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Northwest Tribes Share Expertise

Grand Coulee dam

Bringing Experience, Holistic Approach to Renewables Work

When it comes to deep understanding of how renewable energy can impact land and water use, American Indian tribes in the Northwest are leading the way, according to Dr. Dan Schwartz, a University of Washington professor of chemical engineering and director of UW's Ph.D. program in Bioresource-based Energy for Sustainable Societies.

He and Dr. Adrian Leighton, a forestry professor at Salish Kootenai College, are bringing their experience working with Northwest tribes on energy and environmental issues to bear on the goals of the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance spearheaded by Washington State University.

"Northwest tribes have more than 70 years of experience understanding those impacts for hydropower. This boots-on-the-ground experience makes them thought-leaders and ideal NARA partners in community-based renewables research."

—Dr. Dan Schwartz

"A grand challenge with all renewable energy projects is understanding how technology will change land and water use; what are the environmental, social, and economic impacts of different engineering and resource choices," Schwartz said. "Northwest tribes have more than 70 years of experience understanding those impacts for hydropower. This boots-on-the-ground experience makes them thought-leaders and ideal NARA partners in community-based renewables research."

Leighton, co-chair of the Intertribal Timber Council's research subcommittee, agreed. "Most tribes have a long-term, place-based perspective on resource management," he said.

"When the land is intimately tied to your sense of identity as well as cultural and physical survival, you tend to take a flexible, big picture view. This is especially true when it comes to renewable energy. At Salish Kootenai College, we have almost 100 Native American students from over 19 tribes all pursuing bachelor's degrees in natural resources, and most of them want to go home and help their tribes manage their land and associated resources," Leighton added. ITC is a consortium of 65 tribes that manage tribal forest resources.

Both Leighton and Schwartz said the tribes embrace a much more holistic perspective to natural resource management.

group photo

"Our partner tribes are trying to develop sustainable economic prosperity through their natural resources," Schwartz said. "Meaningful employment opportunities, as well as a re-connection to their natural resources, are a top priority for most tribes. This is the case in many rural communities, who have also been connected with their natural resources, but now suffer high rates of un- or under-employment. For both, there are natural resources to use in a sustainable manner to alleviate unemployment and to re-connect people to their land.

"What we have found through our prior partnerships is that the tribes think holistically; they don't have siloed energy, natural resource, economic development and business enterprises," Schwartz added.

During the spring of 2003, faculty from the UW School of Forest Resources were re-designing their curriculum and, at the same time, were invited by tribal members of the Yakama Nation and former alumni to visit the Nation and to think about including a field trip to the Nation as part of the new curriculum. Since the fall of 2003, almost 300 students and faculty have visited the Nation for a two-day field trip to learn about resource management, restoration, and stewardship from tribal members.

Students said they were impressed by how tribal members shared their knowledge and the fact that it was a living culture, relying on past knowledge and traditions, current cutting-technologies, and a vision for the future to set stewardship goals. Land stewardship was integrated in that it (1) by design connected families to their land, (2) provided employment and resources for their mills, (3) increased the resilience of their forests against fire and insects, (4) acknowledged and protected cultural features, (5) restored sub-alpine meadows and streams as well as Toppenish Creek as it made its way down the Yakima Valley.

Finally, students have noted the strong sense of this place as the Nation's home since the beginning of time and, therefore, critical to sustain for the future.

Schwartz built on this relationship and started his work with tribes and renewable energy in 2007, after receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation to create the Bioresource-based Energy for Sustainable Societies Ph.D. program. The program is a partnership with the UW School of Forest Resources. Interdisciplinary graduate student teams collaborate with Northwest tribes to identify potential bioenergy projects tailored to their lands. Those teams already have completed projects with the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation in Washington as well as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana.

For the NARA project, Schwartz said student teams will conduct research "on all aspects of the life cycle of a renewable energy product" to make sure it can sustain many generations forward.

"Working in our labs, we all are making advances on the frontiers of our disciplines," Schwartz said, "But many of the reasons why renewable energy products never make it to market are societal. We'll be looking at that via community-based research."

And at the end of the project, what does success look like?

"Success for NARA has several dimensions," Schwartz said. "Personally, I'm hoping to franchise our approach for university-tribal research partnerships." He noted that past UW-tribal partnerships have defined unique research questions driven by the complementary knowledge each partner brings to the challenge of integrating resources, landscapes, people, and energy technologies.

"Secondly," said Schwartz, "if successful, we will advance practical solutions to real world challenges, and I mean, beyond the technological challenges. For example, is the community concerned about the number of trucks on the road? Are there creative research-based solutions to avoid possible social resistance? We can help inform all of NARA's work with these kinds of projects."

Finally, Schwartz said, success will mean a further expansion in the number of Native Americans pursuing graduate degrees in natural resource sciences and engineering. The growth of those numbers in his program at UW has been met with enthusiasm by other students, he said.

"We did a survey recently, and the No. 1 thing most valued by the students was the diversity of their cohorts and the diversity of perspectives that brought to everything they did." He added, "I feel the same way."