- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Most Dakota Access pipeline protesters have ignored the Obama administration’s pleas to vacate their illegal encampment on federal land, but they are listening to Mother Nature.

A brutal North Dakota snowstorm, the first of the season, prompted some activists to book their plane tickets and others to check into local hotels as the protest morphs from hippie festival to frozen wasteland.

“We are definitely observing people leaving through the Bismarck airport, getting on planes and probably going south,” said Morton County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rob Keller. “Law enforcement is observing cars with out-of-state plates leaving Bismarck and Mandan and going east or west.”

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued an emergency evacuation order Monday as the snowstorm hit, warning activists that they are on their own if they refuse to leave the makeshift camps illegally located on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land near Cannon Ball.

The governor also said emergency services would likely be unavailable for those who remain. The protesters have been staying in tents, teepees, campers and yurts ill-suited to temperatures expected to dive below zero by next week.

“If you get caught up in this weather and you don’t have a survival kit, you could freeze to death,” Mr. Keller said.

State and local officers will not enforce the evacuation order by clearing out protesters, he said, but truck drivers who try to enter the camps with supplies will be informed that doing so would violate the evacuation order and result in a $1,000 fine.

The idea is to discourage those in the camps, who have numbered as many as 3,000, from putting themselves in danger by trying to tough out the snowier and colder than average winter.

“It’s very dangerous conditions down here,” said Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney. “They’re coming from all over the country, and they have no idea how to survive a North Dakota winter. Just basic stuff like gloves on your hands and decent shoes on your feet.”

He described an encounter Tuesday with activists from California who mouthed off to law enforcement at a highway checkpoint as they tried to make their way to the protest camps.

“Then [they] turned around and went straight into the ditch — and asked for help,” Sheriff Laney said on WDAY-AM. “Karma can be something sometimes, can’t it?”

The sheriff said the driver had no gloves or warm clothes and wore tennis shoes even as a layer of snow covered the icy roads, daytime highs hovered in the low 30s and winds reached 30 to 40 mph on the prairie where the camps are located.

“I’m like, ‘What are you doing down here? This isn’t a game.’ ‘Oh, we just wanted to see what it was like,’” recalled Sheriff Laney. “‘Well, you see what it’s like. It’s not what you thought, is it? The female said, ‘No, it wasn’t,’ and the male, who was pretty mouthy, was pretty humble as he realized, ‘I’m not in my element and without these guys’ help, I’m not going to get out of here.’”

The Prairie Knights Casino & Resort, located on the Standing Rock reservation in Fort Yates, is reportedly packed with protesters seeking a more comfortable berth, while others are staying in hotels in Bismarck and Mandan.

Last week, the corps set a Dec. 5 deadline for protesters to vacate federal land north of the Cannonball River but later said there were no plans to enforce the order by forcibly removing people from the camps.

Protest leaders responded by declaring their intent to defy the deadline as they attempt to persuade the Obama administration to revoke its previously approved easement for the pipeline project.

A group called Veterans Stand for Standing Rock plans to join the protest from Sunday through Dec. 7 to “assemble as a peaceful, unarmed militia to defend the water protectors from assault and intimidation at the hands of militarized police for and DAPL security.”

The organization, which has raised $600,000 on its GoFundMe page, plans to bring 2,000 supporters, although the bone-chilling weather could put a dent in their numbers.

Those who do remain in the camp could make the situation more perilous for officers. For example, protesters have been foiled in their efforts to cross the river to reach the pipeline construction site, but once the river freezes, they could simply walk across.

“It’s like a two-edged sword,” Mr. Keller said. “It will cause some of the people who are not survivalists to leave, but there are others who are in survival mode, and they’re going to stay at any cost.”

About 530 arrests have been made since Aug. 10, mostly for trespassing and rioting, as protesters try to stop construction of the final 1,100 feet of pipeline in North Dakota over concerns about water quality and tribal relics.

The 1,172-mile, four-state pipeline, which is located almost entirely on private land from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation to Illinois, is about 87 percent complete.

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