A Commitment to a Healthy Environment Is Culturally Rooted on the Qualla Boundary

A Commitment to a Healthy Environment is Culturally Rooted

Functional yet beautiful solar panel trees funded by a Cherokee Preservation Foundation grant have been installed at the Riverbend Shopping Area in Cherokee to generate all of the electricity used by the Downtown Welcome Center. They are an exciting example of efforts by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) to conserve natural resources and be energy-efficient.  Learn about many other efforts underway that demonstrate Cherokee commitment to a healthy, sustainable environment. 



Functional yet beautiful solar panel trees funded by a Cherokee Preservation Foundation (CPFdn) grant have been installed at the Riverbend Shopping Area in Cherokee to generate all of the electricity used by the Downtown Welcome Center. They are an exciting example of efforts by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) to conserve natural resources and be energy-efficient. Recently, we learned of many other efforts underway that demonstrate that the Cherokee today are just as committed to a healthy, sustainable environment for now and future generations as those who came before us.

Solar trees at the Riverbend shopping areaSolar trees at the Riverbend shopping areaOn June 19, a wide range of EBCI members who are working to strike a balance among natural, cultural, spiritual and economic needs came together at a meeting convened by the Foundation to share what they are doing and spark new ideas to build on the Tribe's commitment to environmental sustainability. CPFdn was seeking community input for the successful continuation of Generations Qualla, the initiative the Foundation launched in 2008 to support EBCI Principal Chief Michell Hicks' Qualla Environmental Resource Proclamation. Generations Qualla is based on traditional Cherokee values such as a strong sense of place, honoring the past and educating the children, and its purpose is to help the EBCI use land appropriately, reduce and recycle waste, conserve energy, and protect air and water quality.

Natural Resource Conservation

Forrest Parker of EBCI Natural Resources and Construction shared the results of a community survey that is helping Tribal Government develop a resource management plan called the Legacy Plan that, when finished, will be put before Tribal Council. Parker said that the Eastern Band, which for many centuries has been an effective steward of the land, is "uniquely qualified to set environmental standards higher than others do."

Tommy Cabe, EBCI Forester, described Foundation-supported efforts that are leading toward the capability to grow ramps and sochan in seed-based gardens at the Cherokee Central Schools campus and harvest the traditional foods for healthy school lunches. The gardens will also provide opportunities to teach Cherokee youth about foods important to the Tribe's culture.

Matt Pegg of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce and Robert Jumper of EBCI Travel and Promotion described how successful efforts to attract people who like to fish — both catch & release and catch & keep — are not only bringing tourism dollars into the Qualla Boundary economy, but also attracting people interested in the Tribe's conservation traditions. At a recent youth fly fishing tournament, for example, the participating young people learned about EBCI hatchery practices.

Energy Efficiency

Paul Smith of the EBCI Housing and Community Development Division said that while the Tribe does not have official green building standards, the division has been working with the Western North Carolina Green Building Council and has adopted green building practices. The division has used a CPFdn grant to teach local builders courses that include Green Building 101, Energy Efficiency and Water Efficiency. A number of homes recently built by the EBCI Housing and Community Development Division have exceeded the NC HealthyBuilt Homes standard. This achievement that means the homes have been built by residential builders and developers who practice sustainable, high performance building strategies that make their homes comfortable, healthy and affordable places to live. These builders implement strategies that reduce energy and water usage, promote renewable energy use, help protect the land and natural resources where the home is built, and reduce pollution and the waste of natural resources during the manufacturing and construction phases and throughout the life of the home.

Damon Lambert of EBCI Building and Construction talked about energy efficient retrofitting projects already underway or soon to be started at 24 tribal buildings, with funding from the EBCI, Cherokee Preservation Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy. Seven of the projects will result in energy cost savings of at least 30% because of new HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems, programmable thermostats, energy efficient lighting and other actions. All two dozen projects will pay for themselves in energy cost savings in just one to seven years.

After replacing conventional streetlights in the downtown and cultural districts last year with highly efficient LED lights that have lower wattage but are actually brighter on street surfaces, Building and Construction has installed similar lighting in the newly resurfaced parking lot near the Oconaluftee Island Park. Other improvements to the downtown and cultural districts include underground wiring, a bike lane, enhanced sidewalks, fountains to play in, a river walk, benches and flowers.

The EBCI's main Welcome Center and visitor kiosks downtown and on Highway 441 North are home to several exciting demonstration projects. All three locations are being outfitted with solar thermal panels to provide hot water. The downtown kiosk is already surrounded by three solar trees, each consisting of 12 solar photovoltaic panels that harness the sun's rays to produce electricity. The three trees are expected to make the downtown kiosk a "net zero" energy user, meaning that the solar trees will generate all the power the kiosk uses. Two solar trees have been installed at the main Welcome Center to reduce the building's reliance on conventional electricity generation. All three visitor centers will be retrofitted with new HVAC systems, and EBCI Building and Construction will work to get LEED certification for the main Welcome Center, a designation that would mean its air quality and energy efficient are top tier. These demonstration projects – along with a new electric car charging station at Riverbend – will be completed by September.

David King and Erika Dahl, two Climate Corps Fellows provided by the Environmental Defense Fund, are helping the EBCI Strategic Energy Committee develop a tracking system that will enable the Tribe to determine cost savings associated with specific energy-saving actions. Their work will be over at the end of the summer, and with grant support from Cherokee Preservation Foundation, a full-time Energy Manager will be leading EBCI energy efficiency efforts soon.

Sustainability in the Community and in the Workplace

T Trejo of EBCI Recycling said that recycling awareness education provided by the Cherokee Youth Council has gotten Tribal employees interested and involved in recycling to the point that Tribal Government is gathering enough paper to generate revenue for the EBCI. Tribal government is recycling paper, cardboard, batteries, steel cans and plastic. EBCI Recycling's staff of three is not big enough to handle recycling in EBCI communities at this time, but the ultimate goal is to give community members the means to recycle.

Reusable shopping bags with the Cherokee recycling symbolReusable shopping bags with the Cherokee recycling symbolThe Cherokee Youth Council, now 46 members strong, has logged over 500 community service hours in the last year alone, mostly on environmental projects such as managing recycling at major Fairground events and highway litter-pick up efforts. The youth group's Go Green Team worked with the late Walker Calhoun to identify a traditional Cherokee symbol associated with the concept "endless" and apply it as a Cherokee brand to the contemporary concept of recycling. The symbol appears on nearly 1,000 recycling bins purchased with a CPFdn grant for use in Tribal government offices, and it also appears on 3,000 reusable grocery bags Cherokee Youth Council has distributed to community members.

The Go Green Team was created by local youth who had participated in the annual Costa Rica Eco-Study Tour supported by Cherokee Preservation Foundation and the EBCI Cooperative Extension Program. Youth were so impressed with rigorous recycling efforts that are part of everyday life in Costa Rica that when they returned to Cherokee, they wanted to do something similar on the Qualla Boundary.

Jody Bradley shared information about the work of the Cherokee Hospital's Green Team, which has made it possible for employees working in the stressful Emergency Room and other departments to go outside and grow healthy food in raised garden beds near their work areas. The Hospital, which recently was awarded Wild South's Roosevelt Ashe Award for being Green Business of the Year in the southeast U.S. region that Wild South serves, has sponsored a farmer's market, funded a composter for the Nutrition department, sponsored lunch and learn sessions about environmental topics, and helped the hospital staff achieve a high level of recycling.

Cherokee Preservation Foundation is another workplace where colleagues are working on ways to encourage more efficient use of energy and reduce energy costs. Led by its Green Energy Committee and fed by staff ideas such as using water filtration pitchers instead of bottled water, paperless books for Board meetings, ecards, and installing solar panels to reduce reliance on conventional electricity generation, the staff has taken actions that have trimmed $7,000 of operating costs in less than a year.

Generations Qualla, Present and Future

Since 2008, Cherokee Preservation Foundation has invested nearly $3.5 million in conservation and energy efficient efforts undertaken by EBCI Tribal government and other grantees. Susan Jenkins, Executive Director of Cherokee Preservation Foundation, said such investments are just the beginning of how the Foundation can support the EBCI's continuing efforts to maintain a healthy environment for future generations.

Chief Michell Hicks estimates that the Tribe has invested up to $60 million in projects related to water and other key natural resources, saying "Natural resources are the best asset we have, and it's critical that we utilize them effectively and sustain them."

In a brainstorming session about potential future points of emphasis for the Generations Qualla effort, participants suggested a growing emphasis on use of solar thermal (hot water heating) and solar photovoltaic (electricity generation) in homes and businesses on the Qualla Boundary, exploration of a Cherokee-culture based green focus for local hotels, and creation of a sustainability index that, much like an economic index, would help the Tribe track progress in energy efficiency and conservation, and identify areas in particular need of improvement.

Roger Clap of Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River (WATR) told the Generations Qualla Committee, "The Eastern Band does so much in resource management that the surrounding counties can learn from — you have the techniques, the sense of place, love for the land, less bureaucracy, and the balance between spiritual and other needs. You are a great model for the region."