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In a first step towards fulfilling a national goal set by President Biden’s Executive Order 14008 to conserve 30 percent of the United States, on land and at sea, by 2030, the Biden Administration released a joint report from the offices of the Department of Interior, United States Department of Agriculture, United States Department of Commerce, and the Council on Environmental Quality entitled, “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful.”

The 30x30 goal – and this new campaign – is welcome news to many tribal leaders. American Indian tribes, Alaska Native tribes and villages, and Native Hawaiians have a unique role in designing and implementing 30x30 policy. This country’s landscapes, celestial scapes, and ocean scapes have been under the management of Indigenous peoples for centuries. Listening to and understanding Indigenous knowledge and teachings will be critical to the Biden administration’s success.

Over the last few months, tribal leaders have been convening to discuss how the implementation of 30x30 can support the ongoing work of tribal nations to manage and protect our natural and cultural heritage, and support our economic well-being. These conversations resulted in the Tribal Leader Statement on 30x30 Policy and an op-ed from four tribal leaders in Indian Country Today.

(Related: Tribal leaders: ‘Support the ‘30 by 30 initiative’ to protect 30 percent of US lands and waters’)

In the op-ed, W. Ron Allen, Chairman of Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, Leonard Forsman, Chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, Reno Keoni Franklin, Chairman Emeritus of The Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, and Aaron Payment, Chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians wrote:

“The 30x30 policy serves as a vitally important opportunity to safeguard the environment, tribal cultural values, strengthen the Nation-to-Nation relationship, and uphold tribal sovereignty and self-determination. In order for the 30x30 initiative to succeed, we call on federal implementers to uphold tribal sovereignty, ensure meaningful government-to-government consultation, ensure that tribes have a key leadership seat at the policymaking table, provide sufficient resources to ensure tribal capacity to safeguard lands and waters and build in evaluation mechanisms to ensure that protected areas are serving the interests of tribes.”

Since the time of publication of the op-ed in Indian Country Today, 12 additional tribal leaders from nations across the country alongside three additional national tribally-led conservation organizations have endorsed the priorities listed in the Tribal Leaders Statement.

The first tribal priority in the series of priorities articulated to the Biden Administration was that of recognizing tribal sovereignty. Tribal nations have gone too long either minimalized or left-out of dialogues entirely when it comes to the conservation, restoration, and protection of their traditional homelands. It was important that this Administration include Indigenous voices within their listening sessions as they produced this report to honor the existing government-to-government relationship between the federal government, Indian tribes, & Alaska Natives.

In their joint report, Federal agencies outline a series of principles for locally-led efforts to conserve and restore “America the Beautiful.” Of which, principle #4 sets out to “honor tribal sovereignty and support the priorities of tribal nations.”

Principle 1: Pursue a collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation.

Principle 2: Conserve America’s lands and waters for the benefit of all people.

Principle 3: Support locally led and locally designed conservation efforts.

Principle 4: Honor tribal sovereignty and support the priorities of tribal nations.

Principle 5: Pursue conservation and restoration approaches that create jobs and support healthy communities.

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Principle 6: Honor private property rights and support the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners and fishers.

Principle 7: Use science as a guide.

Principle 8: Build on existing tools and strategies with an emphasis on flexibility and adaptive approaches.

The tribal leaders involved in this advocacy for tribal inclusion in 30x30 policy discussions have helped to cement the necessity for the federal government to honor tribal sovereignty and support tribal priorities in 30x30 efforts. Keeping this in focus will only help to build ongoing conservation efforts already being put forward by tribal nations all across this country.

The joint report further outlines measures to help keep track of the progress of this effort. Each year, the Secretary of the Interior will be responsible for providing reports to the National Climate Task Force with updates on this progress. During a meeting with tribal leaders and members of the DOI team, upon the release of the report, it was reminded that their team is viewing this as only an initial step to address the climate crisis.

The joint report put forward two (2) recommendations to begin this work:

American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas: establishing an interagency working group led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and NOAA, in partnership with other federal agencies to develop and track a clear baseline of information on lands and waters that have already been conserved or restored.

America the Beautiful updates: publishing an annual, publicly available America the Beautiful report that includes progress, assessment, and review of the identified principles. The first is to be published by the end of 2021.

Perhaps most promising comes towards the end of the joint report which states that an early focus of the “America the Beautiful,” campaign will be to support tribally-led conservation and restoration priorities. In this section, the joint report acknowledges the major barriers tribes and Alaska Natives have faced as they implement conservation efforts to save traditional homelands from the climate crisis. 

Tribes and Alaska Natives have had to compete with private universities and conservation organizations that are often more heavily resourced. Being out-staffed, and underfunded has resulted in the omission of Indigenous knowledge and traditional conservation in the climate conservation space.

In what may be an unprecedented first, this joint report states that there will prioritization for restoring tribal homelands by improving the land into trust process citing data in their joint report that “tribes have time and time again proven to be the most effective stewards of natural resources.”

It is such an integral time for tribal nations to meet these opportunities of engagement with federal partners for the protection and conservation of traditional homelands. For perhaps the first time in black and white, a federal report has documented a commitment to honoring tribal sovereignty and tribal priorities in tribally-led conservation efforts and cited science-driven data that acknowledges the contributions of the many tribal nations protecting traditional homelands as the most effective stewards of this land.

The clock is ticking, let’s get to work.

Ashley Hemmers, NPM, MPA
Fort Mojave Indian Tribe Administrator
Enrolled Fort Mojave Indian Tribal Member

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