alt energy on Native land [photo courtesy of Tommy Jones]
Institute of the Environment 2017

In Tribal Communities, Climate Resilience Begins with Choice

Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Haury-Carson alumnus Tommy Jones

In his research on spurring renewable energy development on tribal land through community buy-in, Tommy Jones found his experience as a Carson-Haury Fellow to be absolutely crucial to his work. Photo courtesy of Jack Alexander Jr.

by Maya Kapoor, Institute of the Environment

Tommy Jones has been reimaging the status quo since his high school days. Back then, he and his classmates placed “save-a-tree” boxes in their classrooms, collecting so much paper that their school acquired a recycling dumpster. That effort spread throughout town, leading Jones, Oklahoma, to adopt a city-wide recycling program.

“I see the value in small acts creating large change,” said Jones, an alumnus of the UA Carson Scholars Program. And large change is exactly what Jones is aiming for as he works to solve one of Indian Country’s most complex environmental justice challenges. A member of the Aleut and Cherokee tribes, Jones envisions helping tribal communities across the U.S. access a necessity many people take for granted: reliable energy sources.

Meeting Needs on Tribal Lands—Sustainably

Jones remembers a childhood that often lacked electricity, running water, or heat. “I know the value of these things for overall wellness, public health, and just happiness in general,” Jones said. “If there’s something I can do to help eliminate barriers for people in meeting those needs, I want to help.” And Jones wants to do it sustainably, by helping tribes establish renewable energy sources on their lands.

Jones credits his mother for his environmental streak. It was she, he said, who first placed a save-a-tree box at her workplace, inspiring him to emulate her efforts at his school. “I’ve always been a tree hugger,” he said. “It’s something that’s been instilled in me by my mother from an early age.”

In 2014, Jones began interning at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico through the Department of Energy’s Tribal Energy Intern Program in New Mexico. During his internship, Jones visited Native communities throughout the Southwest that were interested in renewable energy. Jones’s field visits led to important conversations about the true barriers to renewable energy development in Native communities.  

“At Sandia, we traveled around to a lot of different reservations. We gained first-hand experience on the ground in working for people who were dealing with renewable energy for their communities,” Jones said. “That helped solidify my desire to work in this field.”

At the request of tribes, experts from Sandia, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the Department of Energy—including interns such as Jones—facilitated community-focused strategic energy planning sessions. These processes, Jones said, had stakeholder buy-in throughout the community and helped develop the energy vision of tribal communities into achievable renewable energy development strategies by providing tools, training, and expertise.

Jones’s internship work caught the attention of Doug MacCourt, a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy who recruited Jones and his research partner to work in Washington, D.C., for the agency’s Office of Indian Energy. There, Jones worked with both Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

Putting the Trust back in Trust Assets

When Jones began his doctoral studies in the UA’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment— with a minor in Indian American Studies—he already held a master’s degree in tropical conservation biology and environmental science from the University of Hawaii at Hilo. In 2013, working under a UA Renewable Energy Network faculty exploratory grant, Jones discovered that by focusing his PhD research on renewable energy development for tribal communities, he could combine his background in environmental research with his concerns about tribal governance—and make a real difference in the lives of Native Americans.

Jones arrived at the UA wondering how the relationship between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribes in managing trust assets—including renewable energy—could be reformed to include more, well, trust.  “I want to be able to help those who want to develop, be able to develop,” Jones explained. “The important thing is saying those who want to develop—it’s a cultural or community decision.”

Jones pointed to the Cherokee community in which he grew up to describe the fragility of trust when it comes to renewables and outside development:  A nearby wind power development plan has included efforts to build a power line through land that Jones said is very important to the Cherokee community. “That’s put a bad taste in general in a lot of people’s mouths about wind,” Jones said, making people mistrust all talk of wind energy development in their community.

Jones is passionate about spurring change on tribal land through community buy-in, a concept he cites frequently. Because the development of large projects such as wind or solar energy sites on tribal land impacts cultural resources and the environment, Jones would like to develop tools such as a land-use map for his tribe showing where people don’t want to develop. “Then you look at the areas that are best suited for development and you go from there,” he said.

From Carson Scholar to Effective Communicator

His experience as a Carson-Haury Fellow has been absolutely crucial to his research, Jones said, noting that it’s important for him to be able to have conversations with many different stakeholders about renewable energy development. “I interact with scientists, community members who don’t have a formal education, and Washington, D.C. folk. Carson training really helped me approach conversations in a better way.”

These conversations are becoming ever more important, Jones said; already, tribal communities from Alaska to Oklahoma are facing both the consequences of climate change and the promise of energy resilience. “There’s tremendous need and tremendous potential,” Jones said. Through renewable energy projects that put community decision-making first on tribal lands, Jones believes he can help answer both.