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Dakota Access Pipeline Protesters Vow To Fight Through Fierce Winter


Next we go to North Dakota where it is bitterly cold. Opponents to the Dakota Access Pipeline have been camped out there and protesting for months. Now organizers are trying to get people to stop coming and those who are there to go home and wait for the next legal battle to play out. Minnesota Public Radio's Tim Nelson reports.

TIM NELSON, BYLINE: It's a single degree above zero as Rachel Masquat sits at a fire pit outside her tent, one of hundreds pitched here on an icy plain on the Missouri River. Many nearby tents have been abandoned, flapping open in the wind and full of drifting snow.

Thousands of demonstrators trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline are gone. Although, hundreds remain, many living in teepees scattered throughout the camp. As she tends a coffee pot and friends unload a truckload of firewood, Masquat says she's ready for whatever winter brings.

RACHEL MASQUAT: Everybody's kind of worried, kind of trying to get us to move in the community tents and stuff, but this is working out pretty good. Our fire pit blows the heat in there.

NELSON: Masquat is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi in Kansas. She says she'll stay camped here just outside the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation until the end - the end of the nearby Dakota Access Pipeline, she hopes, but maybe only until Donald Trump takes office.

About a mile away, the 1200-mile long, nearly $4 billion Dakota Access Pipeline is on hold. Citing concerns by the Standing Rock Tribe, on Sunday, the Army Corps of Engineers stopped crews from tunneling under the river. Tribal Chairman David Archambault credits months of demonstrations for halting work on the pipeline. But after a blizzard forced thousands of people into nearby emergency shelters this week, he says it's time for protesters to pack up and go home.

DAVID ARCHAMBAULT II: I don't think the gathering is necessary anymore. I feel that it served its purpose. You know, the - it's not safe right now today. I'm pretty confident there will be no construction this winter.

NELSON: Maybe. A spokeswoman for pipeline builder Energy Transfer Partners says work will resume as soon as the project can legally continue. The company was in federal court today, challenging the court order to stop construction.

As thousands of protesters left this week, they jammed into whatever ride they could find battered by cold that hit 20 below. Even the liquid in the few portable toilets in camp is freezing solid, leaving chunks of dirty blue ice scattered on the ground around them.

Richie Beltran was among those leaving. He drove here from California to join the pipeline opposition and, like many, to right what he called centuries of wrong against Native Americans.

RICHIE BELTRAN: I'm staying in my van right now. I don't want to be - you know, I don't really have a hard shelter myself. So - and I know, you know, they're leery about people sleeping in their cars and whatnot, so I'm going to honor that and head on home (laughter).

NELSON: He's also got a family vacation planned and has to be back here in February for a court appearance after he was arrested with hundreds of others trying to reach the pipeline construction site.

Authorities here agree it's time to go. Morton County Sheriff's spokesman Rob Keller says winter in North Dakota isn't just unpleasant. It kills people.

ROB KELLER: We have over a foot of snow, and when you combine 30 to 40 mile an hour winds, that wind chill is blowing that foot of snow around until you got drifts 8 feet tall.

NELSON: Keller says the National Guard has buses standing by for evacuations, but so far there's no indication that demonstrators want any help as each decides whether to stay or whether to go. For NPR News, I'm Tim Nelson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Nelson