In early February 2017, news outlets began to report on large quantities of trash left behind at protest camps by demonstrators at Standing Rock — although hundreds of people have remained in the unforgiving North Dakota winter in a nearly year-long standoff over a multi-billion dollar oil pipeline. Organizers told us much of the debris was left behind due to a forced evacuation of the protest camps amid a series of severe December 2016 blizzards, and subsequent sub-zero temperatures froze it to the ground, hindering cleanup.

The Standing Rock Sioux and environmental activists have bitterly opposed the $3.8 billion Energy Transfer Partners pipeline under the Missouri River, fearing a pipeline leak would destroy the tribe’s only source of drinking water and contaminate the supply for millions of people who live downstream from the pipe crossing. The Sioux have also tried to preserve cultural and religious landmarks spread throughout the area, some of which they say have already been destroyed by pipeline construction. Thousands of people have cycled through the encampments since the protest was launched on 1 April 2016, including non-Native activists who oppose fossil fuels as an energy source because it contributes to climate change.

Joye Braun, a front line community organizer with Indigenous Environmental Network and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, told us that demonstrators have been working in freezing temperatures to clean after two blizzards bore down on North Dakota. Just as thousands had arrived at protest encampments, many were forced to evacuate. The first storm struck on 5 December 2016 and the second came several days later. Since then, freezing temperatures have been an obstacle for cleaning efforts:

We had about 17,000 people here and then there was that big blizzard, then three or four days later, another big blizzard. So we had about 300 or 400 people left cleaning up stuff, some of which has been frozen to the ground… Everybody at camp is working so hard.

Michael A. Wood, Jr., a Marine Corps veteran who founded Veterans Stand for Standing Rock (the organization’s name has since shortened to Veterans Stand), told us 100 to 200 veterans are en route to the site to help with clean-up efforts. Braun said the veterans will be housed on reservation land. Several camps, including the largest, Oceti Sakowin, remain standing with a total of about 800 demonstrators, despite extreme weather. While one media report quoted a police officer saying, “As bad as it sounds, we’re looking for people that may have died and could be wrapped up in a canvas or a tarp or tent,” Wood and Braun both said they know of no fatalities.

The Army Corps issued a statement on 3 February 2017 that protesters must leave federally-managed land at the mouth of the Cannonball River on 22 February 2017 “to prevent injuries and significant environmental damage in the likely event of flooding in this area.” Standing Rock Sioux member Chase Iron Eyes’ comments while a guest on the progressive media outlet Democracy Now! on 8 February 2017 illuminate why the Standing Rock and other Native communities contest claims of land ownership by non-Native entities. The Fort Laramie treaty of 1851 granted the Sioux a large swath of land west of the Missouri which has been progressively encroached on:

Drilling can begin any minute, and we are looking at the potential of an armed raid or a forcible raid after February 22 when the Army Corps said that they would declare us trespassers on our own land, the same as the United States Army said they would declare us ‘hostile’ if we didn’t return to the reservations in 1875…

Right now there are probably 400 to 500 people, water protectors, north of the 1889 boundary that was the result of an illegal annexation of treaty territory by the Untied States against not just the Standing Rock nation, but the entire Lakota nation and members of the Great Sioux Nation, the Oceti Sakowin. And so other tribal governments are weighing in and supporting a fight on the ground as they have a right to do. There are 400 to 500 people north of the Cannonball River in the contested zone, in the treaty zone, in the place where according to the United States Army Corps of Engineers we are not supposed to be and they are going to stand their ground.

Iron Eyes told journalist Amy Goodman, who has followed the protest from the beginning, that “the Trump administration is making it very clear that they intend to destroy our only drinking water resource” for the tribe and people who live south of the easement.

Roughly 4,500 veterans descended on Standing Rock on 4 December 2016 after the Army Corps, which manages the disputed land, told demonstrators they had to leave the following day. But the Corps dramatically announced that an easement needed by the pipeline company had been denied and that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would need to be completed before the project could proceed.

The Corps reversed course on 8 February 2017, and granted the easement after President Donald Trump signed an executive order to revive the project and that of the Keystone XL, another controversial pipeline blocked by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, in 2015. In a statement, the Corps said it had terminated the EIS process and granted the final permit allowing construction to move forward.

Braun said the Cheyenne and Standing Rock Sioux tribes had filed for a temporary restraining order with a hearing set for 13 February 2017. Braun said the Cheyenne and Oglala Sioux have also invoked land rights under the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty.

Trump, by not only pushing Dakota Access but also by saying he’s going to try and restart KXL, which goes right by my reservation, has effectively declared war on the Great Sioux Nation.

On 1 February 2017, police arrested 73 people at Standing Rock, mostly on misdemeanor trespassing charges, at a newly-established camp called “Last Child” which Morton County Sheriff spokesman Rob Keller said was on property owned by the pipeline firm. Keller said ETS is drilling on both sides of the site. He described things as currently peaceful, but added that local authorities have their own 10 March 2017 deadline based on thaw, which could have a deleterious effects on the environment (if the trash remains) and on safety, due to potential flooding:

When you’re dealing with a river, now you have situations with the ice causing ice jams, like a dam. That’s where the concerns are, for people to be out of there so we don’t have to go in and rescue them.

A spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Partners did not return our request for comment.