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Obama Administration Investment Promotes Job Growth and Mitigates Environmental Risk in Tribal Communities

John R. Fernandez, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, discusses the environmental issues facing Indian Country and how President Obama is working to address them.

This year, President Obama hosted the third White House Tribal Nations Conference to hear directly from tribal leaders about their priorities. I had the opportunity to address some of the representatives of federally recognized tribes during a series of briefings and listening sessions hosted by the White House.

The President is committed to strengthening the government-to-government relationship with Indian Country and partnering and investing to find solutions to complex issues and to win the future for Indian Country.

Environmental challenges are affecting tribal economies. The Obama Administration has taken significant steps to mitigate environmental risks and strengthen the capacity of reservations to meet the training and economic needs of their communities.

Native Americans living on reservations experience higher incidences of environmentally-related health issues than other groups, including in the upper Missouri River basin. This includes 19 reservations in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, along the Missouri River system and its tributaries where minerals and wildlife are abundant both in water and on land. Unfortunately, as concerns about the environment have plagued these communities, the response has not been timely or meaningful. These are areas of the country where the norm is economic depression and generational unemployment. In some cases unemployment rates approach 90 percent. The impacts of environmental degradation have contributed to stagnant business growth in these rural communities and severely limited opportunities for workers.

One major problem is the lack of qualified technicians to tackle these environmental issues. According to data from the 2005 Bureau of Indian Affairs Labor Report, approximately 240,000 residents inhabit these tribal areas but only about 140,000 of them are available for the workforce.

Recently, a $1.6 million Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge award was presented to United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, North Dakota, for the Upper Missouri Tribal Environmental Risk Mitigation (UM‐TERM) cluster to help accelerate jobs and business development in natural resources and reduce unemployment in economically distressed tribal areas. The cluster leverages existing resources of Tribal Colleges, the Native American Business Enterprise Center funded by Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA), and tribal Planners. The project is expected to provide training and education for 1,045 participants, creating a sustainable network of approximately 120 regional environmental technicians, and 15 new minority‐owned businesses.

The $37 million Jobs Accelerator competition leverages funding from three federal agencies and technical assistance from 13 additional agencies to support the development of 20 high-growth industry clusters across the country. Funding for workforce training and technical assistance is provided by the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA), the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA).

The federal agencies have partnered with United Tribes and UM‐TERM to provide high quality education and job training, accelerate the formation of new businesses and investments, and develop and grow reservation-based small businesses related to environmental risk mitigation.

ETA funds will support the 15 Tribal Colleges and Universities located in the tri-state area to provide short-term certificate training for 40 participants per year at each institution. At least 20 students are expected to complete an associate degree at the end of year two and 10 will graduate with a BS degree in Environmental Science at the end of year four at the respective colleges. EDA’s investment will help to build a formalized network of Tribal Environmental Risk Mitigation professionals and practitioners and foster the economic conditions for environmental science and natural resources management jobs and businesses. SBA funding will assist participants with starting a new business and provide "Indianpreneurship" training and mentorship to cultivate interest in becoming an entrepreneur in the environmental science field.

The land is very important to tribes. This investment will help create sustainable infrastructure to foster environmental protections and economic growth in the rebuilding of tribal communities in this region.

Many other steps are being taken across the Administration to support Native American communities. Last month, President Obama issued a proclamation to designate November as National Native American Heritage Month to celebrate the rich ancestry and myriad contributions of American Indians and Alaska Natives, and to rededicate ourselves to supporting tribal sovereignty, self-determination and prosperity for all Native Americans.  And on Friday, before his remarks at the Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama signed an Executive Order that establishes The White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education will help expand educational opportunities and improve educational outcomes for all American Indian and Alaska Native students, including opportunities to learn their Native languages, cultures, and histories and receive a complete and competitive education that prepares them for college and a career and productive and satisfying lives.  The Initiative is also committed to strengthening tribal colleges and universities.   

As we continue to honor the rich history of tribal nations, the Obama administration will continue to partner with these communities to address the economic and social challenges Native Americans face.

John R. Fernandez is Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development.