DEATH OF AN ECO WARRIOR

LEROY JACKSON TRANSFORMED HIMSELF FROM A PHOENIX STREET WINO INTO A CHARISMATIC NAVAJO ENVIRONMENTALIST. HIS FRIENDS THINK HE WAS MURDERED FOR HIS EFFORTS.

In the end, the logging interests succeeded in reducing the debate to "jobs versus owls," as they have all over the West. Despite the efforts of Din‚ C.A.R.E., the appeal of the sale was ultimately squashed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribe.

Still, Jackson's crusade won over the hearts and minds of some of the Navajo bureaucrats and legislators. The next scheduled timber cut, an upcoming plot referred to as the Tonitsa sale, was scaled back from 29 million board feet to 18 million.

But even at its reduced level, as Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians points out, the Tonitsa sale still constitutes nearly one-third of the entire timber harvest in all of New Mexico and Arizona, including 11 national forests!

Those figures seem to validate Jackson's campaign. His tactic of unleashing federal environmental laws on the Navajo Nation, however, was embarrassing to the Navajo government, not only because it implied that the Navajo government was violating its own sacred sites, but by also questioning the sovereignty of the government itself. Legally, Indian reservations are subject to all federal laws; some are harder than others to enforce. Last August, the Bureau of Indian Affairs requested that the Navajo Nation and four other Southwestern tribes be exempted from the Endangered Species Act, specifically from spotted owl guidelines that might curtail timber operations. Jackson and Din‚ C.A.R.E. fired off a point-by-point rebuttal accusing BIA of twisting the intent of sovereignty for business purposes. He arranged a personal meeting with officials at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., and had airline reservations for October 6. He never made it.

The environmental battles took a physical and emotional toll on Leroy Jackson, and in the last year, even as he was tasting victory, he began the karmic downslide that ended in his death. He spent less and less time trading and more time at home on the phone, pacing the floor and talking about timber until late into the night. In the last year of his life, his hair turned from black to silver, and his paralyzing migraine headaches increased in frequency. He never complained about them, but his friends and family could tell when he had one by the way he squinted his eyes and rubbed his forehead.

Although he had started winning his fight against timber sales, he was torn over the fate of the sawmill workers who would be laid off as a consequence, wanted to make sure they were taken care of, wondered if the mill could be converted to manufacture furniture and provide alternative jobs.

"We told him whether the mill shuts down and these people lose their jobs is not for you to worry about," says Earl Tulley. "You're not Jesus Christ. You don't have to take the sins of the world and the shortcomings of NFPI upon yourself."
Some friends even suggest that the jobs question was getting the better of Jackson. His friend John Sherry says, "He kind of lost his resolve about wanting to go through with the appeal" of the Tonitsa sale.

Jackson wondered about the threats made against him. In August, as the Tonitsa debate raged, a former NFPI board member told a reporter that "somebody is going to get hurt," then raged that the Din‚ C.A.R.E. people should be thrown in jail, but for what, he never made clear.

In a summertime spiritual gathering at Jackson's hogan, Earl Tulley asked Jackson about his fears. "We were talking and it started to rain," Tulley remembers. "And I said, 'Leroy, do you fear for your life? Do you feel like somebody's going to hunt you down?' And he snickered and said, 'Earl, you know what? She's going to have to be pretty damned pretty to take me down. That's the only way they're going to get me. They're only going to get me if they put something in my drink.'" @rule:

The day before he left home forever, Leroy Jackson drove an hour south to Window Rock to attend a meeting with tribal and BIA officials.

His mother, Jane Popovich, had been spending the summer with Leroy and his family. She remembers hearing Jackson in the shower, then when he came out into the living room in a new white shirt, she was struck by how handsome he looked, as if she were looking at him for the first time instead of the last.

At the dinner table that evening, he mentioned that "some BIA shyster" had questioned his right to talk about owls, and she was not sure what it meant.

In the morning before he left for Taos, she watched him take his two small children, Eli and Robyn, on his knee to say his goodbyes. "I hardly ever saw him hug those kids, but he hugged them real hard," she remembers. "Then he watched them until they got on the bus, and said, 'You guys take care of yourselves. You study hard.'"

He called his brother Ron in Phoenix and told him to take care of their mother; she was heading back to Phoenix that very day.

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