Folk songwriter Dana Lyons may be best known for his quirky, global radio and web hit, “Cows with Guns,” but it’s his passion for environmental activism that propels him forward.
Lyons has been onstage with greats like Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd, toured in 46 states and throughout several distant countries. He’s performed in front of dozens in coffee shops and thousands at festivals.
As part of his three-year “Great Salish Sea Tour,” Lyons returns to Friday Harbor to play a free show at the library, Jan. 3, 7 p.m.
The Journal: Tell us about your ‘Great Salish Sea Tour.’ Has this been like your “Tour of the Dammed,” where you go around raising awareness about a specific issue?
Lyons: It’s a three-year tour that started in March of 2014, and goes right through 2016. Friday Harbor was one of the first stops.
We’re focusing on protecting the resident orca pods. The title track of my album, “The Great Salish Sea,” is written from the perspective of Granny, the 103-year-old matriarch of the resident orcas. On the tour I’ll be talking about the effect of large ship noise on the orcas, and the dangers of increased oil spills caused by the export of coal and oil through the Salish Sea.
The first phase of the tour really happened in our region’s fight against the coal trains. In 2012-13 I did a 75-show tour, “The Great Coal Train Tour.” I travelled from eastern Montana back to Bellingham following the route of a proposed coal export train. The first show was on San Juan, then I went to Montana.
The Salish Sea tour is an extension of the coal train tour. The Salish Sea region is under siege right now. If the tar sands pipelines in British Columbia and the proposed coal and oil ports in Washington and Oregon go through, we are looking at an additional 2,700 giant ships going through the Salish Sea. This poses obvious dangers to the orcas and serious risk to the economies of B.C., Washington, and Oregon.
I’ll sing, I’ll tell a few jokes, but the purpose of the tour is to discuss the export proposals–and how we as communities, and we as a region, can beat them.
The Journal: What are some of your most memorable moments from the coal train tour?
Lyons: At the Friday Harbor show of the coal train tour I heard Val Veirs, the orca scientist, speak about the effect noise has on orcas. That played a big role in this tour. Seeing the leadership of the Native American nations fight coal and oil export has also been extremely moving for me.
This is the first issue I’ve ever worked on where I’ve been in the majority. People who identify as Democrats and Republicans come to my shows on the coal and oil export issue. The reason I think we can win this fight is because it’s both an environmental and economic issue. That right there unites people from all sides of the political spectrum.
The Journal: You’ve travelled all over the world as an activist and musician, but it’s obvious you have a special connection to Washington state. What’s it like playing closer to home as compared to far distances?
Lyons: I love playing closer to home because I love the Salish Sea region. It’s very exciting for me to work closer to home because I’m literally protecting my own community. One oil train explosion could blow up half of downtown Bellingham, and we’re not going to let that happen.
The other exciting thing about working on the issue here is not only are we going to help our region, but as Bill Mckibbens said, “The Pacific Northwest, more than any region in the world, has the greatest ability to reduce carbon emissions by acting as a cork in the export of fossil fuels from North America to Asia.”
Our region has been very successful in fighting these issues. Washington and Oregon have beaten four of the six coal ports, and I believe will go on to beat the remaining two. The people of B.C. have put lengthy delays on the two proposed tar sands pipelines, and over half the communities along the train route in Washington state have passed resolutions against the explosive oil trains.
While it’s going to be a tough and long battle, we’re doing very well.
The Journal: What about energy alternatives?
Lyons: We need to drastically increase alternative energies, solar and wind especially. If the government switched the subsidies from oil and coal to solar and wind, we’d have solar panels in every house.
The other thing we all have to work on is wasting less energy.
The Journal: You performed at the Elwha Dam Removal Ceremony, was that a big moment?
Lyons: One of the great moments of my career, and a very historic moment for our country. I was so honored to be there.
As a democracy we chose to remove a dam for the salmon, for the river, and to honor treaty obligations with the Native Americans.
It’s the only show of my life that I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.
The Journal: Do you mean you’re not so excited to play at the library that you won’t be able to sleep?
Lyons: Talk to me the night before the show.
The Journal: What are you looking forward to about your show here?
Lyons: I love the San Juan Islands and I have dear friends on San Juan. I’m going to be taking a sweat lodge with some of them after the show.
The organization Friends of the San Juans are doing a great job getting the word out about the coal and oil issues, so I hope to see them, and maybe see some orcas.
The Journal: If you could say one thing to people who feel hopeless about environmental issues, what would that be?
Lyons: In the environmental movement in recent years, I’ve seen the coming together of environmental and economy related issues.
Industrial over reach for resources has gotten so acute that large industries are willing to destroy regional economies for their resources. For example, big oil and coal are willing to potentially destroy a large part of the Salish Sea economy.
When one industry threatens a regions economy, that causes powerful coalitions to appear that have never existed before.
While it’s difficult to get a majority of people to agree to protect the environment it’s easy to get the majority to agree when the local economy is threatened. That’s a new development in the movement, and it makes me quite hopeful.
The Journal: Lastly, What did you have for breakfast?
Lyons: I’m making up a stir fry, half of which will end up with scrambled tofu for one part of the family, the other half with scrambled eggs.