Preparing for the Future of Tribal Conservation and Land Management
A Q&A with Indian Nations Conservation Alliance Executive Director Delane Atcitty
Delane Atcitty grew up on the Navajo Nation reservation, near Tuba City, Arizona just west of Grand Canyon National Park. He spent his childhood summers helping his grandfather with cattle and hay harvests in New Mexico—it was there he realized, sitting in the back of a truck, looking at horses and the peacefulness of the reservation landscape, that ranching and working with the land was exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life; and here he is, decades later, doing just that as Executive Director of the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance (INCA).
At INCA—a nonprofit that promotes community-based and locally-led holistic conservation activities to protect the Earth for future generations—Atcitty connects tribal conservation voices from around the country to each other and U.S. federal agencies. INCA does so by establishing and supporting Tribal Conservation Districts, entities that work in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide local leadership and guidance on the utilization, protection, conservation, and restoration of Tribal lands.
We spoke to Atcitty from his home in Taos, New Mexico about the past, present and future of conservation collaboration on tribal lands. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How and why was the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance created?
The Indian Nations Conservation Alliance was established in 2001 by a gentleman named Richard Gooby, and he was a non-native guy from Montana. He had a strong background in Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) work.
When Gooby retired from NRCS in Montana, he was pretty high up the chain; he had firsthand knowledge of the needs of native communities in Montana and the surrounding areas. With his background in conservation, he established this conservation alliance. And at first it was mostly focused on Montana and the Northern Plains, then over the couple of decades it has been in existence, it's started to spread throughout the United States and Alaska. And the reason it was established was to identify and help with some of the bottlenecks facing tribal communities as they tried to access the federal agency partnerships and funding. There are different bottlenecks with different tribes when it comes to seeking conservation projects; some of them might be the lack of interest to form a conservation district, or maybe the lack of working together to get this done. For others, it's a lack of funding to get a sustainable conservation district up and running; for others, it's a lack of identifying key projects that they want to focus on to address.
Along with your experiences as a kid, working with your grandfather, what has moved or motivated you to work with the Alliance? What’s your background?
I have a strong background in ranching, that's what I did just about my whole life.
I started out as a veterinary technician in high school, and then I worked my way up to doing cowboy work, and then eventually cowboy ranch management. Then I got an undergrad degree in agriculture business, and I went on to get my master's in ranch management. While I was getting my masters, I saw multi-disciplinary management that addressed all the issues involved with ranching, whether it be oil and gas, wildlife, cattle production, brush management—things focused on holistic ranch management.
I worked in ranch management in Texas and Kansas, and eventually I made my way back home to Taos, and I got to manage some tribal lands as a natural resource specialist, over some 816,000 acres. Then I moved on to the Bureau of Land Management here in Taos, New Mexico, and I got to help manage their grazing administration program on over 500,000 acres in Northern New Mexico. Now, in addition to my work with INCA, I'm sitting on four different boards, national and a couple international, and I really enjoy working and drawing my pay from something that I love to do.
You’ve spent a lot of time working with and on the land, what lessons have you taken to your work today?
I think about this quite often. In my varied work, I got to see different limiting factors and how they play into management skills. It gave me a really good perspective on the fact that we can only grow as big as our land needs. And nowadays I see that out of whack—there are people trying to fit a circular peg in a square hole, and they're just making themselves broke year after year trying to make it work. The older you get, the more you start focusing on how you're going to preserve this for the future.
Can you elaborate on the relationships between the USDA and INCA and the role Tribal Conservation Districts play in the federal conservation landscape?
The USDA, and NRCS specifically, is one of our biggest funders for INCA. The way that I see it is we're an extension of their office and the tribal level that works directly with the tribes to fill that communication.
With Biden's new "30 by 30" conservation plan (from Vox, “Biden’s historic 30 by 30 conservation plan, explained”), the tribes fall exactly in line with it and have the potential to fulfill that based on the fact that they have 55 million acres of collective range land, and 14 million acres of collective farm lands.
On a more local level, INCA states on its website that conservation supports tribal solidarity and provides resiliency to tribal nations to protect and shield their culture, sovereignty and lands. Can you elaborate on how conservation achieves this?
One of the biggest assets that the tribal nations have is 55 million acres of range land throughout the United States. The way I believe that conservation fits into the picture is you could go out there and you could farm a piece of land using whatever techniques possible and grow whatever you need to grow, but eventually, if you don't do it with conservation and sustainability in mind, you're going to overuse that and overwork that piece of land to where it's not something that you can regenerate and use in the future. Where will we go from there?
Conservation is the main, foundational building block of whatever you're going to pursue as a business, whether it's farming or ranching, and we need business—most of our tribal nations have high unemployment, around 60 to 70% unemployment. On the Navajo Nation, the average income is $9,400 per tribal member. So using regenerative agricultural practices, using grazing management, using rest rotation practices, using conservation practices, you're able to make sure that you're doing your part to make this sustainable, not only in your future, but your kids' future and future generations. That'll enable us to keep our tribal lands healthy, and therefore our connection to all that the lands represent.
What are you most proud of, in terms of work INCA has done?
I'm most proud of having everybody come to the table, everybody sitting down with each other and communicating. Over the years, I've been able to meet with several tribes, several tribal leaders, and we had regional conferences throughout the United States and having all the tribes come to the table and being open-minded to this conservation Alliance has been impactful.
And once we get more buy-in in the future, I expect us to be able to leverage this Alliance between conservation districts more and more so we can be the voice in Washington or wherever we need to be saying that this is where you need to focus on.
What are the most pressing conservation problems that INCA has identified?
A lot goes back to grazing management and overgrazing. Overgrazing affects several thousands of people's watershed quality, and plays into this vicious cycle that we've gotten into: purchasing hay for cattle instead of using grazing management, which is ultimately eating into any kind of business, any kind of profit margins. Due to climate change or drought, this is one of the most pending areas that we need to focus on right now.
Does INCA’s work intersect with outdoor recreationists at all?
This comes up when I'm speaking with a lot of different people. We need to get buy-in from our tribal youth. A lot of our tribal youth are no different than non-tribal youth—they're consumed by iPhones and iPads and video games, and so any kind of buy-in that we can get utilizing our natural resources, I'd consider that a plus,. If we can get the tribal youth to go mountain biking or go fishing or go mountain climbing, or anything that would give them a reason to protect our tribal resources, I think that that's a good starting block for us. As they get older, and they're worried about their food quality and security, maybe they turn into farmers and wanting to farm or ranch for themselves and for their own protein meat consumption.
Looking ahead, what’s something at INCA that you’re excited about?
At INCA, we started a tribal youth corps that's been hiring tribal youth within their tribe to work on natural resource conservation projects. Some of the projects they've worked on so far have been creating agricultural resource management plans for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and getting GPS and GIS points mapped. We also utilized them this year to put up hot wire fences to separate pastures.
And not only are the youth learning the best conservation practices, they're also teaching their tribal elders. We asked that the youth corps have a cultural project. And so some of them have helped out with preparing tribal ceremonies that their tribe has during the summertime. We asked the tribal elders to come and talk to the youth and tell them about natural resource and conservation efforts when they were a youth, because a lot of our history is tied into oral history. So it's important that they learn this now from the elders, you know? We have all this acreage of natural resources and we really need our own tribal youth to manage it in the future.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.
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