Conservation Planning Builds Skills and Opportunities for Native Land Stewardship

Perspectives from First Nations’ Senior Program Officer Leiloni Begaye (Diné)

Place-based learning is an essential component of First Nations’ conservation training sessions.

With support from the USDA Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement (OPPE), since 2021 First Nations’ Advancing Agribusiness and Ecological Stewardship in the Southwest project has served over 167 Native American land stewards in the southwest, on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, and in surrounding tribes in New Mexico.

The project is part of the Ecological Stewardship initiative of First Nations’ Stewarding Native Lands Program, and through it First Nations has provided comprehensive five-day, hands-on sessions to guide land stewards in developing conservation plans; improve participation in USDA programs; build relationships among land stewards and USDA’s local, state, regional and national offices; serve land stewards in a linguistically appropriate manner; and identify problems and barriers that may limit participation by current and prospective Native land stewards.

A Look at the Land

The population served by this project (Navajo Nation citizens, Pueblo Nation residents, and other federally recognized sovereign Nations) inherently fits into the USDA’s definition of “socially disadvantaged,” an invisible segment of the American population. According to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture, farmers on the Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona and at the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico mainly operate small, livestock-focused farms with small revenues.  For example, of the 16,129 farms on the Navajo Reservation, 88% are in livestock, 79% are comprised of nine or fewer acres, and 90% have sales valued at $4,999 or less.  Moreover, 99% of all the farms are operated by American Indians/Alaska Natives.

On the field days, participants learn about evaluating soil characteristics, wildlife habitat and rangeland health assessment, and plant production and composition.

Meanwhile, of the 45 farms at the Pueblo of Jemez, 53% are in livestock, 64% are comprised of nine or fewer acres, and 73% have sales valued at $4,999 or less.  Of all the farms, 91% are operated by American Indian/Alaska Natives.

For generations, the Native communities behind these farms and ranches have always called the Southwest “home.” Erasing the state and reservation boundary lines, the area is our ancestral homeland. These farms and ranches are part of a beautiful vast landscape with diverse ecosystems that constantly interact in kinship through the soil, water, rangeland plants, animals, birds, and tiniest organisms. In western science, these kinships are the biological resources that make up a conservation plan.

The plants of the Southwest are diverse. Warm (C4) and cool (C3) season plants encompass about six rangeland types: mixed prairie, shortgrass prairie, sagebrush grassland, salt desert grassland, pinon-juniper woodland, and western coniferous forest. Our elders knew these rangelands simply by the medicinal plants that grew within their homelands, winter and summer camps, and the stories passed down from their grandparents both maternal and paternal to the younger generations.

Ecosystem of Nahasdzáán (Female Surface)

As the Ecological Stewardship Initiative program officer, Leiloni focuses training “where our feet are grounded in Nahasdzáán, and we honor all relatives from clanship to our four-legged relatives, winged-relatives, and water.”

As the Ecological Stewardship Initiative program officer, I continue to lead this project at First Nations with the mindset to assist and support Native communities with a sense of placed-based learning – where our feet are grounded in Nahasdzáán, and we honor all relatives from clanship to our four-legged relatives, winged-relatives, and water.

With this in mind, First Nations conducted conservation trainings in Arizona and New Mexico. In Arizona, land stewards completed training, representing their communities of Tuba City, Tolani Lake, Leupp, Grand Falls, Pinon, Black Mesa, and Ganado, Wide Ruins, Sanders, Steam Boat, and Cornfields, Navajo Nation. In New Mexico, land stewards completed trainings representing the Pueblo of Acoma and Pueblo of Zuni.

The trainings cover topics such as the NRCS Conservation Planning Process, Developing an Inventory Map, Ecological Site Composition; Web Soil Survey, Rangeland Monitoring, Environmental Laws, Determining Goals & Objectives, and Developing a Conservation Plan. Activities are designed to address challenges revealed in the field: Drought, fencing, irrigation, wildlife, and permits.

The week includes four days in the classroom (i.e., chapter house and/or auditorium) and one full day in the field. Each land steward is provided with their own binder that contains all the materials and documents they will need to complete. They also get to present and tell their stories of their farms and ranches, interact with each other, and at the end present their conservation plans. A good percentage of our participants are elders, so we always invite a fluent language speaker from the community to help with translation and be onsite with us for the week. More relationship building comes from inviting USDA NRCS and FSA staff onsite to hear the land stewards’ conservation plans and sharing information on funding opportunities.

Through my lens, the second day of these sessions is always my favorite because we’re out in the field immersing ourselves in our homelands. Our day starts very bright and early, sitting on the tailgate of the truck sipping a hot cup of coffee or tea and greeting our Native relatives. Together, we are off to visit the areas of one rancher and one farmer. Once we arrive at a designated site, I take the land stewards for a plant walk. This is where traditional stories are shared and we speak in our Native languages. We tell stories of grandma and grandpa herding sheep, knowing the edible and poisonous plants by observing the livestock, and how the change of seasons brings a time of abundance and dormancy. We identify rangeland plants such the blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), Indian ricegrass (Eriocoma hymenoides), four-winged saltbush (Atriplex canescens), plains prickly pear (Opuntia polyacantha), alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana), and so much more. Then we transition into evaluating soil characteristics, wildlife habitat and rangeland health assessment, and plant production and composition. On this day, First Nations’ consultants are equally important for sharing their knowledge of the topic areas, and making sure the day is dedicated to place-based learning.

Participants report that they enjoy the presenters and the way activities are conducted, as well as the many opportunities for sharing cultural information and traditional foods. They also value the field day and gaining hands-on experience in planning their tribe’s ecological, economic, and community goals. First Nations is great about documenting these goals so that participants can go back and re-visit ideas about improving infrastructure and experimenting with other varieties of produce and other rotational grazing systems.

And through these sessions, First Nations’ staff and consultants and participants begin developing a trusted and long-lasting relationship. It is easy for an experienced professional to develop plans for participants, but what makes this training stand out is that land stewards themselves are a part of the process because this is their future vision of their operations.

2024 will be an exciting year for the Ecological Stewardship initiative as we will be providing relevant resources and tools for tribes and Native land stewards, including a full conservation planning curriculum and workbook and a Conservation Planning Guide for Farmers.

Building on Knowledge and Looking Over the Horizon 

After the 2023 trainings, Native land stewards shared much gratitude and appreciation for staff and having the sessions in their communities. One participant wrote, “It was a pleasure to be here with First Nations and all the staff and learning how to do a plan that our grazing official wants in place. I didn’t know all the types of soil and plants that make a difference to our livestock and farms. Even calculation of weights of our plants.”

Moving forward in 2024, First Nations will continue to provide conservation planning sessions in Indian Country, ongoing technical assistance and opportunities to attend future workshops. Land stewards will complete conservation plans that will increase their agricultural activity; bolster their sustainable soil, land, and water conservation practices; and preserve natural and agricultural ecosystems in accordance with their tribal or pueblo cultures and Indigenous management practices passed down through the generations.

Of the USDA Nine-Step conservation planning process, First Nations takes the land stewards up to step seven. In the last remaining two steps (Implement the Plan and Evaluate the Plan) land stewards who complete conservation plans will consult with an onsite USDA representative who will assess their plans and, as appropriate, guide them through the application process for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). As one participant stated, each participant either has a dream written down on a napkin or already has a thriving business located on ancestral lands.

The goals and dreams of the participants are clear: They want to teach and pass down their knowledge to the next generation of land stewards, learn through dialogue in Native languages, and grasp concepts in soil education and usage of USDA data offered on various websites.

They also want to increase productivity in their livestock and crops while continuing to honor Nahasdzáán, bringing to fruition local farmers markets, providing traditional foods in schools, sharing knowledge,  and — during planting season — having a workday with the community to help plant individual fields, just like their ancestors prior to colonialization.

First Nations recognizes that Native land stewards are experts in their respected homelands. They just need support to get their ideas on paper. Native communities are at the heart of the work we do at First Nations.