How to Grow Tribal Environmental Protection and GIS

Aimee Mitchell, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, New York

The Mohawk tradition of great reverence for mother earth and all its inhabitants has been negatively impacted due to pollution originating from several industries located adjacent to the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. This has caused the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (SRMT) to implement an environmental protection program for the reservation. The GIS program is an integral component of this environmental protection program and its purpose is to assist the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's Environment Division in monitoring, assessing, and mapping pollution problems in the community. Acquiring the best available technology and software by the GIS program is vital.

The tribe's Environment Division grew out of a single position sponsored by the Indian Health Service. Beginning in 1977, an environmental health technician was hired to be solely responsible for the water safety needs of the community. In 1980, a community-based school was started in Akwesasne to further meet the cultural needs of Mohawk youth, especially in regard to the Mohawk language. The Freedom School was situated virtually yards from General Motor's property and it did not take long for people to notice a change in their children's health. The kids began to complain about headaches, nausea, and sore, itchy eyes. Worried about the well-being of their children, the parents formed a group called Mohawks Agree on Safe Health (MASH) to ensure that the highest health standards were available to all community members. The group was determined to find out what effects the pollution was having not only on human health but also on the entire ecosystem of the St. Lawrence River. At the point when samples needed to be collected, New York State Wildlife Pathologist Ward Stone was asked to come into the community by Katsi Cook, a Mohawk midwife, who had read one of his papers on the use of turtles to monitor environmental health. He began to take samples. What Stone uncovered staggered the community. Tests on small mammals like shrews, frogs, ducks, and snapping turtles revealed a record amount of polychlorinated bi-phenyls (PCBs) in the animals' fat. PCB content was so high that most of the samples could have been considered hazardous waste. Naturally this stirred a sense of urgency in the community. People wanted to know how far along in the food chain the contaminants had migrated. In 1987, three studies were initiated to examine the effects of pollution on human health, wildlife, and fish in Akwesasne. The three studies were part of a risk-assessment study cosponsored by the New York State Department of Health and General Motors. The breastmilk study was the first to take a serious look at the extent of the toxic effects of PCB exposure. It was during this transitional phase that the tribe increased efforts to secure funding and hire additional staff. The tribe hired a lawyer to seek funding for programs to improve the air and water quality of Akwesasne. Through negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the tribe was able to create two programs that specifically dealt with clean water and clean air quality. With initiation of the air and water quality programs, the tribe's Environment Division steamrolled itself into a position so that no one would be able to ignore it. Finally, government agencies and industries alike would have to deal with the tribe on a government-to-government basis. As meetings progressed between the tribe and EPA, it became clearer in which direction the tribe was going. Jim Ransom, the first director of the Environment Division said, "We are looking to create our own water and air quality standards. And we want a water-monitoring system in the St. Lawrence River, as it is our drinking source." Soon after, the tribe was busy formulating its own standards. These standards, known as Applicable or Relevant and Appropriate Standards (ARARS), were developed for the specific needs of the reservation. By 1990, the division had gained much ground in the fight to clean up the water, soil, and air of the Mohawk territory. The community was awakened to the real risks associated with toxic waste and the deteriorating effect it was having on the culture as a whole. Eventually self-reliant, the division was able to do its own environmental sampling, monitoring, and assessing. It also developed a multimedia program that helped assess and examine the community's environmental needs and concerns. Through this program, it became clear that the division needed to embark on other environmental activities unrelated to the General Motors cleanup. Specifically, natural resource protection, solid waste, and gas station regulations became important priorities in the division's plans. From this point forward, the Environment Division evolved into an advanced, sophisticated unit that has become a model for other tribal environmental programs nationwide. (Reprinted from Winds of Change, Summer 1996, "Driven By Necessity-The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Develops Environmental Expertise," authored by Lawrence C. Swamp)

At present, the Environment Division is staffed by 13 full-time, three seasonal technical staff, two office support persons, and an administrator. Environment Division programs include clean water, clean air, wetlands, petroleum bulk storage, hazardous materials emergency planning, natural resource damage assessment, environmental health education, sturgeon project, solid waste management, pace energy project, and GIS.

SRMT GIS Program: In 1991, Professor Bob Elberty from St. Lawrence University was invited to speak to representatives from all tribal programs regarding general background information on GIS. Soon after, Les Benedict, assistant director for the Environment Division, initiated the GIS program for the Environment Division. He contacted the Geographic Data Service Center (GDSC) in Lakewood, Colorado, and made arrangements for their technical support and training. The GDSC digitized one USGS quadrangle basemap to start the St. Regis library. It was over a year before the coverages were available. Several people from the Environment Division and other tribal programs attended Introduction to ArcInfo. It was thought that these people would be able to incorporate GIS into their programs and build the data libraries for themselves and others. It was soon discovered that both learning ArcInfo and collecting and analyzing information was very time consuming. It was difficult for the individuals to take on that new task and keep up with their regular assigned duties. Two major projects were completed during those years, a floodplain map with analysis combining waters and contours of the reservation and an environmental database (EBASE) in cooperation with the New York State Department of Health. In 1995, the Environment Division requested and received funding through the EPA GAP program for a part-time GIS coordinator to begin in the summer of 1996. Since that time, the coordinator has attended training sessions at the GDSC and EPA offices and several conferences including The New York State GIS Conference, Intertribal GIS Conference, and the ESRI User Conference. Over 20 layers have been added to the St. Regis ArcView GIS library. With the acquisition of ArcView GIS 3.0a from a grant sponsored by ESRI through the Intertribal GIS Council, the GIS program has produced over 30 maps for various programs and purposes. The position was extended to full time in March 1997. There are no immediate plans to add personnel or hours to the GIS program. The GIS program assists in projects including the following:

· Sturgeon Project-point locations of sturgeon egg laying beds for navigation.
· Salmon Project-point locations of stream and river sites being tested for a salmon egg stocking project. Results include depth, temperature fluctuation, and speed of current.
· Spottail Shiner Study-point locations of where Spottail Shiners have been collected and results of Arochlor testing.
· Open Dump Project-point and polygon locations of backyard dump sites. Includes size and composition of dumps and distances from surface water, drinking water, and residences/buildings.
· Wetlands Water Monitoring-points of monitoring and results of testing for pH, temperature, conductivity, DO2 mg/L, turbidity, salinity, and depth.
· Petroleum Bulk Storage-point facilities locations for petroleum products: gasoline, diesel, fuel oil, and propane. Location data includes owner information, telephone numbers, and amount and type of product. Data is also used in Marplot (Cameo/Aloha) for plume dispersal modeling.
· Hazardous Materials Planning-coordinates of special or populous facilities on or near reservation boundary. Includes schools, office buildings, water treatment plants, sewage treatment facilities, apartment complexes, churches, airports, industries, etc. Used in Marplot (Cameo/Aloha) for plume dispersal modeling.
· Vegetation Sampling-point locations where vegetation is collected for fluoride testing in association with New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and New York State Department of Health.
· Styrene Monitoring-point locations near industries being tested for Styrene.
· Radon Permeability Zones-polygon areas where radon testing is recommended.
· Confined Space Locations-includes type of space. Used for emergency planning and hazardous materials rescue.
· Carcinogenic Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Soil Sampling-locations and results of testing.
· Evacuation Zones-polygon areas used in emergency measures for planning of evacuations. Includes day and night populations, nearest shelters, assembly areas, evacuation routes, and special hazards.
· Environmental Sampling Sites (with New York State Department of Health)-sites and results of PCBs testing on biota, sediment, soil, and water.
· Water Quality Monitoring-sampling points and results for testing water quality in streams and rivers on or near the reservation.
· Road Names-continuously updated road maps distributed to police, fire, and ambulance units for emergency response. Previous to this, no road maps of the entire reservation (American and Canadian portions) had existed.

The SRMT GIS program presently uses ArcInfo 7.2.1, ArcView GIS 3.1, and ArcView Spatial Analyst software and Trimble global positioning system (GPS) equipment. The ESRI conservation program has assisted the program by granting software and training, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Geographic Data Service center provides training and technical support. In addition, the SRMT is a member of the Intertribal GIS Council.


Native Geography 2000 (Web Version) PAGE 5
Jump to page: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

Compilation & web design: Charles Convis, ESRI Conservation Program, December 7, 2000