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A Voice for the Voiceless

I grew up in Minersville, Pennsylvania, a former coal mining town. Look around and you’ll still find towering coal slag piles covered with scant grass and small trees, and dust blackening the fronts of houses facing the mines. When I was growing up, teenagers would swim in stripping holes from mining that had filled with water; nobody talked about how deep they were, or how dangerous. The vestiges of mining not only scarred the landscape of Minersville, but also impacted the health of my community and tragically claimed the lives of several young Pueblo Bonito pc Samantha Ruscavage-Barzpeople.

As a young person, I saw first hand the devastation that the early twentieth century mining boom had caused to the landscape around my town. In 1989, my job as an archeologist brought me to the Southwest where landscape destruction of a different kind affected me on a daily basis. Highway development projects employed teams of archeologists to excavate archeological sites along the roadside before construction could begin.

As an archeologist, my passion was to study the traces of past human occupation, and my daily worklife was thrilling. Every day I either scoured the surface for traces of pottery sherds, flaked stone, and charcoal stains from prehistoric hearths, or excavated interesting archeological sites.

In Utah, while excavating a rock shelter in advance of a highway expansion project, my team recovered a preserved juniper basket from A.D. 1,000 filled with charcoal and ash. Despite the awe I felt at this discovery, something was missing.

Yes, I contributed to a body of knowledge about past human occupation of the Southwest and helped to preserve and protect cultural resources, but as highways widened around me, my conscience grew louder. Communities suffered as more roadways encroached on our Southwestern landscapes. But communities most affected by new highways and road expansions did not have a seat at the table to discuss drastic changes to their landscape and the nature of their cherished wild places.

During my tenure at the New Mexico Department of Transportation I first saw the important role that attorneys played in getting community interests a seat at the table with industry and the government for decisions directly affecting the local community.  

A local neighborhood association sued the highway department over a road expansion project, and argued it would irrevocably change the historic character of the Hondo Valley in southeastern New Mexico. Although the neighborhood association did not prevail in court, bringing the lawsuit gave community members a voice in the highway planning process that allowed some of their concerns to be addressed. Sam 25th Story

Shortly thereafter, I decided to become a lawyer to give a voice to the voiceless, and to defend those communities whose air quality, cultural heritage, and natural resources were being damaged without pause. In Minersville, Pennsylvania, I had seen my community suffer firsthand the effects of mining. In New Mexico, I decided to do something to stop it.

I am proud to be a Guardian. My work has indeed changed.

Recently, as staff attorney for WildEarth Guardians, I litigated a case against Kennicott Copper in Utah. Standing in the courtroom with my co-counsel, we opposed a phalanx of dark-suited industry lawyers with expensive visual displays detailing their defense of their polluting copper mine.

Guardians litigated with the facts. We represented resident groups who for years have been living with air pollution from the mine, trying to reduce the wind-blown dust from the mine’s extensive tailings piles that carry poisonous air into their neighborhoods and schoolyards. While the case has yet to be decided, I have a great sense of personal satisfaction being part of Guardians’ effort to give a voice to those who suffer from extraction of fossil fuels and minerals.

Today I work to advance protections for clean air, for the health of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and the magnificent landscapes and rivers we hold dear.

I invite you to join Guardians’ vision to keep coal and other fossil fuels in the ground, and advance a fossil fuel-free future on our public lands. Guardians is giving frontline communities voices in the fight against big coal and big oil. I look forward to helping Guardians continue this fight for the next 25 years strong.

For the wild,

Samantha Ruscavage-Barz Staff Signature

Samantha Ruscavage Barz staff 2013

Samantha Ruscavage-Barz
Staff Attorney
WildEarth Guardians

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