Coal Ash: Western Nebraska Health Hazard

On September 8th of 2018 I drove into the North Platte River Valley in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.  I was struck by the majesty and unique beauty of the area.  This was my first time visiting the area and, though very different from my home in Northern Colorado, I couldn’t wait to begin exploring the history and landscapes of the Western Nebraska Great Plains.

I crossed the North Platte River and saw Bald eagles perched in bare cottonwood trees while thousands of Canadian geese dotted small lakes and ponds along the river.

Crossing the river I noticed a large area to the Southeast that looked as though it had been stripped of all topsoil not far from the rivers edge.  

Heavy equipment was on the road and trucks were moving into the area following a frontend loader.  

Looking to the left a large plant rose from the horizon.  A tall billowing smoke stack rising to the sky and large mounds of material occupied a very large clear area beside ponds filled with water and hundreds of geese sitting on the side of a berms that surrounded the pond next to large tanks.  

I had no idea what I was looking at or the purpose of this plant but, I was stuck by the smell which had a unique stench, sweet but bitter, and it seemed to permeate every corner of my nostrils.  

Arriving to my guest home I immediately ask what the Plants purpose was, what did it produce? 

This is where my education of agriculture in western Nebraska began.

I was told that it was a sugar processing plant called Western Sugar Cooperative and it had been a mainstay for the economy of the farmers in the area for almost one hundred years by processing sugar beats into table sugar and other molasses products.

I didn’t have to endure the smell of the Plants emissions for very long that day.  The wind shifted to the east as the morning passed into afternoon and the offensive smell dissipated; some what.  

I was on my way to South Dakota the following day and noticed a significant difference in the air quality the further north I traveled out of the North Platte River Valley.  

A few days later I was expected back in Colorado and my companion and I made the reverse trip back into western Nebraska following Highway 72.

Approaching Scottsbluff the road follows a scenic route following ridge-lines of small canyons north of Scottsbluff.  A low hanging haze that seemed to stretch the length of the valley from the eastern side of Scottsbluff all the way to eastern side of Mitchell, Nebraska could be seen.  It was clear where the haze was coming from.  The haze ended at the Western Sugar Cooperative Plant on the east side of Scottsbluff.

The wind had shifted and the fumes being emitted from the Western Sugar Factory was blowing back to the west encapsulated in a thermal inversion above the valley floor.  

Locked between cold air at the bottom of the valley and colder air above the buttes this midlevel layer of warm air funneled the fumes, and smell, across the downtown district of Scottsbluff and west following the North Platte River.

Continuing into Scottsbluff the smell of processed sugar beets was strong but there was something else in the air I didn’t recognize.  It was a chemical smell like something burnt that you could taste in the air.  

I ask my companion if she could smell the difference in the air as we descended into the valley.  She couldn’t.  I could and I immediately noticed a low-grade headache beginning between my eyes.  

I left Scottsbluff the same day and found myself back in the valley two weeks later.  

On arriving near the North Platte River and HWY 72 I immediately noticed the smell and the low-grade headache as I approached the eastern side of the Western Sugar Factory. 

It was a windy day as it most always is in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming.  Winds often reach sustained speeds of 30 mph with higher gust. 

As I approached the East side of the Western Sugar Cooperative at HWY 72 and HWY 26 I could see clouds of black dust blowing in the wind, crossing the road, and landing in a pond on the east side of HWY 71.

I was returning to the valley to do a photoshoot on Campaign; the name given to the efforts of harvesting sugar beats and transporting them to Western Sugar Cooperative for processing.  

Campaign begins on October 6th and runs for two weeks.  During this time an all-out effort to harvest the sugar beats as quickly as possible, day and night, twenty-four hours a day happens among farmers to beat the cold temperatures of October that halt the process of sugar production inside the sugar beat; yielding more sugar per plant and more money for the farmer.  

My job was to document the process beginning in the fields and ending at the Plant detailing the evolution of table sugar in a photo-essay.  

I made arrangements to meet with a representative of Western Sugar Cooperative who took me around the plant detailing the operations and stages of production.  

While driving through the southeast side of the plant where sugar beats are off-loaded onto beat stackers I ask my guide what the large black mound of material was.  He said is was Coal ash; the left over material from firing coal to heat boilers in the plant to process the sugar beats. 

He then went on to say that the Plant was currently over-stocked with coal ash and was attempting to remedy what to do with the material.   

Having worked with environmental issues over the span of my carrier I knew the dangers of Coal ash and ask him why the pile wasn’t covered with tarps.  He couldn’t answer my questions and side-stepped the issue the moment he realized I was interested in learning more about how Western Sugar Cooperative was stock-piling the toxic material.

We left the area and traveled to other areas of the Plant.  I ask to return to the pile of Coal ash so I could make some images but was denied access.

I finished the essay that day and returned back home in northern Colorado.

A few weeks later I arrived back in the area and once again my senses were assaulted by the smell of the Western Sugar Cooperative factory cranking out fumes, heat and steam from valves around the plant.  

On the drive into the valley I witnessed the coal ash blowing in the wind, again.  It’s then that I decided to look into the operations of Western Sugar Cooperative.  

I had mentioned to a few people that I was thinking about doing a story on the subject but was quickly told that I should avoid it all together for fear of hurting the cooperative and the people that worked there. Some people even told me that loosing the Sugar Plant would turn Scottsbluff into a ghost-town as if a small story on the handling of the Coal ash would have an effect on the multi-million dollar Corporation.

I shelved the idea in 2018 and into 2019 and settled into being oblivious, overlooking and accepting the Scottsbluff social status quo for fear of upsetting the apple cart.  

That lasted until 2020 when after waking to my girlfriend coughing violently, repeatedly, every morning for almost an hour, I decided to try and do something about it.  I thought I knew why she was coughing.  In my opinion it was the coal ash blowing in the wind in one of the many thermal inversions that blanket the North Platte River Valley. 

I considered this as an answer because when we left the valley on a trip she wouldn’t cough for days until we returned to Scottsbluff, NE.

I looked into complaints against Western Sugar Cooperative via the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality which I contacted to acquire the DEQ number assigned to the Cooperative.  I was looking for Coal ash noncompliance but I found so much more.

I reviewed many issues regarding Western Sugar Cooperative and the failings to contain, and clean-up, everything from water to molasses spills and failing inspections. In one letter Western Sugar Cooperative found fault in the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality procedures which they considered to be unfair. They went on to reversed the blame stating that the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality efforts were “pushy”.

Sadly, the local newspaper doesn’t, or is afraid to, report on the noncompliance of Western Sugar Cooperative or environmental spills even when the spill shuts down a road in the City of Scottsbluff.

Then I came across a lawsuit in which Western Sugar Cooperative was fined for illegally stock-piling Coal ash and noise pollution at their Fort Morgan location by the state of Colorado in which they were fined over 2 million dollars.  No one was willing to speak to me at Western Sugar Cooperative when I called them for comment.   

My efforts to try and understand why Western Sugar Cooperative is allowed to stock-pile over 500,000 tons of highly toxic and dangerous Coal ash have gone unanswered to date and I have no idea as to why the residents of Scottsbluff, NE continue to overlook the environmental threat from the Western Sugar Cooperative.

Be aware of the black pile of material at the Western Sugar Cooperative and know that it’s hazardous to your health. Consider wearing a mask when driving by the location especially on the East side of the plant.

About Coal Ash

Coal ash, also referred to as coal combustion residuals (CCRs), is produced from burning coal in coal-fired power plants.  Coal ash includes a number of by-products produced from burning coal, including:

Fly Ash, a very fine, powdery material composed mostly of silica made from the burning of finely ground coal in a boiler.

Bottom Ash, a coarse, angular ash particle that is too large to be carried up into the smoke stacks so it forms in the bottom of the coal furnace.

Boiler Slag, molten bottom ash from slag tap and cyclone type furnaces that turns into pellets that have a smooth glassy appearance after it is cooled with water.

Flue Gas Desulfurization Material, a material leftover from the process of reducing sulfur dioxide emissions from a coal-fired boiler that can be a wet sludge consisting of calcium sulfite or calcium sulfate or a dry powered material that is a mixture of sulfites and sulfates.

Coal Ash is hazardous. Coal Ash is waste. According to the EPA, Coal ash is not “Hazardous Waste.” But, it’s extremely hazardous to human health.

Coal ash contains heavy metals including arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, as well as aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, thallium, vanadium, and zinc.

If eaten, drunk or inhaled, these toxicants can cause cancer and nervous system impacts such as cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems. 

They can also cause heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.

Environmental Noncompliance

You can view all of Western Sugar Cooperative’s noncompliance, fines, and transactions with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality by visiting this webpage and entering the DEQ Facility Number in any field.  

Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality
Western Sugar Cooperative DEQ Facility Number #44141
https://ecmp.nebraska.gov/publicaccess/viewer.aspx?MyQueryID=340

The site references .PDF files and will take a few moments to load into your web browser.

|| REFERENCES

Fort Morgan Times
Western Sugar Fined 2 Million Dollars by State of Colorado

United States of America Environmental Protection Agency
https://www.epa.gov/coalash/coal-ash-basics

Climate Change and the Plight of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog

The Great Plains encompasses the entirety of Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, parts of Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming. Each state offers ecoregions and ecosystems unto themselves and each is unique.

As you approach the North Platte River Valley, deep canyons of rolling grassland seem to swallow the horizon while large buttes rise more than 800 feet from the valley floor, defining the history of the region layer-by-layer. Windblown deposited silt, sand, and volcanic ash created this unique landscape with the help of wide winding rivers and floods over 32 million years.

The land is uniquely tied to the wildlife that live here. Animals, insects, birds, and reptiles making their permeant homes on the Great Plains have evolved to take advantage of scarcity in the grasslands. They’ve become specialists with the ability to use limited resources offered by the habitat, yet each is interdependent on the others’ survival.

With the introduction of agriculture on the Great Plains, the landscape began to change. Loss of habitat, encroachment, the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, the introduction of coal as a fuel for boilers in processing plants, which produces extremely toxic coal ash and reduces air quality, the damming of rivers, and the rerouting of water supplies have had a impact on the diversity of the landscape.

A prime example is the plight of the Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), which inhabits shortgrass prairie, mixed-grass prairie, sagebrush steppe, and desert grassland.

Black-tailed prairie dogs are “ecosystem engineers” and are a “keystone species” in most geographic areas, especially the northern Great Plains, by enhancing the diversity of vegetation, vertebrates, and invertebrates through foraging and burrowing and by their presence as prey items, which supports a much higher biodiversity than grasslands not occupied by them.

Hundreds of species of vertebrates and invertebrates are associated with black-tailed prairie dog colonies, which commonly occur near rivers and creeks.

||| THE BIODIVERSITY OF THE SHORT GRASS PRAIRIES IS AT RISK

West of the Missouri River in Montana, more than 100 species of vertebrate fauna in prairie habitats rely on black-tailed prairie dog colonies for food, nesting, and denning. Rare and endangered species, such as the Black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), the swift fox (Vulpes velox), Mountain plover (Charadrius montanus), and the Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) are directly associated with prairie dog colonies.

Because their foraging activities keep plant development suppressed, which increases higher plant nutritional values, herbivores, including Red deer (Cervus elaphus), American bison (Bison bison), Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), and domestic cattle prefer foraging in black-tailed prairie dog colonies.

However, the biodiversity in shortgrass prairies is currently at risk due to the reductions in distribution and occurrence of black-tailed prairie dogs due to farmers and ranchers viewing them as pests and the deliberate poisoning of and/or, colony members being used as sport targets in shooting matches (unregulated eradication), fragmenting the colony and leaving it vulnerable to Sylvatic plague. As a result of habitat fragmentation and unregulated prairie dog eradication programs, colonies are now smaller and more fragmented than in presettlement times, reducing their habitat to 2% of its former range over the last 75 years. As prairie dogs continue to decline, so does the myriad wildlife that benefit from prairie dog colonies.

Prior to the beginning of black-tailed prairie dog habitat destruction, the species may have been the most abundant prairie dog in central North America and was one of two described by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the expedition’s journals and diaries.

||| HOW DO WE SAVE THE BLACK-TAILED PRARIE DOG?

Shooting or poisoning Black-tailed prairie dogs offers few long term solutions to managing existing colonies though it is the impulse for most farmers and ranchers wanting to rid themselves of the prairie dogs’ presence.

Because prairie dogs hesitate to make homes in or go through tall grass, creating tall-grass buffers between prairie dog colonies and adjacent private properties is one way to keep prairie dogs out of where they are not wanted without resorting to killing them.

Growing tall grass is difficult in areas frequented by grazing livestock, but if the grass is placed along the outside of an electric fence the area becomes less accessible to the prairie dog and a micro-habitat for birds, insects, and other wildlife.

Relocation rather than poisoning of prairie dogs from conflict areas to core areas that are fully protected is another solution which, in the past, has paid off when the effort to dig starter-burrows is made to help them establish new homes and cover.

||| GET POLITICLY INVOLVED

The Endangered Species Act is our country’s most essential environmental law protecting imperiled plants and animals, yet some members of Congress want to weaken the law. Contact your Congress person and tell them that you value native wildlife and want to see all imperiled species protected.

Article & Photographs by: Hawk Buckman
Published: June 13, 2020

| REFERENCES

The information in this article has been compiled from:

United States Parks Resources.

Finding the Location of the Horse Creek Treaty

The Great Plains were home to many tribes for countless generations. They lived and hunted all along the prairie, sometimes warred with neighboring tribes. In the mid-1800s, they began witnessing mass migrations of white men through their respective territories. The once quiet, barren prairie saw emigrants traveling along overland trails while trading posts and military forts began to dot the lands of the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho and other smaller tribes.

This encroachment onto their territory worried the tribes. The white man had originally assured the tribes they had no intention to settle. They were merely passing through on their journey west. At first, the tribes stayed away from the trails. It had nothing to do with them and the people were not staying. This quickly changed as the white man’s will began to press down on the tribes’ way of life. Clashes and skirmishes arose. As tensions began to rise, so did calls for a peaceful solution.

Between 1846 and 1851, many parties, including Indian agents, mountain men, fur traders, and missionaries pushed the U.S. government to negotiate safe passage through American Indian land. Former Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thomas Harvey argued, “a trifling compensation for this right of way” would secure a friendship between American Indians and the white man, who were competing for the few resources along the westward trails.

In early 1851, the U.S. Congress authorized a great treaty council with the Plains Indians in the hopes of finding a peaceful solution. Several tribes were invited to Fort Laramie for a meeting on Sept. 1. More than 10,000 Plains Indians (men, women, and children) gathered for the the historic signing of a the treaty, which detailed the rights and responsibilities of the American Indians and the U.S. Government. It was the largest tribal gathering ever recorded.

Fort Laramie could not support the large group, as well as an estimated 30,000 horses in need of a place to forage. The location was moved to Horse Creek about 30 miles east of Fort Laramie, just east of the present-day Wyoming-Nebraska border. The site is at the mouth of Horse Creek on the North Platte River, near the treaty grounds of the first Red Cloud Agency, which would be established for the Oglala Sioux in 1871.

The change in location has led to confusion over the treaty’s name. Regardless of whether it is referred to as the Horse Creek Treaty or the official Fort Laramie Treaty, its outcome was significant and fraught with setbacks.

American Indian camps were also spread out, covering an estimated five miles worth of prairie. Despite the desire to live in peace, many tribes had been warring with each other for generations. Giving each tribe its own space during the treaty, ensured minimal contact and a lesser chance for conflict.

Discussions took some time as issues of supplies and gifts for the tribes did not arrive in a timely manner. According to the National Park Service, there was “a cholera outbreak on the steamboat bringing supplies; delays with the 27 supply wagons bringing food to the treaty site; reduced overall funding for the treaty; a military escort cut from 1,000 to 300 men; and, while en route, the Cheyenne attacked and killed two Shoshone warriors.”

During this delay, lists were drawn up of the men in charge in each tribe to make distributing the items, or gifts, easier once they did arise. After the gifts arrived and were distributed, the “long talk” began. The Plains Indians began to express their concerns.

They worried about the increase in emigrants passing through their lands. Their grasslands and feeding grounds were dying from the relentless stomping of animals – cattle, horses, oxen – grinding away at the ground as emigrants traveled west. Wagon wheels cut deep ruts into the ground, destroying vital feeding areas for the tribes’ animals.

Young warriors wanted to fight. Their lands had been violated and they wanted revenge. Tribal elders hoped a treaty could keep the peace as well as protect their people and the land. Most of all, the American Indians wanted to be left alone to take care of themselves.

The treaty was signed on Sept. 17, 1851. It consisted of eight articles, outlining the rights and responsibilities of the tribes and the federal government. It essentially read, “leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone.”

American Indians were guaranteed of their right to hunt, travel, and live within their ancient boundaries as well as promised government protection of their land. The tribes gave the government the right to build forts along the trail and assured the government all travelers on the trail would be provided safe passage.

The tribes had to pay restitution for any wrongdoing of their people against the white man. A head chief of each nation was to be chosen as a representative of the entire nation to speak on their behalf to U.S. Government agents. Tribes were also to cease fighting among themselves. The United States was to protect American Indians from U.S. citizens and provide annuities.

The United States was to provide $50,000 per year for 10 years, with the right to continue for an additional five years, “in provisions, merchandise, domestic animals, and agricultural implements, in such proportions as may be deemed best adapted to their condition by the President of the United States, to the distributed in proportion to the population of the aforesaid Indian nations.”

If any tribe violated the conditions, the government could withhold, in whole or part, the items as described in Article 7 until the President of the United States had changed his mind. The government only ever made one payment.

The treaty was signed and ratified by the Senate on May 24, 1852 with one major change. The annuity was reduced to $10,000 per year for 10 years, subject to the acceptance of the tribes. All tribes except the Crow agreed. According to the National Park Service, “The treaty was never published as ratified in the U. S. Statutes at Large; consequently, there has been some discussion concerning its validity.”

The treaty was in trouble from the day it was signed. There were not enough interpreters available and no one knew if the tribes understood the treaty, which was written in English.

Gregory Michno wrote in “The Indian Trail of Broken Treaties,” that the Lakota almost immediately attacked the Crow, “invaded their lands in what would become Wyoming and Montana, moved in and drove them out. The Cheyennes joined in the attacks in 1853.”

The federal government failed to prevent migration of gold miners, including along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming, into American Indian territories in Montana and Colorado. The government did not enforce the treaty to keep out emigrants so Red Cloud, an Oglala Lakota, said he would continue to fight travelers and those on the Army posts until the road was closed.

The U.S. Army established military posts on Sioux lands, a violation of the treaty, and the Sioux harassed the posts and demanded they be removed.

There were also several massacres, most notably, the Grattan Massacre in 1854 and the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864.

Hunkpapa Lakota chief Running Antelope killed four Arikaras in 1853. In 1855, the Assiniboines and the Lakotas fought several times. Tribes had fought before the treaty, but historians attribute this continued fighting to the white settlers and government agents who encroached on Indian lands, killing hundreds of thousands of bison each year.

The reduction of hunting grounds and mass bison killings forced tribes to move into each others’ territories in search of food.

After 1864, the government engaged in warfare against the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho as the desire for more land increased. The breakdown of the 1851 treaty is often pointed to as a contributing factor to the Indian Wars of the 1870s to the 1890s.

The treaty was renegotiated as the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. This new treaty was also doomed to fail as gold was soon found on Sioux land in the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota.

The Horse Creek Treaty Roadside Marker is located one mile west of Morrill, Nebraska, on Highway 26. Horse Creek flows into the North Platte river beyond the treeline about 2 ¾ miles in front of the marker.

Tribes in attendance: Oglala Sioux, Brule Sioux, Cheyenne, Assiniboin, Mandan, Gros Ventre, Arapahoe, Crow, Hidatsa, Arikara, Snake, Rees. The Shoshone also attended although they were not formally invited. The Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache refused to attend because Ft. Laramie was in Sioux territory.

U.S. Government Representatives in attendance: Thomas Fitzpatrick (Fur trader and Indian Agent to the Sioux) appointed by the President, David D. Mitchell (Superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis) appointed by President Millard Fillmore (1850-1853), Jesuit Father Jean-Pierre De Smet (beloved “black robe” who worked 50 years among the Indians), Jim Bridger (Mountain man and explorer), John C. Fremont (surveyor and explorer), and 300 soldiers.

Treaty Signers: Signing on behalf of the United States were David D. Mitchell and Thomas Fitzpatrick, both appointed and authorized by the President of the United States. Signing for the Indian nations were 21 chiefs, including White Antelope (Cheyenne), Little Owl (Arapaho), Big Robber (Crow) and Conquering Bear (Sioux).

Chiefs from the Assiniboin, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara also signed. Although they had traveled more than 400 miles to attend, the Shoshone were not asked to sign because they were not Plains Indians.

Photography by: Hawk Buckman
Published January 24, 2021

| REFERENCES

The information in this article has been compiled from:

Michno, Gregory (2006). “The Indian Trail of Broken Treaties” (PDF). Wild West. p. 40.
Report to the President by the Indian Peace Commission, January 7, 1868
Wikipedia: The Treaty of Fort Laramie, 1851
The Treaty of Fort Laramie, 1851
The Treaties of Fort Laramie, 1851 and 1868
Treaties and Broken Promises: 1851-1877
Treaty of 1851

 

Signal Butte – Nebraska’s Lost Archeological Treasure

Signal Butte
Signal Butte

The North Platte River basin is often considered one of the last western frontiers to tourist and visitors arriving in western Nebraska as they visit the Oregon, California and Mormon trails and take in the deep western heritage found in the valley and surrounding areas of Wyobraska. Considerations are not given to the prehistoric occupants of the Great Plains. But, they were here and they were the first peoples to occupy the Platte River Valley 5,000 years BCE in the Middle Lithic Period, the earliest period of human occupation in the Americas.

In 1931, a local amateur archaeologist, Thomas L. Green (1884-1954), notified William Duncan Strong (1899–1962) of the University of Nebraska Archaeological Survey of the discovery of points, tools and hammer-stones he found near a butte west of Gering, Nebraska while exploring the area.

Thomas L. Green – Scottsbluff, NE – Photographer Unknown
Thomas L. Green – Scottsbluff, NE – Photographer Unknown

Green, the President of Platte Valley State Bank at the time, was a successful businessman and community leader in Scotts Bluff County, had taken up archaeology as a hobby, spending weekends scouting the countryside for Native American artifacts.

As a public figure, Green was active in civic organizations, including the Scottsbluff Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club, but he devoted most of his energies to promoting local history. He took charge of the Nebraska Chapter of the American Pioneer Trails Association and served on the board of the Nebraska State Historical Society. An amateur historian, he wrote a handful of articles on forts, trading posts and buffalo hunting for the society’s quarterly magazine.

Green’s fascination with the frontier led him farther back in time. According to his own account, he launched his self-directed study of Nebraska’s history with nineteenth-century pioneer farmers, moved next to fur-trappers, then continued on to sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadors. But what came before recorded history, he wondered. Looking for an answer, he took up archaeology as a hobby and spent weekends scouting the countryside around Scottsbluff.

After notifying Strong about his findings, Green made all the local arrangements for Strong’s brief expedition in 1931. Green, Strong, Waldo Rudolph Wedel (1908-1996), and Asa A.T. Hill, formed the inner circle of the Nebraska State Archaeological Survey. they and others from the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology, founded by John Wesley Powell in 1879, began excavations in 1931 at what became known as Signal Butte, the oldest American Indian archaeological site on the Great Plains.

Arriving in western Nebraska in 1931, Strong met with Green in Gering and began their journey toward the dig site to the west of Robidoux Pass. After arriving at the site, Strong must have began to understand the colossal effort that would have to be undertaken to excavate the top of the butte. Being an adventurous man who enjoyed reading adventure books and western tales, he was not daunted by the 125-foot climb necessary to ascend the promontory as its circumference was blocked by 20 to 50 foot escarpments consisting of sand, silt, ash and limestone on all sides.

William Duncan Strong was born on January 30, 1899 in Portland, Oregon. He received his B.A. degree in 1923, and his Ph.D. in 1926 from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Strong’s interest in anthropology developed under the influence of Dr. A.L. Kroeber, a student of Dr. Franz Boas. Photographer Unknown
William Duncan Strong was born on January 30, 1899 in Portland, Oregon. He received his B.A. degree in 1923, and his Ph.D. in 1926 from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Strong’s interest in anthropology developed under the influence of Dr. A.L. Kroeber, a student of Dr. Franz Boas. Photographer Unknown

Ropes and ladders were used to transport hand tools, screen frames and essentials for labor which had to be carried to the top on the backs of the work crews. Water was hand-delivered to the top for digging purposes and to keep the crews hydrated. After a long day of digging, the crews were resupplied. They ate and camped at a flat encampment area at the bottom of the butte near a field road leading to the base of the promontory.

Strong led the investigations of the butte in 1931 and briefly in 1932 on a return visit to close out his research from the previous year. While digging in the heat of the Nebraska day using screens, shovels, hand tools and brushes, artifacts were unearthed. After cutting a 13-foot vertical cross section in the west side of the top of the butte, three separate levels of artifacts were revealed, including signs of repeated habitation. Before leaving to return to Lincoln, Strong, a confident and driven man, was inclined to leave his work tools, shovels and screens on top of the butte believing another company would return to the promontory and continue further excavations. It wasn’t until after the end of WWII that a Smithsonian Institute Archaeological Survey crew returned to the butte and found the tools Strong had left behind. The tools, screens, shovels, brushes and other accompaniments brought by the first expedition to the butte are still there today.

Strong was known for comparing an archaeological site to a document, which is how he treated the dig site at Single Butte. In his article “Signal Butte, a Prehistoric Narrative on the High Plains,” he described stratigraphie layers as “chapters in a book” relating the “story of early man in the western plains,” in each deepening layer of matrix.

Materials and artifacts collected at Signal Butte were some of the first to be radiocarbon dated.

Along with these verbal images, Strong portrayed archaeology as historical scholarship in three dimensions through visual images. In a photograph of Signal Butte, he said, “The clean, straight walls of the excavation trench recalled an aisle in a library.” Later, in “Nebraska Archaeology,” he carefully detailed the stratigraphie techniques used to excavate the site, layer by layer, square by square.

After extensive excavation on the site using these techniques as a guide, Strong’s crew discovered the first three- to six-inch layer of artifacts (Ceramic Period) of the Dismal River and Upper Republican cultures. This six-inch layer showed fire pits, storage pits, scrapers, knives, drills, projectile points, animal bones, pottery shards and mussel shells.

Digging further, Strong’s crews arrived at the second level, the Pre-Woodland, Intermediate Lithic Period about 1500 BCE, where many delicate and beautifully made points, including quartz crystal points, were discovered.

The lowest level, about 2 ½ feet, showed evidence of an organized hunting complex during the early Lithic Period (the earliest period of human occupation in the Americas), 5,000 to 3,000 years BCE. The artifacts were found in a layer 12-32 inches thick, resting on a gravel bed.

Single Butte represents an area used repeatedly, passed down, across multiple traditions and cultures over the course of 5,000 years. Evidence shows Palio-Indians, the Dismal River Culture (forefathers of the plains Apache) and tribes, including the Arapahoe, Pawnee, Cheyenne and Sioux used the area as a hunting ground, hunting camp and work shops where meat and plants were processed.

If not for Thomas Green, who contributed a great deal of information, time, money and energy to discovering Palio and Modern American Indian history in Wyobraska, Signal Butte would simply be another obscure, yet picturesque, butte rising out of the Great Plains. Green remained an influential figure in the community until his death in 1954.

After Thomas Green assisted W.D. Strong with the excavation(s) of Signal Butte he gave a speech to the Scottsbluff Chapter of the Nebraska Historical Society in which he eloquently explained the deep appeal of local history. He said in contrast to the remoteness of world history, local history was, “very real and personal and living.”

It offered a sense of connectedness, he told his Scottsbluff neighbors, because it showed “you are dwelling where others have dwelt before you back through long ages. And where others will dwell after you are gone through ages to come.” Then, with the realization “you yourself are a tiny link,” the story became “really and truly your own.” Green’s legacy is often forgotten, or not even known, but his contributions has paved the way for a better understanding of Wyobraska’s history and its future.

Article & Photography by: Hawk Buckman

The information in this article has been compiled from:

Smithsonian Institute Archives

North Platte Valley Museum now Legacy of the Plains Museum, including the Paul Henderson collection.
The History of Scotts Bluff Nebraska (Archeology), and Nebraska State Historical Society’s “Exploring Nebraska Archeology: High Plains Archeology.”

Photograph of Signal Butte (1934) : Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 12-492 [SIA2012-6561], Created by United States National Museum, “Signal Butte, Nebraska, the Oldest Indian Site on the Great Plains”, SIA2012-6561

Frontier Stories: Reading and Writing Plains Archaeology by Melody Herr

University of Nebraska Archaeology Dept.

Legacy of the Plains Museum, Gering, Nebraska | E. S. Wood collection of Indian projectile points, and other artifacts, found in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.

 

Conservation of Endangered Species

Bald eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus (captive)
Bald eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus (captive)

An endangered species is an animal or plant that’s considered at risk of extinction. A species can be listed as endangered at the state, federal, and international level. On the federal level, the endangered species list is managed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted by Congress in 1973. Under the ESA, the federal government has the responsibility to protect endangered species (species that are likely to become extinct throughout all or a large portion of their range), threatened species (species that are likely to become endangered in the near future), and critical habitat (areas vital to the survival of endangered or threatened species).

The Endangered Species Act has lists of protected plant and animal species both nationally and worldwide. When a species is given ESA protection, it is said to be a “listed” species. Many additional species are evaluated for possible protection under the ESA, and they are called “candidate” species.

Why We Protect Them

The Endangered Species Act is very important because it saves our native fish, plants, and other wildlife from going extinct. Once gone, they’re gone forever, and there’s no going back. Losing even a single species can have disastrous impacts on the rest of the ecosystem, because the effects will be felt throughout the food chain. From providing cures to deadly diseases to maintaining natural ecosystems and improving overall quality of life, the benefits of preserving threatened and endangered species are invaluable.

ESA Protection
Once a species becomes listed as “threatened” or “endangered,” it receives special protections by the federal government. Animals are protected from “take” and being traded or sold. A listed plant is protected if on federal property or if federal actions are involved, such as the issuing of a federal permit on private land.

The term “take” is used in the Endangered Species Act to include “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” The law also protects against interfering in vital breeding and behavioral activities or degrading critical habitat.

The primary goal of the Endangered Species Act is to make species’ populations healthy and vital so they can be delisted from the Endangered Species Act. Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service oversees the listing and protection of all terrestrial animals and plants as well as freshwater fish. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service oversees marine fish and wildlife. The two organizations actively invest time and resources to help bring endangered or threatened species back from the brink of extinction.

How a Species Gets Listed

When the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service is investigating the health of a species, they look at scientific data collected by local, state, and national scientists. In order to be listed as a candidate, a species has to qualify for protected status under the Endangered Species Act. Whether or not a species is listed as endangered or threatened then depends on a number of factors, including the urgency and whether adequate protections exist through other means.

When deciding whether a species should be added to the Endangered Species List, the following criteria are evaluated:

  • Has a large percentage of the species’ vital habitat been degraded or destroyed?
  • Has the species been over-consumed by commercial, recreational, scientific or educational uses?
  • Is the species threatened by disease or predation?
  • Do current regulations or legislation inadequately protect the species?
  • Are there other man-made factors threatening the long-term survival of the species?
  • If the answer to one or more of the above questions is yes, then the species can be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Success Stories


Bald Eagle Fishing in Canada by Larry Parish

North American Bald eagle (Lincoln). Lincoln was injured in a accident when he was young and broke his wing so severely that he was not able to be released back into the wild. Thanks to the efforts of the Scottsbluff Zoo in Scottsbluff, NE, Lincoln has been able to live out his life in the relative safety of his caretakers. Plans are to mate Lincoln when an available partner is found.
Assignment Photo ©2020 Hawk Buckman

In the 1960s, a mere 500 bald eagles could be found soaring across America’s lower 48 states.

Dangerous pesticides and chemicals, released into bald eagle habitats, thinned the shells of their eggs, killing their young. By the late 1960s, only 400 breeding pairs of bald eagles were found in the lower 48 states.

The outlook was not good for our national symbol. Thanks to the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, bald eagle numbers have rebounded to more than 7,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles today.

Captive breeding programs, habitat protection, and a ban on DDT (a chemical compound used to kill insects) contributed to the successful recovery of this American symbol.

The species has made an astounding comeback thanks to the amazing work of American citizens, businesses, scientists and the U.S. government. These diverse groups came together to help protect bald eagles under the authority of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Florida Panther

Florida Panther: A 1989 census indicated that the Florida panther population had dropped to between 30 to 50 individuals. This decline was the result of habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Today, the species population is still below 100 individuals, but without Endangered Species Act protections the panther would likely be extinct. These protections include captive breeding, habitat protection, wildlife underpass construction and the introduction of Texas cougars to prevent inbreeding.

Gray Wolf

Gray Wolf: Gray wolves once ranged across the entire North American continent. However, as a result of poisoning and trapping by ranchers, farmers, and government agents, by the mid-20th century only a few hundred of the species remained in the entire lower 48 states. Today, thanks to Endangered Species Act protections, more than 2,500 wolves reside in Minnesota, roughly 500 wolves in Wisconsin and Michigan, and another 500 individuals in western states. The gray wolf’s success is a result of stimulated efforts such as public education about the species, habitat restoration, wolf introduction into various areas, and compensation of ranchers for livestock killed by wolves.

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear: Within the lower 48 states, grizzly bear populations have been reduced to a mere two percent of their former range due to a combination of excessive hunting, conversion of habitat to human uses and fragmentation of habitat caused by such things as extensive networks of logging roads. Grizzly bears were brought under federal management when they were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. At that time fewer than 250 bears occupied the Yellowstone area. Since then, the coordinated efforts of state and federal agencies, conservation organizations and private citizens have increased this population to more than 600 bears. In addition to the Yellowstone grizzlies, approximately 600 bears occupy habitat in the lower 48 states, including portions of Glacier National Park and adjacent areas in Montana and in northern Washington adjacent to the Canadian border.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon: A 1964 survey found that peregrine falcons did not inhabit a single cliff in the eastern United States or Canadian maritime provinces. By 1970, a mere 10 to 20 percent of the historical falcon population remained, due to egg and nestling collection, intentional shooting and DDT use. Endangered Species Act protections for the falcon included captive breeding, preventing human disturbances to nesting and protection and enhancement of critical breeding and wintering habitat. As a result, populations are thriving. The species was delisted in 1999, and today there are more than 1,400 breeding pairs of peregrines in North America.

Red Cockaded Woodpecker

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker: In the 1960s, a study predicted that the red-cockaded woodpecker would become extinct due to logging, deforestation and fire suppression. Fewer than 15,000 of these birds survive in about one percent of its former range. Thanks to the Act, restrictions were placed on habitat destruction and since 1995, more than 500,000 acres of private lands have been enrolled in conservation programs, leading the woodpecker toward recovery.

Endangered Species Day

Endangered Species Day, which falls on the third Friday in May each year, is a day to celebrate endangered species success stories and learn about species still in danger. Learn what the National Wildlife Federation is doing to protect endangered species and how to support Endangered Species Day.

Mentally Forgotten

Shaky hands and body tremors force Dan to one side as he brings the scone to his lips.
Shaky hands and body tremors force Dan to one side as he brings the scone to his lips.

A Photo-essay for Public Awareness & Compassion for The Homeless, Displaced, Mentally Ill, Suffering and Forgotten

Snow covered the ground on the Front Range when I stopped into the Linden Street Cafe (now closed) in Old Town Fort Collins, CO. The snow was coming down and piling on the road and sidewalk. Looking through the windows of the cafe as I pulled up to the parking space I saw that people were warm, eyes glued to phones and laptop computers enjoying coffee and scones. Excited for a warm cup of coffee and breakfast, I grabbed my camera bag out of the car and was about to reach for the doorknob and go inside when I heard a noise that sounded like the scuffling of boots. I looked up from the doorway and around the corner to see a dressed man in a wheelchair pulling his way through the deep snow on the sidewalk with one foot. One quick glance and it was easy to deduce that he was freezing, his hands numb with pain.

 I wanted to help this man but I hesitated not knowing if he would find my offer to be offensive, degrading or if it would embarrass him. Our eyes locked for a few seconds. In those seconds, which seemed like an eternity, his desperation revealed itself.

 Finding the courage to speak I said “Good morning. I was just about to have a cup of coffee and some breakfast in the cafe. Would you like to join me? My treat!”

Looking up from his hands he agreed. Taking the reins of his wheelchair, I escorted him inside the cafe to a table near the front windows to find a temporary reprieve from the cold and some comfort in a hot meal.

 Through slurred speech, as I pushed chairs out of the way to make room for his wheelchair, he introduced himself as Dan. I sat down across from him just as the waitress came over. I ordered both of us large coffees, water, and some menus while she watched Dan out of the corner of her eye with a condescending look.

Shaky hands and body tremors force Dan to one side as he brings the scone to his lips.
Shaky hands and body tremors force Dan to one side as he brings the scone to his lips.

 Ignoring the pretentiousness of our host I turned my attention back to Dan. With jerky, uncontrollable gestures, he tried to rub his hands together to generate heat in his fingertips. After watching this for a few seconds I realized what I assumed was dirt on his hands and fingers was Frostbite from being out in the freezing temperatures. But, the motions of his hands couldn’t be from Frostbite alone. Something else was effecting his hands and movements.

Our judgmental host arrived with the coffees and menus placing them in front of both of us. Dan reached for his coffee and picked up the cup and set it in front of him.

 Hands shaking, he reached for the sugar packets. As he tried to open the packet he dropped it. He mumbled something which I didn’t understand and attempted to pick up the packet once more. This time he was successful at opening the packet and getting the contents into the cup. As he reached for a spoon to stir the liquid he looked up at me and said he is suffering from Multiple Sclerosis through throaty speech. I nodded and reached for the spoon and stirred his coffee for him.

Breakfast arrived and Dan and I connected over eggs, toast, and bacon. He told me it was the first hot meal he had enjoyed in over a week. He’d been sustaining himself on a diet of protein bars, water, and sodas because they were inexpensive and gave him a good excuse to enter a 24/7 convenience store to get warm at night. His routine of panhandling in Old Town would pay out around $20.00 dollars per day, more during tourist seasons, from generous passersby on his corner at Mountain Ave and College – a popular area for the homeless street performers to perform, try and sell art or trade goods.

 Looking at this man sitting across from me in tattered, inadequate winter clothing, unshaven, ungroomed, dirty and emotionally damaged, I understood the plight of the homeless in a way that I had never considered before.

 As Dan sat enjoying his meal, he told me the story of how he started his journey on streets of Fort Collins, CO. With a gleam in his eyes he recited that as a young man he had earned a Masters degree in Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  After graduating he went to work for a large engineering and architectural firm in New York City, NY.

 He got married to the love of his life – a waitress from a local coffee shop in Queens he visited just to see her in the afternoons even when he didn’t want, or need, a coffee. One day he mustered the courage to ask her on a date. They fell in love and married two years later. Five years later, out of the blue, his wife left him for another woman taking everything and discarding what she didn’t want leaving him heartbroken and suffering from PTSD.

 He struggled on and continued working trying to rebuild his life seeking mental health counseling. Then, in an unprecedented downward turn, he had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Upon learning of his condition, the company he worked for terminated his position citing internal policy and structural changes that cost him his insurance. He was issued severance pay and lived on his savings for over a year but then the healthcare bills arrived.

 The cost of his medication to control his condition was enormous. With no support, nowhere to turn and no family Dan chooses to self medicate with Cannabis to control the tremors in his body which science has proven to be successful in repeated controlled studies.

 Dan arrived in Colorado in 2017 to escape the persecution of the laws in other non-medical and recreational Cannabis states. He worked at a restaurant for a time but when his condition worsened he was let go – forcing him onto the streets and into homelessness.

 Dan and I sat in the cafe for a little over two hours enjoying each other’s company much to the chagrin of our pretentious, judgmental waitress who glanced at us occasionally from across the room suggesting that it was past time for us to leave.

 During that time any preconceived notions that I had about the plight of the homeless flew out the windows of my mind. I gave Dan a sum of money that would help him sustain himself for a solid month even though I didn’t have it to spare. I did so because I realized that one day I could be in Dan’s position and if it were to happen the things I would need from the humanity would be, understanding, someone to listen, someone to care and money to help me prevail against all the odds raging against me.

 Ironically, five months later I found myself in a similar condition which lead to me taking on a project that documented the plight of the homeless, the emotionally scarred and the mentally forgotten.

 The project is ongoing. I feel confident I’ll never stop trying to inform and educate the plight of the homeless to those who, like me at one time, harbored preconceived notions about other human beings in dire circumstances.

“A home, or not, we’re all human. We all deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. Giving of ourselves is the greatest gift we can share.”

Homelessness, and displacement, in the United States is a continuing growing public concern and can only be addressed as a nation to correct it. In the United States 553,742 people (estimated each night) are homeless. – Source: NAEH

Homeless in Fort Collins, Colorado – May 2018

Mentally Forgotten is a  continuing social awareness project drawing from personal experiences becoming homeless and displaced.  The project is designed to draw public awareness through art and photojournalism to communities not serving the homeless and displaced through measures to enact the establishment of homeless shelters and resources in rural areas. In the United States 553,742 people (estimated each night) are homeless.  They remain in a mental state of survival suffering from mental illness and addiction.

The project spawns from events of my life in April of 2018 which rendered me displaced from my family, homeless, emotionally, mentally incapacitated and suicidal. I lived in my car for months trying to wrap my head around what had happened in my life to lead me to such a devastating chain of events and simply survive.  I personally know the endless and unrelenting horrors of being on the streets – the endless worry, lack of sleep, weather, threat of being robbed or even murdered.

I was lucky enough to salvage what little remained of my life with the support of four amazing people who lent me the emotional support, housing and money to get back on my feet. They know who they are.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you did for me during that most horrific time of my life. I wouldn’t be alive without all of you. I’m paying it forward. – Hawk

“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.

error: Copyright 2021 Hawk Buckman