Protesters are barking up the wrong tree

For several months a group of earnest and well meaning protesters have been occupying homes in the path of the Highway 55 expansion project. While these young people certainly cannot be characterized as violent radicals, the opinions they espouse do not withstand the scrutiny of a close examination.
At the center of this controversy is a claim by members of Earth First! and other groups that the land through which the highway is being rerouted is sacred to American Indians. In particular they argue that the area contains four sacred oak trees that were used as burial scaffolds by the Dakota Indians in the late 1800s, and therefore should be preserved as part of our region’s heritage.
While it is true that the treatment of American Indians is a dark chapter in the history of the United States, the episode with Highway 55 does not compare to these past injustices. Arguments to the contrary amount to nothing more than mistaken claims and a refusal to recognize scientific evidence that contradicts their narrow world view.
The protesters claim that these trees were used for burial ceremonies more than 100 years ago, a claim that is discounted by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. Moreover, a study by a University horticulturist reached the conclusion that the four trees in question are no older than 135 years. This puts a damper on protesters’ claims that these trees were used in sacred ceremonies. The trees would have been mere saplings, certainly too small to act as burial scaffolds. Yet the protesters continue to cling to the opinion that the trees are roughly 300 years old.
Historical disputes are only a mild annoyance compared to the more far-reaching implications the continued protests could have.
The ongoing disruption puts the future of the Hiawatha light rail line in jeopardy. It is ironic that a protest by an environmental group puts the construction of mass transit in question. The construction of the Twin Cities’ first foray into rail transit depends upon the successful completion of the Highway 55 expansion project. The physical plans for light rail rely on the changes that will take place during the expansion.
As members of a free society, we agree to certain responsibilities in exchange for a mutually agreed upon set of rights. In the United States we allow dissent and demonstration by those with minority opinions, and often the vigilance of a small group has led to opinions changing in the population as a whole. The protesters have a right to carry on their fight, but they should seriously question whether or not this fight is worth their efforts.
The Highway 55 expansion is an unusual and inappropriate place to make a stand. Young people with such strong convictions and dedication should focus their efforts on more pressing problems faced by our world. By taking a stand here the protesters marginalize themselves and their beliefs.
When the protests began those involved had a legitimate cause. However, under the light of evidence contrary to their opinions, it is time for them to find a new cause for which to fight. Rather then put our city’s future in danger, they should concede they are wrong and allow construction to begin.