U.S. Geological Survey, tribal colleges partner for climate change research

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BISMARCK, N.D. - Tribal colleges have addressed climate change and may be the best resource for Indian country to conduct research so that data can be used to adapt and create laws that slow it down, on the reservations in particular.

Tribal councils have to be at the table but they are busy dealing with people issues every day, which leaves the work up to the colleges, said Phil Baird, member of the United Tribes Technical College faculty.

Tribal colleges can't do the research without funding and help, so a partnership between some of the colleges and the U.S. Geological Survey created an organization called Native View. With USGS help and guidance, the colleges are now directly involved with researching climate change.

''Tribal colleges are challenged by the issue and the training wheels are off. We have taken a personal challenge and there is tremendous reward,'' said James Rattling Leaf, president of Native View.

Climate change will impact Indian country culturally, socially and economically. Studies on how to build new energy-efficient homes, and what type of energy to create the most efficient and economical heating and cooling for homes, businesses and office buildings, are under way. Tribal colleges are looking to create green campuses; Turtle Mountain Community College is the first in the Great Plains to go green.

In 2000, the USGS met with tribal leaders on the Rosebud Reservation and developed a cooperative agreement. Discussions took place with top-level USGS management, something that had never been accomplished before, and Sinte Gleska, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and USGS became partners.

''We need objective observational data. Climate change requires knowledge and I'm glad to have this discussion in this room,'' said USGS Director Mark Myers.

''We need partnerships who know how to work together for knowledge. It is remarkable to see the expertise in this room,'' he said of the participants of the sixth annual Native View College Forum.

Myers said that climate change was real, and that the country is now out of the denial stage and has moved into the ''what do we do about it'' stage.

What is required now is a method of managing the change by improving alternative energy, because it is not expected that the country will be weaned off fossil fuels soon.

''Water is a big issue. We have to manage water for our ecosystems in a way we haven't. We don't have any data on how much water we use, and the population is growing. We don't have a groundwater census,'' Myers said.

''We have the tools to do the assessment, but we need bold leadership.''

Myers gave the faculty members and students plenty of issues and ideas for future research and additions to curriculum. He asked people to think how wildlife reserves could be managed when the species they were established to protect no longer use the area because of climate differences. Rising sea levels and intense erosion will be a huge problem for Alaska Natives who live along the coastlines.

''Do we move the villages? The permafrost is melting and we see the release of more carbon; soils are now releasing carbon and methane into the atmosphere. Invasive species are significant worldwide and there is an increase in the length of fire seasons,'' Myers said.

With all of this occurring at once, a baseline is needed in order to help scientists determine what to do - and tribal colleges can help document those baselines. ''Science needs to be done on partnerships and we need Native understanding. Bring the culture and the science together.

''Tribal colleges bring the message; you have a cadre of natural scientists and they can help manage your own land and export the knowledge,'' Myers said. ''You have the natural knowledge.

''Climate change brings out the discussion to find the answers and we have to make tough decisions as a nation but we haven't done that yet.''

''This coalition developed not because the director of USGS had a brilliant idea, it developed because scientists on the ground with tribal leaders got together and said wouldn't this be great, couldn't we do this, then you got support from senior management.''

The USGS scientists, the tribal college scientists and the students can work together as a coalition and the senior leadership in the federal government can provide some of the capacity to succeed. Too often, Myers said, the vision is limited to where everyone wants to go because it is tied to funding.

The present administration has done little to encourage changes in management of the environment to slow down the climate change; and Oglala Lakota College President Tom Short Bull said when people are more concerned with other issues like reproductive rights nothing will be done on climate change.

''We don't have the political will to make change,'' Shortbull said.

Myers said that the USGS has to be absolute and if it is not, the science is questioned. It cannot be an advocacy organization because, again, the science will be questioned.

''We are at the point where we need to do something about [climate change]; that's not a question, that's where the debate ended. We are at that next stage of how do you manage it and on what scale and how do you adapt to it and how do you mitigate it,'' Myers said.

''We have seen change in public opinion to say climate change is real and it's happening and we need to be able to manage it.''