Five students from the University of Montana were arrested in Helena during a sit-in protest of the state Land Board's proposed leasing of Otter Creek to Arch Coal Inc. for $85.8 million. The board approved the lease after the students—all members of the local environmental activist group Northern Rockies Rising Tide—were handcuffed and removed from the meeting room.
We caught up with Shelby Cunliffe, one of the Otter Creek Five, late this afternoon for a quick Q&A. Here's what the 24-year-old activist had to say.
Independent: Why exactly did you get involved with the protest over the coal bid for Otter Creek?
Cunliffe: I personally got involved with it because I'm just a huge advocate of environmental justice and social justice. This Otter Creek thing is a huge deal, and it was at first being totally overlooked by the general public and people higher up. I don't think people's voices in opposition were being heard clearly enough.
Indy: What did you hope to accomplish through the sit-in?
Cunliffe: We went into it know that the tracts were going to be leased. My main goal was just to bring it to the public's attention, not just the Montana public but at a national level. For us to make media was the most important thing...No one really actually knew about it, and they probably still don't know much about it. We made the LA Times, the New York Times, the Miami Herald. It's all over the place now.
Indy: So you consider the sit-in a success?
Cunliffe: A great success. We rounded up a bunch of supporters, and no one has actually been anything but supportive. It was an absolute success, even though the tracts got leased...The public will still be able to be involved, there will be lots of discussion about it. It'll take years to process, and maybe it won't end up happening.
Indy: What did the judge say to you during your hearing today?
Cunliffe: He was just really kind and friendly, offered us our public defenders...It was really short. We all pleaded not guilty. All the cops were nice to us too.
Indy: How do you plan to continue your activism regarding the Otter Creek coal deal?
Cunliffe: We hope to just keep getting the public involved, different communities all over. We definitely made people interested and made them have some desire to have their word heard.