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Cherokee leaders take stock of sustainability goals

Four years ago, Principal Chief Michell Hicks issued a proclamation intended to move the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians towards environmental sustainability.

Last week, leaders from the tribe gathered to discuss the impact of Generations Qualla, a grant program created by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation to kick-start the effort.

“Going back to the environmental proclamation, it didn’t give us all the pieces or all the solutions,” Hicks said. “But if you look at the parts, the big picture is there.”

The tribe is moving towards long-term goals like developing a wind power system, a truck fleet that runs completely on locally produced biodiesel, and constructing an $8 million eco-business park in Jackson County. But the first steps toward sustainability have been much closer to home.

With the help of grants from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, the EBCI has created a systemwide recycling program, moved towards energy-efficient building standards and enhanced its mass transit program. While the impacts may feel small now, the foundation’s executive director, Susan Jenkins, said the work of taking on sustainable projects one at a time will bear fruit in the future.

“We as a community –– and that includes the surrounding region –– are looking at what we want the Qualla Boundary to look like for the next seven generations,” said Jenkins.

Jenkins used the tribe’s recycling program as an example. The initiative began with a $70,000 grant to the Cherokee Youth Council to purchase recycling bins and create an education program.

Over the past year, the youth council has traveled to every tribal department to teach employees about what they can and can’t recycle and to stress the importance of recycling.

Jenkins said what began as a simple initiative turned into a learning process.

“We thought it would be simple,” Jenkins said. “The youth council would do the education, and recycling [staff] would do the recycling.”

Along the way, it became clear that a crucial piece of the equation was missing.

“We hadn’t even thought about housekeeping,” Jenkins said.

The youth council was educating tribal employees across departments, but it wasn’t communicating with the janitors who cleaned the buildings and emptied the trash cans.

The recycling staff, meanwhile, was duplicating janitorial efforts by walking all the same buildings and emptying the recycling bins. It may sound crazy, but the tribe hadn’t dealt with a comprehensive recycling system before.

Jenkins said the hang-ups created a network of problem solvers.

“It’s not always just money the groups need. It’s often about the connections, so you can begin to build the capacity,” said Jenkins.

Now the janitorial staff empties all the recycling bins into steel hoppers outside buildings at specified locations, and the recycling staff takes them away when they’re full. The tribe used to only get money for its cardboard and bottles, but these days, it’s also collecting enough plastic to ship to a processing plant.

The success of the recycling program has created a new issue.

“It’s very clear. We’re overloading recycling,” Jenkins said. “How can we bring this to scale and work together to find a solution?”

Jenkins thinks the solution is in uniting the recycling efforts between the hospital, the schools and the casino to create an economy of scale.

“We’ve got the tribe involved. Now can we get the businesses on board, too?” Jenkins said.

None of it would have been possible without the youth council’s effort to educate and push for a solution that made sense.

Jenkins said the intent of Generations Qualla funding is to create a snowball effect that leverages money and connections to create change.

For example, a $50,000 Generations Qualla grant in 2009 funded energy audits on 20 tribal buildings. With the results of the audits in hand, the EBCI Office of Planning and Development pooled another $70,000 grant from Generations Qualla with $130,000 of its own money to match a $200,000 U.S. Department of Energy Grant.

The $400,000 will go towards achieving a 30 percent reduction in energy expenditures at seven tribal buildings.

Preliminary monitoring efforts of the targeted buildings raised concerns about the air quality in the buildings. Now the buildings will also undergo an air quality assessment as part of the energy efficiency upgrade.

Jenkins said the meeting last week was a chance to check in on the progress of Generations Qualla’s initiatives, but it was also a call to action. The Cherokee Preservation Foundation will launch a new round of grant funding in June, and Jenkins hopes to see proposals that will move sustainability agendas past their fledgling stages by creating new partnerships both inside and outside the Qualla Boundary.

Grants are not limited to tribal programs and members. Generations Qualla funding has helped drive the Mountain Landscapes Initiative, a sustainable development toolkit organized by the Southwestern Planning Commission, Haywood Community College’s new low impact development degree, and the U.S. 441 Corridor Plan, among other projects.

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