Steps away from the construction of the Line 3 oil pipeline in Cloquet, a handful of tents and lawn chairs surround a campfire. With temps in the single digits, Alex Golden-Wolf propped her feet up on the bricks surrounding the fire to keep them warm.
Golden-Wolf, who is Ojibwe, quit her restaurant jobs in the Duluth area to move to this piece of land the campers call Camp Migizi, or bald eagle in Ojibwe. They describe themselves as land and water protectors, fighting the pipeline they believe will harm the environment for their generation and future ones.
"It's great work. It's my life now," said Golden-Wolf, 25. "I gave up my other life and I feel like this is a good calling for me."
She lives in a tent fortified with wool blankets, a tarp and hay packed underneath and around for additional insulation. The campers sleep in donated sleeping bags designed for 30-below-zero temperatures. Small propane heaters help keep them warm at night. During the day, wood chopping and repairs keep them busy, said Golden-Wolf.
The campers are part of a movement of dozens of young people across the state, from Indigenous groups on the front lines in northern Minnesota to a group of activists in the Twin Cities trying to stop the pipeline in court. Line 3 crosses land where the Ojibwe have rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice and other plants, the result of treaties signed in the mid-19th century.
Construction began in December. It will replace a 50-year-old line that has been running at half capacity because of its age and condition.
Enbridge, the Calgary, Alberta-based company building the pipeline, said that Line 3 has passed every test over six years of regulatory and permitting review. Earlier in February, the Minnesota Court of Appeals and a federal appeals court judge denied attempts by two tribes to halt construction of the pipeline. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said the tribes failed to show they would likely succeed on the merits of their case or that they will suffer "irreparable harm" if construction continues.
The company said that its first priority is safety for workers, law enforcement and protesters.
"As a company, we recognize the rights of individuals and groups to express their views legally and peacefully. Illegal activities by protesters endanger our workers, first responders and the protesters themselves," Enbridge said in a statement Friday.
Some evenings, Golden-Wolf and other protesters lie on the line or climb inside equipment to slow construction. Other times, they attend protests on the Fond du Lac Reservation and pray with groups of people who come from across Minnesota and around the country to show their support for the movement.
"Our goal every single time is to halt construction as long as we can. That's our intention and we always end up succeeding, stopping the pipeline for a little bit, a couple hours here and there," Golden-Wolf said. "That really helps us because this slows down their work."
Golden-Wolf has been arrested for disrupting construction, although she was bailed out of jail the same day. For her, it is worth it.
Of Enbridge, she says, "They don't see how it affects the land and the wildlife and the treaties. I really want to show them that it doesn't just affect us as Indigenous people, but it affects them and the generations after them. It hurts me to talk about."
The protesters want President Joe Biden to stop the pipeline, similar to his recent action revoking a presidential permit for Keystone XL pipeline, and they're joined by leaders including Rep. Ilhan Omar, who called on the president to block construction. To do that, Biden would have to cancel the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' water crossing permit granted in November.
Supporters of Line 3 tout the economic impact in a part of the state hungry for good-paying jobs.
"The project is already providing significant economic benefits for counties, small businesses, Native American communities, and union members — including creating thousands of family-sustaining construction jobs, and millions of dollars in local spending and tax revenues," said Enbridge in a statement, although more than half of the workers hired in December came from outside Minnesota.
In the Twin Cities, a group called the Youth Climate Intervenors is working on the legal battle to stop the pipeline. They are appealing the Public Utilities Commission's approval of Line 3 from February 2020 and will participate in oral arguments before the Minnesota Court of Appeals in March.
When they first came together in 2017, these young people were all between the ages of 15 and 23, with shared concerns about the impacts of both Line 3 and climate change, said Brent Murcia, a former member who now serves as the group's student attorney. "Now, we've gotten older, because it's been a long fight," he said.
Murcia, 26, recalls hanging out in a basement overflow room during a hearing, hoping he would get a chance to comment.
"I remember thinking, I really want our generation's voice to be heard in this process. So we got together, we got organized, and basically we intervened in the legal process, as a party," Murcia said.
At the time, they weren't represented by a lawyer. They learned online how to write legal briefs and motions, brought in witnesses and participated in evidentiary hearings. The experience prompted Murcia to apply to law school, and he is now a third-year student at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Now that the case has reached the Court of Appeals, the Youth Climate Intervenors thought it was important to have a lawyer for this part of the process, said Murcia.
Macalester College senior and organizer Sasha Lewis-Norelle has been working alongside the climate intervenors to plan events in the Twin Cities. It's possible the president could halt Line 3 construction, but Lewis-Norelle said he is not putting all his faith in that.
"I could see him leaning away from canceling any other pipelines since he already did Keystone XL, one of those campaign promises," Lewis-Norelle said. "I still think it's possible, especially as things escalate Up North, and if we can get a lot of national attention to the issue of Line 3."
Murcia is more hopeful on both fronts that Biden will halt the pipeline and that the group will get a legal victory in court.
"It's definitely hard to see construction be ongoing when people are still trying to stop it," Murcia said. "[But] I haven't lost that hope."
Zoë Jackson • 612-673-7112