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Shared Stewardship Project Protects Mountaintop Village

Just outside of Coronado National Forest in southeastern Arizona, the mountaintop village of Summerhaven can breathe a sigh of relief. Thanks to the cooperation of the Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the State of Arizona through shared stewardship, Summerhaven was able to avoid the devastation of the Bighorn Fire, which burned nearly 120,000 acres.

Beginning Rancher Applies Tribal Traditions and USDA Risk Management Tools to Help Grow Her Business

Shawna Kalama is a proud member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. She’s also a beginning rancher, pursuing her dream the past few years near the Cascade Mountains on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington State. Kalama has successfully leveraged several USDA programs to simultaneously support both her entrepreneurial education goals and her growing livestock operation.

She began earning her business degree at Heritage University, and recently participated in a risk management education program, sponsored by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA). This week, the agency announced that $8.7 million in cooperative agreement funding is available for the risk management education program for fiscal year 2016. The program introduces the agency’s risk management tools, crop and livestock insurance programs and educational partnerships to new and beginning, and traditionally underserved farmers and ranchers. The curriculum includes an overview of RMA’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis tool, which identifies potential problems, and finds solutions and resources to help beginning farmers and ranchers manage risks. Nearly 90,000 producers participated in risk management education events in 2015.

Cultivating Native Leaders in Conservation

Recently, ninety Alaska Native, American Indian, and Native Hawaiian high school students came together at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia for a week of intensive education and peer-to-peer training about the impact of climate change on tribal communities. Organized by the Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Leaders Congress and supported by a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Environmental Protection Agency, the gathering included Jadelynn Akamu, Ylliana Hanato, Alisha Keli’i, and Aaron Knell from Honolulu’s Hawai’i Youth Conservation Corps and Forest Service partner KUPU, as well as a team from Juneau, Alaska, including Alaska Native student Sierra Ezrre and her mentor and culture keeper Carrie Sykes.

Native American Civil Rights Legend Urges Action

Legendary Native American Indian activist, educator and former government official Ada Deer (Menominee) delivered a charge to those attending USDA’s Native American Heritage Month observance here in Washington last week. “Be activists to achieve change,” she said. “We all pay our rent on the planet.  How are you paying your rent?”

A former head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, she recently retired as director of the American Indian Studies Department and Director of the School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  In my introduction, I noted that Ms. Deer’s life is a tribute to tribal sovereignty and self-determination. She is a role model to all Native Americans, but especially to Native American women.  Not surprisingly, Ms. Deer spoke passionately about the role of Tribal colleges and universities.  This year marks the 20th anniversary of their recognition by Congress as land grant institutions.  These colleges and universities are central to the Tribes. They mark a firm move away from the old boarding school model and provide life-long learning opportunities in Tribal communities.  “Education,” said Ms. Deer, “empowers people to enact positive change.”

Happy Birthday AmeriCorps!

As AmeriCorps celebrates its 20th anniversary, USDA salutes the deep relationship we’ve had with these remarkable volunteers and service members. From engaging in critical natural conservation efforts to helping kids learn more about nutrition and gardening to working directly with local organizations in communities enduring chronic poverty, USDA is proud to be an AmeriCorps partner.

AmeriCorps service crews are working side by side with the Forest Service to protect public lands and fight fires.  For instance, a recently announced $3.8 million partnership between AmeriCorps and the USDA’s Forest Service and over 100 other organizations participating in the 21st Century Conservation Corps, creates service opportunities for 300 new AmeriCorps members.  Through this opportunity, military veterans and youth restore our treasured public lands by rebuilding trails, managing forests and rehabilitating campsites for generations to enjoy. These service members are also doing critical wildfire management activities like tree thinning, prescribed burns and hazardous fuel control. Meanwhile, in northwest California, the AmeriCorps Watershed Stewards Project is restoring coastal watersheds from San Francisco to the Oregon border.  This effort, a partnership between the California Department of Fish and Game, Humboldt State University, and other members of the fisheries, watershed and science community, has been going strong for twenty years.

Native Grass Project on Utah Mesa Serves as Model for Navajo Nation

Grasses for grazing livestock are making a comeback on Utah’s McCracken Mesa thanks to a project partnership among the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Known as the McCracken Mesa Rangeland Project, the Aneth Chapter is working to rehabilitate degraded land through a grass establishment project. McCracken Mesa rises 5,500 feet and covers 57,000 acres. An estimated 37,000 acres are intended for grazing livestock. But the mesa’s terrain, extreme weather and overgrazing from livestock have left much of the land bare.

The use of native grasses ensures a more sustainable ground cover for the mesa along with habitat for wildlife. Plants that are native to an area typically are the most suitable for restoration efforts because they boast advantages such as adaptability to the soil and have mastered surviving and thriving in the sometimes harsh environment.

A USDA Grant Gets the Home Lights Burning for an Elderly Navajo Nation Couple

Betty and Kee Acothley live miles off the beaten track in the former Bennett Freeze area on the Navajo Nation.

Kee once tended thousands of head of sheep at the remote sheep camp he and his wife Betty call home. Now, at 80, he keeps only around 70 head. He and Betty, 79, follow the sheep on foot every day, returning to their modest home before dusk.

Improving Access to Farm Programs in Indian Country

In keeping with President Obama and Secretary Vilsack’s efforts to improve the lives of Native Americans, USDA officials last month signed two Memorandums of Understanding with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).  The intention is to improve access to USDA programs by tribes and tribal members.

The MOUs set up a framework for consultation, training, coordination, and the provision of technical assistance which will increase the amount of Indian land enrolled under USDA conservation programs through NRCS and farm loan programs through FSA and improve service delivery on those lands. Farming and animal management, grazing, ranching and related food and agricultural operations will be supported through improved interdepartmental coordination. The MOUs also support establishment of Native rural businesses, renewable energy development, and job creation.

Young Navajo Woman Gains Engineering Experience with NRCS

Semira Crank is proud to be part of a growing number of young Navajo women breaking barriers to become scientists and engineers. Her story began in the small southeastern Utah community of Montezuma Creek in what is referred to as the “Utah Strip” portion of the Navajo Nation Reservation.

USDA, Bureau of Indian Affairs Meet to Better Serve Tribes

Earlier this week I was privileged to co-host a historic meeting here at USDA.  I was joined by Jodi Gillette, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Michael Black, Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to discuss ways USDA and BIA can work together to better serve the Tribes.

Our two agencies discussed the many challenges in addressing the needs for economic development, natural resource conservation and agriculture on trust land.  We reached an agreement to develop working groups made up of representatives of the two departments to focus on land and credit issues.  We will also discuss leasing processes, easement issues, how agreements that require both our department’s approvals can be handled more efficiently and how we can work together to focus on joint staff education and training.  The end goal is to improve our processes so that economic development, alternative energy, conservation, agriculture, and all our related programs can deploy in Indian Country in a better way.  We are forming two working groups of national and local office staff to clarify the issues and begin building workable solutions.