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Congressional Empowerment for the Stewards of America
~ Chase Voirin
Native American tribes have been the stewards
of land and natural resources in the United States
of America for millennia. Centuries of honing
skills to live in unison across a suite of natural
ecosystems has established an
interconnectedness between tribes and nature
that is interwoven to the point of a filial bond.
This has enabled tribes to utilize natural resources in a sustainable fashion, and this is evident within the fabric of Native American culture. This stewardship was in existence prior to European arrival on the North American continent. And Native American tribes continue to possess a sense of responsibility to continue caring for natural ecosystems, ensuring that they continue to provide the natural resources for future generations that their ancestors used and protected.
This stewardship of natural resources has become more difficult with imminent climate change presenting challenges not seen in centuries. While Native American people have endured several rounds of challenges posed by the climate while inhabiting North America, the rapidity of changes brought about by the current climate crisis is making it exceedingly difficult to manage natural ecosystems to a level of dependability, thereby challenging the survival of Native American culture. 1) From the increase in ocean temperatures affecting marine species populations in the Pacific northwest, to extreme droughts in the desert Southwest, to mass die-offs of trees in forests exacerbating large wildfires, climate change has driven a combination of challenges for Native American tribes to continue stewarding the land and its natural resources.
Hope may be on the horizon through the ratification of the Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law in August 2022 by President Joe Biden. 2) This fresh piece of legislation calls for the allocation of $720 million in climate resilience and energy funding directly to tribes, including $235 million for tribal climate resilience, $225 million for tribes to develop high-efficiency electric home rebate programs, $75 million for energy loan programs, and $25 million specifically designated to enhance Native Hawaiian climate resilience. This represents an unprecedented amount of funding towards renewable energy development and climate change mitigation actions on tribal lands.
Considering the diversity of ecosystems Native American tribes steward, perhaps this level of federal funding to enable tribes to cope with the damages of climate change is long overdue.
3) There are 574 federally recognized tribes across the contiguous 48 states and Alaska, and they inhabit a wide range of ecosystems from each coast of the U.S. 4) And while tribal lands comprise approximately 5.8% of the total U.S. land base, they represent an estimated 6.5% of the total U.S. utility-scale renewable energy technical potential, which considering the size of the country is fairly impressive. These renewable resources include solar and wind energy, which have grown in development and scale of use through reduced costs of production, increased efficiency through technological innovation, and favorable financial incentives from both federal and state governments. Funding from the Inflation Reduction Act may provide a tailwind for further renewable energy development on tribal lands. Additionally, tribal members residing on tribal lands may benefit from construction of more efficient homes and utility services from this act.
As with every piece of legislation, there are some drawbacks to Native American tribes and land with the Inflation Reduction Act. 2) Despite the benefits of possible renewable energy development and the increase in climate resiliency on tribal lands, the act continues to provide new opportunities for oil and gas development on public lands, including those adjacent to or
near tribal lands. 2) Additionally, there are new incentives for mining development for critical minerals such as, nickel, copper, lithium and cobalt, which enables the increased production of electric vehicles and batteries with long-term energy storage capabilities. 5)The majority of deposits for the aforementioned minerals are located within 35 miles of a Native American reservation, which often affect cultural resources that may not be found anywhere else. 2) Additionally, the act may streamline the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process for the development of extractive resources on federal lands, which is a key tool for federal entities to analyze the full impacts of these developments. Needless to say, much of these parts of the act may lead to serious conflict among Native American tribes, federal and state government entities, and private companies.
It may take some time to fully understand the consequences of the Inflation Reduction Act to tribes as funding continues to percolate down from the federal government. However, the act is most likely an overall positive first step for tribes to improve their climate resiliency needs, and to help the nation combat rapid climate change. No matter what the outcome, Native Americans will continue to serve as stewards of the this country’s ecosystems and natural resources. That is a responsibility bestowed upon tribes from their ancestors, and which will be passed down to future generations. One can only hope that the nation continues to support these stewards with whatever resources they need because that will be to the benefit of people from all walks of life who live in the U.S., and with continued support it will also benefit those around the world.
1 U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit. 2020. Tribal Nations. Available at https://toolkit.climate.gov/topics/tribal-nations. Visited on 16 December 2022.
2 Smith, A.V. 2022. What the Inflation Reduction Act means for Indian Country. High Country News. Available at https://www.hcn.org/articles/indigenous-affairs-politics-what-the-inflation-reduction-act-means-for-indian-country. Visited on 16 December 2022.
3 USA.gov. 2022. 2Federally Recognized Indian Tribes and Resources for Native Americans. Available at https://www.usa.gov/tribes. Visited on 16 December 2022.
4 Milbrandt, A., D. Heimiller, and P. Schwabe. 2018. Techno-Economic Renewable Energy Potential on Tribal Lands. Golden, CO:National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NREL/TP-6A20-70807. www.nrel.gov/docs/fy18osti/70807.pdf.
5 Block, S. 2021. Mining Energy-Transition Metals: National Aims, Local Conflicts. MSCI. Available at https://www.msci.com/www/blog-posts/mining-energy-transition-metals/02531033947. Visited on 16 December 2022.