to unearth Cherokee artifacts in the Black Hills of Wyoming, but that doesn’t dissuade me from silently pleading with John’s ancestors from Georgia. Maybe they could lead us to a Sioux burial site. That would stop the archaeologist in his tracks, and possibly the entire project.
Not long ago, John and I were having dinner with some Navajo friends. I told them about WYDOT’s plans to reroute the highway through the ranch. “The Doctrine of Eminent Domain is the ace up their sleeve,” I said. “If I don’t agree to sell, all they have to do is condemn my ownership of the land, claiming that it’s in the public’s best interest for the State to own it. I’ve never even considered selling.”
Belvin took a sip of his iced tea, arching one eyebrow. “The government wants to take your land?” he asked, smirking not unsympathetically. “Guess now you’re an Indian too.” We laughed, but the truth is that the Black Hills had been promised to the Sioux Indians in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Less than ten years later, the government seized the Hills along with all its gold.
The Kiowas, Kiowa-Apaches, Arapahos, Cheyennes, Lakotas, Crows, Shoshones have all been camping, fasting, and holding ceremonies in the Black Hills for generations.
The Kiowas, Kiowa-Apaches, Arapahos, Cheyennes, Lakotas, Crows, Shoshones have all been camping, fasting, and holding ceremonies in the Black Hills for generations. Known as “an island in a sea of plains,” here the grassland oceans of the U.S. Great Plains (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas) lap up against the rocky shores of the West (Montana, Wyoming, Colorado). The Bear Lodge Mountains, one of three mountain ranges that comprise the Black Hills, shelter the ranchland that still tethers my soul.
Stand at sunrise, facing east on the high ridge where the highway department plans to cut gashes as wide as 360 feet across, and you’ll see Sundance Mountain backlit by morning glow. Stand on the same ridge at sunset, pivot slightly to the south, and watch long shadows fall across the flanks of Inyan Kara Mountain, the “mountain within a mountain.” Tribal people have been knapping quartzite at Inyan Kara for at least 10,000 years.
Stand on that same ridge in June when the Lakota are holding their Sundance Ceremony at Mato Tipili (the Bear Lodge, renamed Devils Tower when it became our nation’s first national monument in 1906), pluck a sprig of sage, pivot due west, face into the wind, and listen for the echo of drumbeats rising from the distant silhouette of its ancient volcanic core.
In 1980, the U.S. Government offered the Sioux Nation a settlement of $102 million for portions of the Black Hills. Set aside in a trust, the funds have grown to well over one billion dollars. The Sioux Nation refuses to accept a penny, believing any payment to be invalid. Why? Because the land was never for sale.
I tried that argument on WYDOT. “Do you see a For Sale sign around here anywhere?” I asked. No, of course not. Yet orange surveying flags already pockmark the land.
This earth holds the bones of the dogs my family has loved. It holds the bones of the faithful horses that have carried us across tallgrass prairies, through burr oak woods and ponderosa forests. None of this land is for sale. Beside the fact that ownership of any land can be debated, kinship with this land makes me angry and protective. The siege is on.
I do not give up hope. Yet the stones I grasp flake away like slivered mica.
Twenty-five miles east of here, when WYDOT surveyed the route for Interstate Highway 90 in the 1970s, they discovered a large limestone sinkhole. WYDOT graded a crude road down into the sinkhole and drilled several holes in the bottom. The drill brought up bone fragments—a lot of them. A large “jump” was discovered—a natural trap into which bison were herded, killed, and butchered in the centuries before the Plains Indians had domesticated horses. The interstate’s route was redirected to protect this historic site. Archaeologists now know that the remains of thousands of bison lay buried at what is now known as the Vore Buffalo Jump. Ceremonial circles of bison skulls and canid skulls from hybrid wolf–dogs have been discovered beneath the layers of red earth.
I’ve hiked this land for nearly thirty years. The fox skulls I’ve found, the red-tailed hawk feathers that have drifted onto my prayer knoll, the ammonites and the tapered, broken crinoid stems of ancient marine creatures that I’ve stumbled across—none of these, I fear, will save this land from the bulldozers. “If you see anything that looks like historic trash,” friends advised, “any chert, obsidian, or quartzite bits of stone on the ground, point them out. The bits of stone are probably lithic debitage, debris from stone toolmaking. Do you know of any historic building foundations out there? Odd depressions in the ground? Ask for a copy of the Bureau of Land Management’s search for historic homesteading.”
John and I wait for the Department’s archaeologist to arrive. He is a nice guy. Hiking the mapped realignment takes several hours. When I show him the artifacts I have gathered over the years—scrapers, chipping debris, fossils—he tells me, “Unless I find them in situ, they can’t go into the report.”
In situ. In place. Not moved from the original place of deposition. Like John’s Cherokee ancestors, forced to walk the Trail of Tears? Like the Lakota? Like Belvin and Lynda’s Navajo people? If only I could recruit a breeding pair of bald eagles to take up residence in a gangly ponderosa, or entice a few shy orchids like the threatened Ute Ladies’-tresses to bloom in the damp gullies.
John and I walk behind the archaeologist, side to side, across the breadth and length of the proposed route. He examines each rock I lift from the ground, shakes his head, and tosses it aside. We find no bones other than the ribcage of a deer, no burial site, no sinkholes filled with bison remains. I point toward the highest ridge. We hike there. I show him two cairns and one stone alignment.
“Lithic scatter,” he nods, “but no associated artifacts or charcoal staining.”
“Any chance they would stop the project?”
“No. Might even mean that the highway realignment moves deeper into your land. We’ll have to contact the appropriate tribes.”
By the time he drives away, I’m utterly discouraged. John understands my need to wander alone, to gaze at the expanse of virgin high grass prairie, to lay—heart to the ground—and weep.
Weeks later, the Department releases its environmental assessment report. On the tail of the assessment comes the FONSI—the Finding Of No Significant Impact report. “A bald eagle was observed eating carrion,” wrote the highway department biologists, “but no nests were seen.” The archaeologist writes that the cairn features “are sodded in, suggesting they are of prehistoric age.” The Threatened and Endangered Species section of the FONSI states, “Project not likely to adversely affect threatened or endangered species. No mitigation required.” The Paleontology section of the FONSI mentions in the fine print that there is “potential for impacts to fossil resources. On-site monitoring will be completed during construction.”
The last stone within my reach is the hope that bulldozers will pull from the once-unbroken land something deemed worthy of protecting.
The report concludes: “The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has determined that the Preferred Alternative—which will realign an approximate one-mile section of US 14—will have no significant impact on the human or natural environment.” The real estate appraiser hired by the Department states that the “highest and best use of the land is for development.”
I am slayed, speechless. The “highest and best use” of this land is to provide soil for the roots of needle-and-thread grasses, crested wheat, bluestem, golden aster, western flax, and Wyoming sagebrush, to provide a home for whitetail deer, sharp-tailed grouse, kestrels, and red-tails, antelopes, mountain lions, foxes, and coyotes. The best use for the land is to provide sloping hillsides and hidden trails for boys and girls.
After three years, the battle has been lost, the ground relinquished. There is no David and Goliath ending. “Thanks for fighting for the land, Mom,” my son and daughter console, “for all you’ve done to try and save it.”
I love the viewshed that will be destroyed—the way the eye flows from the clusters of low-growing burr oak to the open expanse of prairie, from the dark green pine-covered mountains to the deep washes of iron red earth. Millions of years of erosion have cut into these hillsides, leaving gullies and carving mini-canyons. The arroyos are as red and smooth as an earthen floor tamped down with animal blood by bare feet that know the contours of a land by heart.
Within a few months, more than a dozen boreholes mark the land—twenty, forty, sixty feet deep. Each pulls from the earth stories of her geological past, recorded in science-speak. Project: DR 41319. Potential Realignment. Log of Boring. Sample recovery. Blow count (in value). Vane Sheer. Unconfined. Water Content. Liquid Limit. Plasticity Index, slightly moist, silty clay with sand and minor gravel, medium stiff to stiff color change: dark brown to light brown to beige in the cuttings, silty clay to claystone with silty infillings: Mottled grey, yellow and brown; Iron staining min natural breaks harder with depth.
Nothing about this is natural.
At the next meeting, I stare at the engineer’s map, stretched across a six-foot conference table. The highway will pass directly over a deep gully where rain gathers to seep into a natural spring that flows downstream to a pond where animals water. The engineer points to a right-of-way that will cut a gouge into the earth “as large as a football field.”
I am mute. We do not even speak the same language.
I find solace in knowing that the stories I have written about this land will endure. Within the pages of those books, at least, the memories are safe.
Later, I find solace in knowing that the stories I have written about this land will endure. Within the pages of those books, at least, the memories are safe.
Bolstered, I pick up one last stone. I Google, “What is the lifespan of a road?” Pavement: 39 years. Sprayed seal surface: 26 years. Asphalt: 26 years. A mere blink of the eye! I sigh, relieved. It all comes into perspective. The land does not measure a span of time in years, but in eternities.
Page Lambert is a senior associate with the Children & Nature Network, member of the International League of Conservation Writers, and Rocky Mountain Land Library advisor. She has been writing about the landscape and leading nature retreats for twenty years. Her latest essay, “Mother Tongue,” appeared in the journal Sojourns: Landscapes for the People. Read more from Page Lambert.
Gunderson, M. A. (1988). Devils Tower: Stories in Stone. Glendo, WY: High Plains Press.
Greenhouse, L. (January 19, 1982). Sioux lose fight for land in Dakota. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Lambert, P. (1996). In Search of Kinship: Modern Pioneering on the Western Landscape. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.
Lambert, P. (2007). Birth, death, and renewal: Living heart to heart with the land. In L. Pritchett, R. Knight, & J. Lee (Eds.), Home Land: Ranching and a West That Works (pp. 149–159). Boulder, CO: Johnson Books.
Lambert, P. (2011). A shape-shifting land. In L. Stegner & R. Rowland (Eds.), West of 98 (pp. 203–207). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.