Jami Gaither | Alida, Minnesota

This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on 21 June, 2019. Talia Fox and Fatima Hashmi also contributed to the production of this story. Videography by Mari Wosepka.

Recently retired from the steel industry, Jami Gaither is a Homesteader and Water Protector fighting the Line 3 Tar Sands Pipeline in Alida, Minnesota. This is her story:

“My name is Jami Gaither and I live here in Alida, Minnesota. I grew up in the suburbs of Ohio, in Fairborn near Dayton. I’ve always felt a connection with nature. As a kid, I was in Bluebirds (it was a lot like Girl Scouts). We took camping trips and we earned beads for our work on home, health, business, citizenship, and nature. Spending time at camp, there was a sacred feeling to sitting around the fire and respecting everyone and being thoughtful about nature. It instilled in me that we need to respect nature and be a part of it, not dominate or destroy it. It was those trips as a kid out in the woods when I really felt like I was home.

During my career, I felt like I was constantly spinning my wheels. I worked in the steel industry for 23 years. I commuted 72 miles a day. There was always a pressure: the pressure of getting up, going to work, driving, and making sure you’re wearing the right clothes and saying the right things. My husband and I developed a five-year-plan to move to a more sustainable and natural way of living, and after that, I often felt like I was living in the future, waiting for that time.

We realized that this rat race was kind of a joke—it was all about earning more and buying more. It is part of this American culture, where we’re immersed in an idea that things will bring happiness. But, that’s not what makes life happy. Life should be about love, family, community, eating healthy food, being healthy beings, and enjoying the beauty all around us in this natural world—things that bring sustainable happiness. That’s what is really important.

So, we decided to buy a property in a rural area, in order to build a place that was sustainable. We started looking in the Sedona area originally and realized that there was no water potential there long-term. Then we considered Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina before settling on Minnesota. We focused on this area in Northern Minnesota after a visit to Itasca State Park. We fell in love with the trees and the clean water. So, in 2007, we bought this piece of land, and over time, we developed it as we could afford, eventually building the Harn (short for House-Barn). We knew there were pipelines south of us, but we had no idea that this major pipeline (Line 3) was being planned.

Jami and her husband Dan with wood harvested to heat their home.

Jami and her husband Dan with wood harvested to heat their home.

Here at the Harn, we are living more lightly than ever before—there are many ways that we have lessened our resource burden on the planet. We have a Rocket Mass Heater (with no furnace or A/C), we harvest our water from the sky, we don’t have a flush toilet, and we eat more locally than ever. There’s always a concern we might run out of money before we die, but there is a calmness to knowing that we’re not destroying the planet as fast as we did in the past.

Besides all of the driving less, not flying, and changing light bulbs that we are encouraged to do as individuals, I know we need bigger change. The level of change we need isn’t gonna happen on a small scale or with individual actions alone. The change that we need to save our planet for human beings to continue to exist is going to have to be massive. It is critical that governments and big corporations start to get this: We the People want a planet. We the People want to continue to be able to feed ourselves. We the People want to be able to bring children into this world and feel like that’s a good thing and not be scared about it.

Key Facts

  • Tar Sands are a mixture of mostly sand, clay, water, and a thick, molasses-like substance called bitumen. Bitumen is made of hydrocarbons—the same molecules in liquid oil—and is used to produce gasoline and other petroleum products. A gallon of gasoline made from Tar Sands produces about 15% more carbon dioxide emissions than one made from conventional oil” (Union of Concerned Scientists).

  • Enbridge has a history of oil spills around the country. Since 2002, Enbridge has been reported to federal regulators for hazardous liquid incidents 307 times. These incidents released 66,059 barrels of oil (Greenpeace).

  • The proposed Line 3 Oil Pipeline would be a 36-inch diameter pipeline that would transport 760,000 barrels of oil a day across Ma’iingan land, creating only 20 new jobs (MPR News).

When we moved to Minnesota in 2014, I started getting the mailings about the proposal for Line 3 because Enbridge, the company in charge, was required to notify the surrounding residents. I began to investigate and soon realized this project was a danger to my community. As I studied and learned about the line, I realized RA-05, a diversion from Enbridge’s original preferred route, was a potential path that would go right through the neighboring property and cross the wetlands where the Sandhill Cranes birth their young every spring. When I realized all of this, I was like, ‘Holy cow! They’re going to put that thing in my backyard and it’s going to be that close to me.’ I don’t want it in anyone’s backyard. I don’t want it in my backyard. I don’t want it in your backyard. I don’t want it in anyone’s backyard. It’s a detriment to the planet. And we love listening to the dinosaur-like calls of the Sandhill Cranes from our porch.

I spent hours of my retirement researching Tar Sands and Enbridge and looking at the history and the process in Minnesota. But I felt very alone. This changed in January of this year when I attended an MN350 leadership training. I never knew that they had a Pipeline Resistance Team (PRT)! It changed my life in such a huge way. I watched the 40 people in that room, who were engaged and informed, talking about the issue, writing letters to the editor, dropping banners, and doing so much more. It gave me so much hope.

As I have watched the pipeline resistance work unfold, I have realized that civic engagement and talking to agencies and politicians has led us to a place where the voice of the people is being heard. And that civic engagement has the power to stop things that shouldn’t be happening.

We’re really excited with what’s happening with the appeals process against the Line 3 Tar Sands pipeline. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the pipeline was inadequate, which we all expected beforehand. It was largely a propaganda piece from Enbridge and not very scientifically sound in terms of what specific effects there would be in the event of a spill. It’s been nice to see the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency make statements about putting everything on hold because of the inadequate EIS. That makes us feel like we’re slowing the process at least, and that gives me hope that we will win.

A photo of Jami Gaither during a  women’s gathering at Mallard Island  on Rainy Lake.

A photo of Jami Gaither during a women’s gathering at Mallard Island on Rainy Lake.

A lot of people don’t know much about the pipeline because Enbridge doesn’t talk about it in their advertisements. For example, this pipeline is not only proposed to go through wetlands, which is the most dangerous place to put a Tar Sands pipeline, but it is also gonna cross under the Mississippi River, not once, but twice! So there is a huge potential for water impact, if there are spills. And I’m worried and concerned about what’s going to happen to my neighbors affected by a potential spill. I mean, they’ve got animals that need to have water.

All of us are familiar with spills in the driveway, or a car leaking oil. You see that sheen of oil at the top of water after a rainfall. With Tar Sands, there is no sheen on top. They are so dense and thick that they sink in water, which means that we probably have a lot of leaks that are happening right now that we don’t even know about because they’re just staying under the surface. 

For conventional crude, there’s typically a 1:25 ratio of the energy you put in, to the energy you get by burning it. One unit of energy gives you 25 units of energy. With Tar Sands, because they are so heavy and viscous, you need to use a lot of water and chemicals just to get it out of the ground and into the pipeline, so the ratio is between 1:3 and 1:1. We’re almost spending as much energy to get this stuff out of the ground as we’re gonna get when we burn it—on top of all of the carbon that we’re already burning to get it out of the ground! It’s an insane process. Also, Tar Sands produce 17% more greenhouse gases than conventional crude when burned.

Plus Enbridge has a horrible track record for safety and spills. The biggest inland oil spill in U.S. history was in Cohasset back in 2003 (near Grand Rapids, MN). Then you’ve got Kalamazoo. Both of those were this company.

Map of the Line 3 Expansion and Relocation Proposed Route adapted by  Friends of the Headwaters .

Map of the Line 3 Expansion and Relocation Proposed Route adapted by Friends of the Headwaters.

I’ve lived here in this area now for just a few years, but I’ve gotten really involved in the community. And more importantly for me with this fight is the fact that there is a huge indigenous population here. Like always, we put dirty infrastructure and coal plants in neighborhoods of color. That is a big part of why this pipeline is being put through right here. Enbridge did a tricky job of avoiding reservation lands with their proposed preferred route, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that this is an 1855 Treaty Area. In this area, indigenous people signed treaties that gave colonizers a right to come in and occupy land with the agreement that the indigenous would retain their rights to hunt, fish, and gather. But now that’s threatened by Line 3 and the degradation of the natural environment.

In the community, there seems to be a lot of support for Line 3. But I believe that a lot of that is uneducated support. And I think there is a lot of exaggeration about what it will bring in terms of jobs and the local economy. It’s really tough up here, because there aren’t a lot of jobs, so people grab onto this pipeline idea because it’s like, ‘Oh, some jobs!’ And a lot of people in this area have worked construction in North Dakota in the oil patch and so it’s familiar to them. I don’t think we should put people in these kind of situations, where they have to choose between a job and the environment. It’s not about stopping a pipeliner from getting a job, it is about giving him a better job—one that he can proudly tell his kids that he’s doing for their future, not one that’s destroying it. The real jobs are in removing these pipelines from the ground when they decommission them. 

I write lots of letters to the editor for Farmers Independent and Bemidji Pioneer Press. I write a blog and I try to get the word out about what’s going on. This process with the Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Commerce can get really complicated, and I try to put the information into clear terms that people will understand. 

Jami Gaither chatting with Aletta Brady.

Jami Gaither chatting with Aletta Brady.

People have chastised me saying, ‘We can’t stop this one. Maybe we can stop the next one.’ But I disagree. We have to stop this one. We should have stopped fossil fuel development in the ‘90s. We should have been working on climate change more seriously, but we didn’t! Now we’re definitely running out of time. It’s not about going back to the dark ages and not having anything. It’s about creating livable, sustainable ways of life that allow for comfort, but maybe not the current level of luxury that we are accustomed to. 

Our house takes water from the land, uses it, and returns it to the land. We heat with wood from the forest and have enough land for ongoing sustainable heat resources. Too often, humans have distanced themselves with all this insulation, concrete, and electricity. While it is convenient, we also have to think about how to live in a sustainable way, for the long term. Look at the woods, for example. Humans don’t make the woods happen, and look at how happy they are. The forest is full of food and amazing life. My dream is to have a fruit forest here that kind of grows on its own, without a lot of intervention from me. Every day, I come out to my porch and I see my beautiful friends around me: lovely asparagus shooting up, the birds feeding, the squirrels, fox, and snakes. It’s not just that I don’t want this pipeline to travel through our backyard. I don’t want it in anyone’s backyard!

Key Facts

  • The original Line 3 was the source of the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. 40,000 barrels spilled in Grand Rapids, MN (Greenpeace).

  • Since 2002, MN has reported 132 hazardous liquid incidents–17 of which were larger than 50 barrels (Greenpeace).

  • The U.S. government and Minnesota have a legacy of violating treaties. For instance, in the 1837 Treaty, the Anshinaabe thought they had retained rights to the forest itself. Instead, settlers took advantage of their positions of power and profited from timber sales (Sierra Club).

The wetland that the pipeline would pass through is a healthy ecosystem. The thought of it getting destroyed and trees being cut down makes me cry and feel hopeless. The pipeline would come through a place where the food grows on the water—wild rice is amazing here. We cannot risk our food sources, our clean water, and our clean air so that some Canadian oil company can make some money. Since last October, when the IPCC report came out about the climate crisis, we’ve been at a point where we really need to start thinking hard about how we are living our lives and what’s important...and realizing that money isn’t truly what supports life. I can live without a car; I cannot live without food and water.

A big epiphany for me was seeing those survey tapes outside of our house and realizing how close they were and ho fast Enbridge is wanting to move. I think that’s going to be the hardest part of having the pipeline come through—listening to the devastation as they build, knowing that they’re killing thousands and thousands of insects, frogs, amphibians, birds, and bats, just so that we can run some disgusting fossil fuel through the ground. We don’t think it’s necessary and it’s definitely not worth the risk to Minnesotans.

Not having the pipeline go through could, in fact, be even more dangerous to me, personally. I have my signs out front, and I’ve written many letters to the editor, so people know who I am. There’s a lot of guns up here, and anger and desperation with poverty, and it would not surprise me if we get some kind of violent backlash, if the pipeline doesn’t go through. It is a possibility. But what do you do? You’ve got to live your life by what you believe. I would much rather die in honor and stand for what I believe, than pretend to be something I’m not just so I can get along with everyone. 

It is hard to keep going when you see all the money that you’re up against. When you see the half page ad from Enbridge, it is really hard to remember that it’s ‘We the People’ who’re going to win this. What keeps me going are the relationships that I have with people, the joy that brings, and the little victories along the way. I’m really proud of the connections that I have with people. I have 1,550 contacts in my cell phone and I’m proud that they’re a part of my life. The most important thing that we can do right now is build relationships with each other and find our commonalities and talk out our conflicts. 

Jami is a friend to animals.

Jami is a friend to animals.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that we’re seeing a lot of women in the front of our movements. There are some men involved, but by and large, it looks really feminine. As we move away from money and towards basic values of life and sustenance, I think we will see a stronger feminine presence. Femininity brings a powerful voice for the youth and for continued life.

For people who want to get involved with the climate movements, there’s so many things that can be done. Look up groups on Facebook and talk to your friends who have similar interests. Find a local climate justice movement and get involved to amplify your voice. If there’s nothing going on in your area, start something! It doesn’t always have to be letter writing, or policy. Find ways to connect with your neighbors and engage with them. We need to understand that everybody has a different world view, and that’s based on who you were as a child, what experiences you have had, the devastation that has come, and the joys that have come. They all make us who we are and give us different ideas of how things should work. Listening with an open mind can do wonders.

We need to continue to build community and find projects that we can get involved in together. Everything is interconnected! When you stand for clean water, that water supports all of life from the tiniest bug to humans to trees. If you’re working to decrease bullying in school, you’re helping indigenous kids who’ve been bullied for fighting Line 3. When you feed the hummingbirds, they feed you by pollinating your garden.

Follow your own heart and do something. Ask yourself, ‘What is my passion? Is it clean water? Is it Indigenous rights? Is it watching out for the trafficked children? Is it fighting for the people who are affected by the industrial projects coming into our area?’ 

I’m hopeful that we can survive in this new world, whatever it’s gonna be. I’m hopeful that we can make a lot of changes in this economy so it’s not based on money, but on caring for each other and providing for all. When it comes to facing the fact that this pipeline could actually come in, I’ll have to roll with what happens, but it’s not there yet. It’s not there yet. And maybe it never will be if we do enough. I’m just really hopeful that we can stop this one pipeline from coming through.”

Ready to take action? Here’s what you can do:

  1. Support the Youth #ClimateStrikes on September 20th and join Our Climate Voices for a Storytelling Workshop in lead up to the strikes in ten cities around the world on September 14th.

  2. Attend the Gichi-Gami Gathering to Stop Line 3 on September 28th from 12:00 - 6:30 PM in Duluth, Minnesota: Register here! Email margaret@mn350.org with any questions.

  3. Sign the pledge to Stop the Line 3 Oil Pipeline!

  4. Find a climate justice group to get involved with near you.

  5. Learn about the proposed Line 3 Replacement Line here.