For American Indian tribes and Alaskan natives, coping with a changing environment is nothing new.

Our climate has always varied in the past, and with close connections to the land and traditions of sustainability and resilience, Tribal communities have adapted or developed alternative ways to sustain their tribal identities and lifeways. Past down from generation to generation, these practices and traditions are living legacies that illustrate historical and contemporary tribal adaptive approaches to resource management. However, rapidly changing climatic conditions and extreme weather events in recent decades have disproportionately impacted tribes and altered landscapes they have known intimately for generations.  In some instances, tribal communities are able to draw on those existing mechanisms for coping with adverse climatic events, such as droughts or heat waves, by changing the timing of activities or varying food resources. While some of these responses may already be integrated into management practices, those once reliable methods may become progressively complex, or obsolete, as the effects of climate change increasingly threaten a wide range of landscapes and resources that are vital to Tribal identify.

Overwhelming as these challenges are, numerous Tribal leaders and land managers are choosing to meet this uncertain future head on by assessing vulnerabilities, establishing strategies and partnering with non-tribal entities in order to negotiate a path forward. Acknowledging the importance of action, a two day workshop on climate change adaptation planning recently took place at the United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. (USET) annual meeting hosted by the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Led by Sue Wotkyns and Christina Gonzalez-Maddux with the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), this course was designed to provide tribal resource professionals with an introduction to the process of planning for climate change impacts and developing adaptation goals and strategies. Hosted in Cherokee, North Carolina, “this was ITEP’s first opportunity to offer a Climate Adaptation Planning course focusing specifically on Eastern and Southern tribes,” said Christina. “It was an educational experience for our staff and helped to highlight the need for regional responses and strategies for climate change impacts.”

Recognizing the innate variability of climate change, several climate and outreach specialists, including Jerry McMahon, Adam Terando, Aranzazu Lascurain (Director, Climate Scientist, and Program Coordinator, respectively of the Southeast Climate Science Center (SE CSC)), Lori Barrow (USFS Liaison, South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (SALCC)), and Chelcy Ford-Miniat (Project Leader, USFS Southern Research Station Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory), were on hand to discuss and present local and regional climate variations as well as introduce tribal representatives to the SE CSC and LCC network .

“These organizations and institutions [like the SE CSCs, LCC network, and USFS] represent a wealth of knowledge and great opportunities for tribally-guided collaboration,” stated Christina.

One of the highlights of the training featured a series of “Tribal Café” discussions focused roughly around three broad ideas: climate change impacts and adaptive capacity, funding and technical resource needs, and traditional knowledge. Participants were able to identify their own resources that may be affected by climate change and discuss how their own knowledge may inform future adaptation planning.

“It’s always valuable to be able to talk to other resource managers who are trying to grapple with climate change effects for their own sectors or regions,” noted Chelcy.

The need for a holistic approach toward dealing with these complex environmental issues became clearer throughout the discussion.

“Tribes have been adapting to climate adaptation for thousands of years. They have their own “best practices” for climate adaptation that need to be respected and considered. The tribes also have varying degrees of resources and levels of expertise. These are factors that any planning effort must take into account” shared Aranzazu.

Other presentations included an introduction to vulnerability assessments and adaptation strategies, ITEP’s tribal climate change adaptation plan template, and several case studies delivered by Tribal members who are currently in the process of creating their own unique approach to climate change adaptation.

“It’s helpful to learn that some Tribes have already completed a plan and are willing to talk to them about how to do it” stated one of the organizers of the workshop and Senior Project Coordinator for USET Steve Terry. Taken together, “the Climate Change Adaptation Planning workshop was a great opportunity for Tribes to learn how complicated climate change really is,” said Steve, “there are a multitude of items that people need to consider when doing adaptation planning. It’s not easy but there are agencies willing to assist the Tribes in their endeavors with more information than they can use.”

Following the workshop, Eve West, Environmental Specialist with the Catawba Indian Nation, had this to say,

“I thought it was excellent.  Well planned, comprehensive and included presenters that were highly motivational.  I am still not completely sure how seriously our Reservation will be effected.  I think that water will be an issue.  And perhaps the effects that climate change will have on other sources of food growth in the country.  I think that we can incorporate our adaptation plans into other departmental plans, Water Quality Programs, and Air Quality Programs.”

Planning for the uncertainties of future change can be an intimidating task. Significant changes have occurred in the climate change discussion over the past decade, and resource managers are struggling to keep up. In many ways, Tribal communities are at the forefront of adaptation strategies and can offer unique cultural and local perspective.

In reflection, Chelcy noted she, “found it rewarding to participate and to share what Coweeta Hydrologic Lab researchers have learned about climate change effects from our long-term climate and hydrologic records and experiments. Long-term records are essential for detecting trends in climate and hydrology that manifest over decades.”

Workshops and open forums such as this provide an ideal setting to raise awareness, share information, and explore the challenges and opportunities for land managers under the threats of future change.