Gaming now supports the environment

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WASHINGTON - Member tribes of the National Indian Gaming Association are putting gaming revenues to work to support education and most recently embarked in the area of environmental improvement and protection.

Financially supported by the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, tribes came together at a recent Caring for Mother Earth symposium to share ideas about programs they have implemented and financed with gaming revenues that continues the commitment to respecting and protecting the environment their ancestors passed on, tribal officials said.

The gaming tribes acted within the comments spoken by Chief Seattle: "Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life: We are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves."

Gaming revenues, spelled out in compacts and commitments, usually support jobs, schools, roads, police and fire departments, water systems, social programs and education. Now additional funding will be dedicated to environmental issues.

The Aqua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians representatives from California said the tribe has restored the sacred Tahquitz Canyon. People who lived in the canyon and many others who traveled through caused the canyon to deteriorate. Graffiti was prevalent on the canyon walls and litter and trash became a regular sight.

The Cahuilla sandblasted the graffiti off the walls, removed 400 tons of trash and eradicated non-native plant species. The canyon is now open to the public and rangers guide tours on a daily basis.

"The Tahquitz Canyon is a sacred place for the Cahuilla Indians. The restoration of Tahquitz Canyon and our other programs would not have been possible if it were not for the gaming revenue," said Michael Kellner, director of the bands' Natural Resources Department.

The Aqua Caliente supports this and other programs without outside revenues. The band began a Tribal Ranger Program and a Junior Ranger Program for children ages 6 to 12. It also funds the Tahquitz Canyon Wetlands Study, Trail Assessment, eradication of non-native plants and the Tahquitz Canyon's Visitor's Center. An estimated 50,000 visitors will tour the canyon each year.

Some tribes with casinos are able only to support families with jobs and bring a small return to the tribe if any profit is made at all. This doesn't mean the tribes have to abandon or not consider environmental programs. John Berry, executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, said his organization partners with organizations such as tribes to fund restoration programs.

"I am aware of the funding needs in Indian country, especially in the area of restoration and preservation of lands and resources. I understand the leadership role that tribes have had with environmental issues."

He added that the foundation was ready to continue working with the tribes to develop the programs and to work with the National Indian Gaming Association to consult and provide funding for these special projects.

Without gaming revenue the Santa Ana Pueblo in New Mexico would not have been able to restore habitat and the Bosque on the Rio Grande River, Todd Caplan, Restoration Program director for the pueblo said.

More than 50 years of river control and channel alteration adversely affected the river flow creating a narrow, deep single channel. Two fish native to the river, the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow and the Southwest Flycatcher, are endangered. The Cottonwood and Willow plants cannot sustain themselves because of the change in the river.

Santa Ana Pueblo invested million of dollars to restore the Bosque to its natural state and the Pueblo Restoration Program has been worked to restore the river to its natural wide and shallow state.

The Sandia Pueblo won the Partnership for Environmental Excellence Award for its work to improve the water quality standards of the Rio Grande River. The Sandia Pueblo was one of eight tribes that won the High Honors Award from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University for excellence in self-governance on water quality.

The Mohegan Tribe put plans together to restore one of its traditional means of sustenance, the harvesting of fish and shellfish. Aquaculture technology will be used by the Mohegans to bring back the dwindling population of fish and shellfish in their area. This project is designed to not only help the Mohegan tribe, but the communities in the region. Fish and shellfish have been a staple of the Mohegan diet for centuries and now the tribe will not only supply this traditional food to its members but will also supply the product to area restaurants and food suppliers under the brand name Mohegan Brand Seafood Products.