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A Changing Climate Concerns Tribes

Monday, April 24, 2017 to Friday, May 5, 2017
Developing plans to address the effects of weather extremes for Tribal communities takes a team.
A team made up of Tribal staff, Elders with localized knowledge of the lands and resources, and in this case, members of the USDA. The USDA Northeast Climate Hub and NRCS are working with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, both located on the shores of Massachusetts, to address climatic concerns.
Last fall, Barry Hamilton, the National Tribal Relations Liaison Officer from NRCS’s Office of Outreach and Advocacy Division, started things off. He contacted the Tribes, the Northeast Climate Hub, and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) regarding a pilot project. The proposal quickly took shape and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah pilot project was launched. After initial Climate Hub discussions with the Tribes, Massachusetts State NRCS staff joined the team. The District Conservationist who covers the area has a history of assistance to the Tribes, and will continue to provides local support. The NRCS MA State Conservationist and State Resource Conservationist provide leadership and extra resources for the project. 
During the first phase of the project, the Northeast Climate Hub held informal meetings with the Tribes to listen and learn about the environmental impacts they were experiencing. Three concerns that emerged were declining species of cultural importance, erosion, and reduction of land base. At the top of the list is a decline in species of cultural importance including sweet grass, due to habitat change as weather patterns shift, and pressure to harvest what little remains. Storm surges and heavy rains that exceed existing capacities of ditches, waterways, and streams are leading to erosion of the shoreline and adjacent wetlands, and stream destabilization. Increased frequency of storms that wash away the beaches and a rising sea level reduce land base and important habitat.
Images by William Skaradek
The NRCS Plant Materials Center (PMC) of Cape May, NJ was brought in to the Team to assist with the declining species concern. Staff from the PMC will make trips to the area to collect material from specific genetic stock for restoration efforts that will increase stands of these culturally importance species and the habitat that supports a healthy ecosystem. Propagation will be carried out at the PMC in Cape May. 
There is a need to support the environmental needs of Tribal communities and for this reason we are looking to increase human capital through the AmeriCorps VISTA program with the assistance of the AIHEC. AIHEC strives to support Tribes by connecting an AmeriCorps-VISTA member with a Tribal community with environmental needs. The VISTA member’s term is 1 to 3 years, and they receive training, a stipend, and a wealth of experiences. These individuals will assist the Tribes with restoration efforts and grant writing, and enjoy opportunities to engage and teach the communities’ youth about the importance of a healthy environment. The initial visit by PMC staff should take place this spring. By the end of this year an environmental plan will be drafted to include an inventory of concerns, options to address these concerns and a list of resources to support these efforts.

By Suzanne Baker, 2017 NRCS Project Liaison, USDA Northeast Climate Hub