Native land matters are complicated and unique, especially when it comes to environmental protection. It’s difficult to find environmental consultants who can navigate the complex regulatory framework while protecting the interests of the tribe. Environmental investigation and remediation activities at culturally significant project locations require an added level of discriminating and subtle effort that only few consultants can provide.
According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, approximately 56.2 million acres currently are held in trust by the government for tribes and individual Indians. There are approximately 326 federal Indian reservations or other tribal land areas. U.S. policies allow ownership of portions of native lands by non-Native Americans. Maintaining their land and natural resources is crucial to preserving the rich cultural heritage of Native Americans. This becomes complicated in matters of water rights, hunting and fishing rights, and environmental protection.
In this blog, we’ll explore four issues unique to the environmental protection at culturally sensitive project sites.
The patchwork of reservations, tribal lands, and Non-Native American ownership of tribal land has been the root of disputes over jurisdictional matters related to ownership, boundaries, access, and control between tribal, state, and federal governments. As sovereign nations, Native Americans have the right to govern the environment within their territory. Federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act allow tribes to enforce federal environmental programs. Natural resources, like groundwater, often cross jurisdictional boundaries. Protecting and restoring these resources requires an extensive amount of stakeholder engagement, deep understanding of both tribal and government regulations, and often involve lawsuits.
For example, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island (ACSPI) announced a new model for equitable tribal co-management of sensitive marine areas in their Alaskan territory. According to their press release, “The governance framework of the Pribilof Islands Marine Ecosystem (PRIME) Initiative will reflect co-management between the federal government and the federally recognized tribal governments of St. Paul and St. George for the waters within 100 nautical miles of the Pribilof Islands. Tribal government-led, dynamic conservation and management measures will result in the most effective management of the PRIME and provide for the inclusion of the Pribilof communities, fishing industry partners and other businesses, state and federal representatives, and other stakeholders throughout the process and implementation.”
Respect for sacred and culturally significant lands is another common issue for environmental remediation on tribal lands. Native Americans, government agencies, and private sector businesses are rarely aligned when it comes to valuing economic, cultural, and spiritual connections of natural resources.
For example, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sits on the ancestral range of the Gwich’in people. It is sacred land to them and key to their survival. They call this coast plane “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins”. The Gwich’in have maintained a sacred relationship to the land and the caribou as part of their culture, identity, and integrity as the indigenous inhabitants of the area. The Gwich’in and concerned citizens from around the world have fought to project this land from development by the oil and gas industry. In August 2020, the federal government approved oil and gas development in the area. Immediately, three Gwich’in tribes filed suit to project the Refuge. In June 2021, the U.S. Department of Interior released a statement announcing a pause on oil and gas development in the Refuge while the department conducted a new environmental impact statement.
Stakeholder engagement is the process of involving the individuals or groups of people potentially, or actually, impacted by a proposed remedial action throughout the entire project lifecycle- analysis, planning, and implementation.
Regarding matters of environmental protection, the priority of concerns between indigenous peoples, neighboring non-indigenous communities, private sector business, and government agencies are not necessary in parallel. Stakeholder engagement seeks to establish mutual respect and agreement on the project goals and the patch to achieve those goals.
Hargis has been a long standing partner with an Indian Tribe in a case involving the construction of a groundwater remediation facility on land sacred to regional tribes. Consultative and technical working groups involving representatives from the tribes, the State and Federal regulatory agencies, and the utility company involved in the source pollution have been meeting to review environmental data, assess project developments and schedules, and resolve issues that arose during all project phases. For more information on this project, read our case study. Environmental Remediation on Native Lands
Environmental justice (EJ) seeks to provide the same degree of environmental and health protection as well as equal access to the decision-making process. EJ efforts are often focused on communities of low income, minority status, and indigenous peoples.
The US EPA launched its EJ program in 1992 and in 2014 published its Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples. According to the EPA’s website, “This Policy explains how the Agency works with tribes and other indigenous groups and members to protect the environment and public health in Indian country and in other areas of interest to tribes and other indigenous peoples. The Policy also talks about how EPA works with indigenous peoples throughout the United States.”
Environmental investigation and remediation on Native lands requires a unique set of qualifications- environmental experts who understand how to navigate the complexity of environmental regulation and jurisdiction, cultural sensitivities, stakeholder engagement, and environmental justice. Understanding the special interests of indigenous peoples takes years of close collaboration, a deep level of trust, and integrity.
Hargis has successfully coordinated with our clients, responsible parties, and agencies on working toward a remedy that effectively resolves the environmental issues, while protecting the sacred landscape in the best possible way. If you’d like more information on our existing projects at Native American sites, or would like to talk to a Tribal reference, we can easily coordinate. Feel free to contact me directly or through our website to discuss your project.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anthony Rossi, MS, PE
Hargis + Associates
Tony has more than two decades of professional experience in civil and environmental engineering for federal government, state government, and commercial clients. Tony helps clients navigate the complex environmental regulatory landscape and mitigate risk through feasibility studies, and optimization of environmental remediation systems and liquid industrial waste treatment systems, and stakeholder communication. Tony has worked with Native American tribes to protect their interests and preserve cultural resources during complex environmental remediation projects.