Environmental Justice in Projects to Restore Resilience

Planting Willow at Clover Valley Ranch, Plumas County, California

The Sierra Fund is proud to have recently supported the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project (CHIRP), a non-profit guided by the Nevada City Rancheria Tribal Council, in producing a set of training materials around Cultural Resource Awareness and Sensitivity. These new resources were developed to support partners working on the ancestral homelands of the Nisenan Tribe. They also provide broader insight for organizations working across California on how they too can take steps to address environmental justice, including paying Tribes to consult as experts on projects of all kinds.

California’s indigenous Tribal people are experts in ecological restoration with resumes of traditional ecological knowledge that span thousands of years. Conservation land managers in general need to better recognize the value of knowledge held by Tribes and pay for tribal consultation on projects at a level commiserate with scientists at the top of their field. This is key to facing environmental justice and implementing work that addresses our state’s legacy of environmental and cultural degradation.

For example, imagine you are planning a meadow restoration… You choose to plant willow species that are native to the region and you restore a stream corridor, improving hydrology and creating important habitat for birds. What if you had met with the local Tribe(s) first? What if you had paid them for their time just like other experienced contractors? What if you had asked what species of willow are best for basket making and used that information to inform your restoration plans? What if you gave the Tribe access to that stream corridor after restoration so they could steward and harvest the willow to make baskets? By asking these questions at the start of your planning and paying for tribal consultation, you would have not just improved environmental resilience, but you would have opened up a doorway for restoring cultural resilience.

The Sierra Fund was delighted to include this work in bundle of projects focused on addressing the priorities of Tribes and disadvantaged communities in the Cosumnes, American, Bear Yuba (CABY) watershed region and to assist CHIRP with design and review of their new materials. We knew this project was very important to support given the historic devaluation of the expertise of Tribal members, which has resulted in a lack of cultural resource awareness and sensitivity when restoration projects are being planned and implemented. Often Tribes are left out of project scoping processes and their input is only sought as legally required during environmental permitting (such as in order to comply with Senate Bill 18 (2004) or Assembly Bill 52 (2015)). More often than not, Tribes are expected to provide their “consultation” for free, and in many cases this means that Tribal members are the only unpaid experts on job sites.

By recognizing Tribal people as experts in their own right, and validating this expertise with fair pay, project leaders and organizations take an important step in acknowledging and helping address injustices. Restoration leaders, conservation leaders and other land managers should consider reframing the role that traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) plays across a broad range of important projects, from meadow and forest restoration, to water infrastructure projects, to transportation and housing development.

In the face of climate change, inclusion of Tribal expertise that spans thousands of years cannot come soon enough. Tribes can provide invaluable information about species resilience, weather patterns, hydrology, and wildlife response. This information has great value in planning and implementing large-scale activities.

Willow bush grown from a single cutting, carefully planted and tended.

Since 2006, The Sierra Fund has aimed to begin all of our projects with an on-the-ground, 360 degree understanding of the problem. We attempt to take conversations with the Tribes of  the Sierra Nevada landscapes where we do our work as the seminal starting place – whether we are restoring abandoned mine lands or high elevation meadows. We are grateful for the opportunity to be in a constant state of evolution as we tackle environmental justice issues and learn from our Tribal partners how to “know better and do better.”