By Andrea Lang Clifford, Policy Analyst
The last few posts on this blog series on Tribes & Renewables have explained the role of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in ensuring that federal agencies take into account the effects of federally approved renewable energy projects on tribal cultural resources. In particular, the last post in this series used the proposed Cape Wind Project on the Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts as an example of poor NHPA implementation, suggesting that federal agencies should include tribes in the decision process as early as possible so that their concerns can be better taken into account. While the NHPA does not require that federal agencies take action to protect cultural resources, it does require them to consult with tribes about the effects of their decisions on tribal cultural resources. This final post in the Tribes & Renewables series examines what federal agencies have done and can do in the future to improve tribal consultation and reach more informed decisions.
My blog post on the Cape Wind project highlighted the perils of poor consultation with tribes concerning renewable energy projects; making tribes feel as though they are a mere afterthought in such decisions may make tribes distrustful both of federal agencies and of renewable energy projects moving forward. Besides the straightforward recommendation that agencies should do a better job implementing the NHPA on a project-by-project basis, both tribes and federal agencies should also increase efforts to strengthen their relationships and build understanding outside the context of individual projects.
For example, five years ago in 2011, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers coordinated the “Tribal Summit on Renewable Energy:Protecting Tribal Cultural Resources.” Both federal agency and tribal representatives attended the event, where both sides spoke about their priorities, concerns, and thoughts on how future renewable energy projects should move forward. Such a collaborative effort, occurring outside the context of a specific project—where the stakes are often raised, particularly for tribes trying to protect a specific important cultural or sacred resource—is exactly the kind of event that may help tribal and agency representatives understand each other’s concerns and consult more meaningfully on future projects.
Participants at Forest Service Region 8’s 13th annual
“To Bridge a Gap” conference. Credit: U.S. Forest Service
Although no similar renewable energy development-focused summits have taken place, at least one of the Forest Service’s nine regions has taken steps to improve working relationships with tribes more broadly, and does so on an annual basis. Region 8 of the Forest Service, which manages all national forests in the Southeastern U.S., has for 15 years hosted its annual “To Bridge a Gap” conference to help build positive working relationships with tribes. This kind of working relationship can help an agency, when faced with a decision, to understand which tribes might be interested and how their concerns might be addressed.
In trying to balance renewable energy development with protecting tribal cultural resources on federal land, consultation under the NHPA plays a key role. The purpose of the NHPA is to result in better decision making through procedural means; that is, consulting with tribes to understand concerns about protection of culturally significant resources allows agencies to come to more informed decisions about how, where, and whether to site renewable energy projects on federal land. However, that process only works where both sides have a positive working relationship. These two examples of summits and conferences are an excellent model for building those relationships. Hopefully, more federal agencies, tribes, or other interest groups will organize similar events in the future.
This blog series has covered a range of issues relating to tribes and renewable energy. As a starting point, it’s important to recognize that American Indian tribes face disproportionate and unique problems as the Earth’s climate warms (Part I). Fortunately, developing renewable energy on tribal land not only helps combat climate change, but may also provide significant economic benefits for tribes (Part II) that can overcome some of the barriers to development on their land (Parts III & IV) . In terms of renewable energy development on federal land, tribes are often concerned that such projects may pose a risk to tribal cultural resources (Part V). Hopefully, as this post and Part VI covered, earnest consultation on individual projects and better working relationships between federal agencies and tribes can help renewable development occur in a way that does not compromise important tribal cultural resources.