As tribes around the nation gain momentum in their efforts to develop energy resources on their lands, some industry sources say a new level of power and political influence could emerge for American Indians.
William Brown, with Sage West Consultants & The Climate Reality Project, said there will be non-Native American investors to compete with, however, and accurately predicting how it will shake out is difficult.
Economics will tell the tale, Brown said.
At the very least, tribes are moving from passive providers of land to actual energy development, sale and transmission, said Tracey LeBeau, director for the U.S. Department of Energys Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs
And some tribes stand to see substantial economic improvements, industry sources said, including Carolyn Stewart, managing partner of Red Mountain Partners, a consulting firm that works with tribes on renewable-energy projects.
Energy is, and will be, one of the most promising tribal industries in the next century, said Tse Chi Chad Yen, scholarship coordinator for the American Indian College Fund.
One only has to look in Durangos backyard to see the potential.
Less than a century ago, the Southern Utes had some reservation land, but no official infrastructure and hardly a dime in income. But today, the tribe has substantial influence, local business and government leaders say, The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is La Plata Countys largest employer, offering one of the best benefit packages available in the county, said Joe Keck, director of the Small Business Development Center of Southwest Colorado. And its membership is estimated to be collectively worth billions.
The tribe is behind about 100 corporations, agencies and non-profit organizations and does business in more than a dozen states. Though its enterprises reach into a variety of fields, products and services, from real estate to casino gaming, the tribes success is built on energy.
About 93 percent of the tribes profits come from conventional energy, or oil and natural gas, said Bob Zahradnik, director of the tribes far-reaching business arm, the Growth Fund.
The exact magnitude of those profits, however, is a well-guarded secret thats rarely, if ever, publicly disclosed.
Not only does the tribe develop and produce natural gas and oil from within its local reservation boundaries, but it also has energy interests that extend beyond Colorados borders, including in the Gulf of Mexico and in Idaho.
Other tribes have been eyeing their success with hopes of recreating it, said LeBeau. And as the nation has set its sights on clean energy, theyve adapted.
While many tribes are working to develop conventional energy resources on their land, several tribal officials in the Southwest said they were instead focused on renewable-energy sources because they are more in line with cultural convictions about environmental preservation.
Renewable-energy development is more consistent with tribes reverence for nature and Earth, Stewart said.
A potential savior?
William Brown, a former U.S. Geological Survey employee and consultant with Sage West Consultants & The Climate Reality Project, said renewable sources require far less land than coal and natural gas and have fewer adverse impacts.
The (environmental impact) numbers are so vast for fossil fuels, I dont think people even comprehend it, Brown said.
Tribes today are tapping into biomass, water, air, geothermal, wind and solar resources. And some, including the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians in Alpine, Calif., and the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico, are pinning their hopes on renewable-energy projects.
The California tribes land can be reached only by a 12-mile dirt access road. There are no paved roads, and the reservation is home to weathered stick-built homes that have no sewer systems, telephone service or electricity. The tribe long has struggled to develop with no income to drive change, said Will Micklin, the tribes chief executive officer.
I dont know if our reservation ever could be an economic center, but we would dearly like to make it more livable, Micklin said.
Many have left, leaving only a handful of elderly members on the reservation.
Hope for the future rests with a planned wind development that would bring 51 megawatts of energy to their reservation and nearly 100,000 homes in San Diego through a deal with Iberdrola Renewables.
We really need infrastructure, Micklin said, Roads, telephone service, the ability to operate businesses.
The Pueblo of Jemez has about 2,200 members in the Village of Walatowa who live under less dire circumstances, but the pueblos financial position isnt much better. The pueblo employs few people and has little money to care for the valley the tribe has occupied for more than 800 years since they migrated there from the Four Corners. Worse, more than 5,000 acres of forestland on the reservation was severely damaged by wildfire in recent years and requires costly rehabilitation work, said the pueblos department of resource protection archaeologist, Christopher Toya.
Meanwhile, the reservations drainage systems are aging, threatening its agricultural pursuits, said the pueblos agriculture range tech, John Romero.
Their hopes rest in a $5 million geothermal project that could power parts of New Mexico and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Theyre also considering a small commercial solar development on the reservation with hopes it might pay for improvements to the sewer systems serving the homes on the reservation, said Greg Kaufman, director of the pueblos department of resource protection.
Derrick Loretto, a technician for the Pueblo of Jemez geothermal project, said it would directly create a handful of tribal jobs and could create up to 2,000 more jobs as they construct greenhouses, fish farms and a hot springs facility around it.
Taking the reins
Energy could help many of the nations tribes find financial stability and put them in a new position of power and influence, Stewart said.
They could contribute in a significant way, Stewart said. The resources are there.
The trend also could be a way for tribes to protect themselves from history repeating itself, some tribal leaders said. The nation does have a history of taking, sometimes forcibly, what it needs from Native Americans.
At least a few tribes have decided its better to do it their way than risk being forced.
It always has been a fear for our people that our resources could be taken from us, said William Anderson, chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes in Nevada, If were not using the resources and theres great need in the surrounding communities, (the government) can justify it.
Anderson said they hope to lead the way with their two massive solar projects that will power the reservation and send energy to Los Angeles.
You cant take away something were already using, Anderson said. And we want to make sure were helping ourselves, the environment and our surrounding communities in the process.
Stewart concurred and said tribes she works with generally are more interested in helping to solve national energy woes if they can control the process and pace, and move forward on their own terms.