In the Valley of the Shadow

Surrounded by a staggering array of hazardous waste, toxic emissions, chemical pollutants, and lethal military experimentation, the Goshute tribe of Utah decided to do the logical thing and offer up its reservation as a dump for 40,000 metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear fuel. The neighbors are very upset.

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

Listen to writer Kevin Fedarko discuss the Skull Valley situation on Living on Earth.

Leon Bear is a stocky man. His long, black hair is braided into a ponytail that falls down his back, and most of the time he shields his eyes behind mirrored aviator-style sunglasses. One sun-drenched day last August, he greeted me at the Skull Valley Goshutes office, situated in a downscale shopping plaza on the south side of Salt Lake City (the suite is paid for with money from PFS). Bear offered me a Coke, then we hopped into a dark green Pontiac, one of more than a dozen vehicles that the band has recently purchased, and drove out to Skull Valley.

The Pontiac's dashboard console was stacked with CDs—the Doobie Brothers, Tammy Wynette, Super Nonstop Seventies Dance Hits. A small leather pouch dangled from the rearview mirror; Bear said it contains herbs that help protect him when he travels—"it keeps the animals off the road and the way clear." I asked him if it worked any better than the radar detector winking from the dash. He chuckled softly, the mirrored coating on his glasses flashing, and replied, "I take any help I can get."

Bear stepped on the gas and began talking about the tribe's cash-flow problems. The Goshutes, he explained, don't get much help from anybody. Aside from the subsistence checks some members receive from the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the state, one of the band's chief sources of income, until recently, was the rent it pulled in from a rocket-engine test range located on the reservation about two miles from where Bear and his neighbors live. Between 1975 and 1995, the Hercules Corporation used it to test Delta and Pegasus satellite launch rockets. Then Hercules sold its lease to another aerospace company, Alliant Techsystems. Last year Alliant declined to renew its contract after Bear raised the rent to a level the company found exorbitant. So far, no new clients have come forward.

Bear knows the rocket test range and the land around it well. He grew up playing in arsenic-laced dirt in Stockton, a tiny blue-collar town whose residents now mainly work at the Tooele Chemical Demilitarization Facility, and after graduating from high school in 1974 he took a job as a security guard at the Hercules facility, watching over three hangars and a security booth. In 1979 he moved to the reservation with his wife, Tomi, a Paiute from Big Pine, California, setting up house in a cabin that had belonged to his grandmother. Bear renovated the cabin (it had no electricity or running water when they moved in), and he and Tomi raised two daughters. In 1986 he was elected secretary of the Skull Valley band, and in 1996 he became chairman, following in the footsteps of his father, Richard Bear, who had led the band off and on for much of the previous 20 years.

As a member of the executive committee, Bear has spent much of his time trying to attract economic-development projects that could bring jobs and money to the reservation. By and large, it's been a story of failure. In 1993, the band invested in a glass and aluminum recycling plant that went bankrupt. Other proposed ventures have collapsed because of a conspicuous lack of interest. In the mid-1980s, the state made a bid to bring two major projects to the valley: an $8.3 billion Department of Energy supercollider designed to explore the substructure of atoms, and a $100 million gravitational wave observatory for the National Science Foundation. Both projects were eventually canceled. Mostly, though, the Goshutes' efforts to promote commerce have foundered as soon as potential partners have gotten wind of the neighborhood that surrounds them. In the late 1980s, PepsiCo inquired about setting up a plant in Skull Valley, only to abandon the idea the moment it heard about Dugway. Soon after that, a local water company expressed interest in tapping water from the reservation's springs. "When they heard about what's out here," says band secretary Rex Allen, 29, in an acid tone, "they joked about how we could design a label with a skull-and-crossbones and dye the water green. Everybody thought that was pretty funny. We never heard from them again."


More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web