They’re among North America’s most vulnerable population groups, and their 95 million acres of tribal lands present Native Americans with a complex array of challenges and opportunities as they confront a warming climate.

Native Americans are expected to be among the population groups most vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change.

“The tribes are on the front lines of climate change,” Garrit Voggesser, national director, tribal partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, said in a recent phone interview. The organization’s August 2011 report, “Facing the Storm,” found that extreme heat waves and drought projected in a warmer climate can harm plants, increase wildlife mortality and heighten risks of wildfires and habitat loss.

Garrit Voggesser of National Wildlife Federation

Noting their heavy reliance on natural resources and their subsistence from plants and animals, Voggesser emphasized that Native Americans are wedded to their land and resistant to relocating to escape harsh consequences.

Tribes manage 95 million acres, 11 million acres more than the National Park Service, with many reservations home to diverse habitats. The Wildlife Federation’s report seeks to demonstrate the tribes’ needs for more resources to adapt to a changing climate.

Noting the public’s romantic notion of tribes and their connection to nature, Voggesser points to substantial variation among the 565 recognized tribes. “They’re a microcosm of American society. Some are very concerned about the environment,” while others are more focused on short-term jobs and, for instance, increased drilling for oil and gas, he said. With overall unemployment rates at 45 percent, many tribes are eager to tap into resources on their land that generate revenue. However, he said, most also recognize adverse impacts of climate change and see a need to address those concerns.

‘… the Guardians of Mother Earth’

Native Americans’ drive to protect the earth is of course steeped in history. Alfredo Acosta Figueroa, now 77 and a descendant of the Chemehuevi Tribe, recalled in a phone interview a 113-day peaceful occupation he led to protest The Ward Valley Nuclear Waste Dump, leading to the government’s 1998 decision to abandon its plans for radioactive waste disposal.

Alfredo Acosta Figueroa, a long-time Chemehuevi Tribe activist

“We were placed here on Earth to be the guardians of Mother Earth,” he said.

Many Native Americans revere the inter-connectedness of the natural world. You can’t take action in one part of the environment and have no repercussions elsewhere, says Bob Gough, a descendant of the Lenape Tribe in Canada who is secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, a non-profit representing 15 tribes in the Upper Great Plain states. “We are all related,” so “you behave differently” and treat resources as part of a big family, he said.

James Steele, former chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, represented his tribal leadership at 2010 climate negotiations in Copenhagen.  He said in a phone interview that other countries have done more than the U.S. to officially and effectively involve native populations in climate change talks.

Native American tribes’ climate-related activities span numerous initiatives. Some focus on moving to “clean” renewable energy to bring electricity to those not now on the grid. Others are developing climate change action plans and fighting actions they see endangering the environment.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 2006 passed resolutions calling for a mandatory national program to address climate change. In December 2010, it sent a formal recommendation to the White House Tribal Nations Summit asking that tribes have a formal consultative role in developing federal climate change policy and seeking equal access to climate change adaptation funding. In 2011, the organization passed a resolution opposing the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Research Under Way on Adaptation Strategies

A number of activities are under way to address Native Americans’ approaches to adapting to a warmer climate.

The U.S. Geological Survey seeks this year to wrap up a six-year geological mapping project for the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribal Lands to provide information for land use planning. “Climate change adaptation at the very core is land use planning,” said Margaret Hiza Redsteer, project chief of the USGS Navajo Land Use Planning Project in a phone interview. The maps are to be used to look for oil shale or find aquifers, for example, to help developers avoid inadvertently drilling through an aquifer in pursuit of energy resources.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Law School have used a seed grant to draft climate adaptation and renewable energy reports for the Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe under a program called The Native Communities and Climate Change Initiative. The effort, now funded primarily by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, began with seed money from the University of Colorado’s Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute.

Sara Krakoff hopes to see tribes ‘leapfrog’ problems associated with fossil fuels.

Sarah Krakoff, who is involved in the initiative, said in an e-mail that reports for both of these tribes also outlined funding opportunities in renewable energy, helping tribes ensure a strong economic base while reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses. In a phone interview, she said many tribes take advantage of renewable energy to “leapfrog” problems associated with fossil fuels while providing adequate energy supplies for their people. For example, she said, 18,000 households in the Navajo Nation are off the grid, relying on such primitive power sources as kerosene and propane.

Renewable energy could help provide economic opportunities and “get electricity to their own people” without increased reliance on environmentally damaging sources of power, she said. In a follow-up e-mail, she said that tribes are generally receptive to ideas about how to reduce emissions and adapt to changing natural resource conditions. But she said each tribe’s capacity varies, “depending on economic resources and other pressing natural resource concerns.” She said tribes in the Pacific Northwest are leaders in climate adaptation and that the Swinomish, Tulalip, and Quinault Tribes, in particular, have taken important steps toward comprehensive climate and natural resources planning.

A Flood as an Omen … and a ‘Need to Deal with It’

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in LaConner, Washington, is the first tribe to undertake a comprehensive assessment study and develop climate adaptation plans. The impetus behind the effort appears to have been a strong 2006 storm that pushed tides two to three feet above normal, resulting in flooding.

In a telephone interview, Ed Knight, a senior planner for the tribe, recalled thinking, “if this is a taste for things to come, we need to deal with it.” With federal funding, the group put together a two-year project, initially assessing impacts, including those associated with sea level rise, in various areas. The second part, completed in 2010, included an action and strategies plan in response to anticipated impacts. A shoreline protection recommendation seeks to protect various areas from sea level rises, and another is aimed at preventing wildfires.

One of the most expansive tribal solar projects is being spearheaded by Lakota Solar Enterprises, located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. One of the nation’s first 100 percent Native American-owned and operated renewable energy companies, the tribal renewable energy program provides reasonably priced solar heating and installs solar air heaters on tribal homes, saving families 20 to 30 percent on monthly heating costs in an area where unemployment levels have reached 85 percent.

That kind of success doesn’t hold, however, for all tribes’ renewable energy efforts. A four-megawatt solar project proposed in 2006 for the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico recently was discontinued, when the tribe’s Governor suspended efforts to develop the project. The tribe would have been among the first to sell solar energy on the open market, but it could not find a buyer for the power.

Greg Kaufman, director of the Pueblo of Jemez Natural Resources Department, in a phone interview pointed to the challenges of the tribe’s rural location. Still, he said the tribe has a $5 million Department of Energy-funded geothermal exploration under way, to be completed by 2014. “We’re far more optimistic about this than with solar” since it will be a consistent, rather than intermittent, power source, Kaufman said.

Jose Aguto fears some problems from mainstream cultural influences.

Jose Aguto, until this past January a policy advisor for the National Congress of American Indians on climate change, clean energy, natural resources, and the environment, said in a phone interview that he believes the traditional relationship Native Americans had with the land has been tarnished by the influences of mainstream western culture. By forcing Native Americans to become part of the economic stream of commerce rather than being sustained by resources on their own lands, Native American values have been altered, he said.

Pointing to troubling economic and social conditions and high unemployment, “What choice does a tribal leader have but to search for any and all ways to care for his people?” he asked. “The resource curse visits the indigenous people, and they’re forced into the most profound conflict: do I extract coal, uranium, and oil and gas inconsistent with my values, yet knowing my people are unemployed? That’s the cosmic choice that so many tribes have tragically had to encounter.”

‘They always say it is safe, but …’

Fracking activities related to North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation some 10,000 feet underground illustrate the tensions dividing different tribes. New fracking practices promising to bring shale oil to the surface have led to an explosion in land-leasing activities on tribal lands, elevating North Dakota to second among the states in oil production. Most of the oil production is occurring at The Three Affiliated Tribes.

Theodora Birdbear, a member of The Three Affiliated Tribes, says she is concerned about impacts on groundwater supplies as wells are drilled under a lake that is the tribes’ primary drinking water source.

“They always say it’s safe, but we don’t know that,” she said in a phone interview. She worries too about health effects from dust that’s stirred-up by numerous heavy vehicles and trucks.

Birdbear is concerned also because she feels the tribal government has a history of poor enforcement. “I feel that there will be long-term impacts, and I fear our government is not up to the level it needs to be to adequately address these corporations,” she says. “I think when you rush into something like this, it can jeopardize your future. There’s just a need to slow down” and better examine impacts.

Weighing Economic Costs and Benefits

Others, however, point to economic gains associated with the energy development.

Fred Fox, who oversees oil and gas production for The Three Affiliated Tribes, said in a phone interview that the tribes see oil production as a huge economic opportunity in an area which long had suffered high unemployment. And Dewey Hosie, deputy director of the tribal employment rights office, said that now “most of our people who want to enter the work force are working.”

In the first five months of 2012, the tribes earned $21.5 million in royalties, and the numbers are likely to be double what they were in 2011, Fox said. He acknowledges that the activity has a price: Some roads are severely deteriorated and repairs will cost $1.2 million per mile because they weren’t built for the heavy oil fields traffic they now experience, and there are one to two oil spills a week.

Joe Gillies, Jr., the tribes’ environmental division director, acknowledged Birdbear’s concerns in a phone interview, but pointed to the nature of the business, and said his division seeks prompt cleanups of spills. “We’re trying to be stewards of the land as much as we can and investigate environmentally cutting-edge ways for this production to use less water and inject less into the ground,” avoiding contamination, he said.

Wahleah Johns, with The Black Mesa Water Coalition in Arizona, is focused on transitioning coal plants located near low-income areas that surround the Navajo Nation into cleaner sources of energy, like wind and solar. The group successfully opposed an effort by owners of the Mohave Generating Station to use the tribe’s groundwater as a source of transport for the coal, helping to shut down that facility in 2006. In July 2009, the Navajo Nation Council adopted efforts to develop green businesses, and Johns says a key goal is to create jobs to address the tribe’s 48 percent unemployment rate. For example, she said her organization is encouraging finding a market for wool provided by sheep on the reservation. It’s also looking at former mining site brownfields for a possible utility-scale solar project.

Utah’s Green River: ‘Where they were born … where they’ll die’

Green River nuclear project protesters in Utah

One of the most controversial current disputes on Indian land involves the nuclear plant proposed on the Green River in Utah by Blue Castle Holdings, a project Figueroa and other tribes are protesting.

Bradley Angel, executive director for the secular environmental group, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, said in a phone interview that tribes feel obliged by their creator to protect the river. “If the power plant caused damage, they would have to move. They believe this is where they were born and this is where they’ll die, so they take these threats extremely seriously.”

He argues that nuclear power is not the answer to the need for more energy resources and says the tribes bring “an unwavering commitment” to protecting a river that “is the lifeblood for tens of millions of people.” Angel said his group has also united with lower Colorado River tribes, such as the Fort Mojave, Quechan and Chemehuevi Tribes, to oppose industrial scale solar projects in sensitive desert ecosystems and also those on or next to sacred and culturally significant sites.

Such projects, proposed for the Mojave desert, have been supported by California Governor Jerry Brown, President Obama, and Department of the Interior, Angel said. “We want to see solar panels on rooftops, not in sensitive desert ecosystems or on top of Native American sacred sites.”

For veteran Native American activist Acosta Figueroa, “it’s really never over.” With so many projects being proposed that pose potentially dangerous impacts to native lands, he said, tribes will have to “continue the struggle to protect Mother Earth to maintain the harmonious equilibrium.”

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience covering the environment. Her work has appeared regularly in dozens of national publications including Newsweek, The New...