Recording Available: “Rural Resilience: Hurricanes, Wildfire, and COVID-19”

Thank you to everyone who joined us for our livestream conversation “Rural Resilience: Hurricanes, Wildfire, and COVID-19.” For those of you who could not join or who would like to revisit the conversation you can find the recording below. 

If you joined us for the conversation, please take a few minutes to fill out the post-event survey. Your responses will help inform future events and conversations hosted by the Rural Assembly and Daily Yonder. Thank you for your time and reflections. 

Transcript: "Rural Resilience: Hurricanes, Wildfire, and Covid-19"

Lyndsey Gilpin: Hi, everybody. Hey. Hi, thanks for joining us, whoever is watching. And to our panelists. My name’s Lyndsey Gilpin. And I am the founder and editor of Southerly, which is a fairly new publication, non-profit publication that covers ecology, justice and culture in the American South. And I’m partnered with my friends at Rural Assembly and Daily Yonder today to do a panel, or actually we’re doing a series of panels or rural resilience in this era of climate change, and also the coronavirus pandemic.

So we are really excited, because Daily Yonder and Southerly have both been covering really how communities are responding to the pandemic, and also to the effects of climate change, and how they intersect with economic and racial injustices and inequities. And so I have a panel here that I’m really excited for you all to learn from, and for me to learn from as well today. And will go ahead and introduce them, and then get started on some questions. And whoever wants to, can throw questions in the chat or on social media if you #ruralresilience. Or you can post them on YouTube as well. So we’re happy to open it up to Q&A at the end. I’m really excited to hear what you all have to say.

So first I’ll intro the panelists. So we have Shirell Parfait-Dardar, who is traditional chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe. Which has for many, many, many generations called the lands and waters around coastal Louisiana home. And we had Dr. John T. Cooper, who is director of Texas Target Community’s program at Texas A&M University. And he’s also the assistant vice-president of public partnership and outreach at Texas A&M. And then last we have Steve Wilensky, who is president of Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions, or CHIPS as I’m told it’s called. And he’s also the former supervisor of Calaveras County, California. So we have a range of geographic locations today that are represented. I’m really excited about that, to talk a lot about how disaster preparedness and response is going on in communities that are dealing with wildfires, with hurricanes, with other extreme weather. And then also how the pandemic is impacting that. So thank you all for joining us.

So I thought first, I would ask all of you to answer this question. So you can each take a couple minutes to do so. Basically, I’d love for each of you to talk a little about the specific challenges that are facing your communities in this moment. The longer term challenges that we’re talking about, like climate change effects, right? And how they intersect with economic and racial inequities. But also how that’s exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and really how you all are handling this moment, and trying to respond to the communities you’re in, and the places that you live and work? So I’ll pass it to Chief Shirell first, if you want to start us off.

Shirell Parfait-Dardar: Hi, good afternoon everybody. I am very, very grateful to be here. Thank you, Lyndsey. This is terrific getting the chance to actually speak to everyone and share a little bit here. So my community present day, and one of the challenges that we have been dealing with, and we’re still going to be dealing with for quite some time. We are a Native American community. And my people have been here since time immemorial. However, in order to be acknowledge as a Native American Tribal Community, you either have to go through a state recognition, which we have achieved state recognition back in 2008, it was a completed.

That doesn’t really do a whole lot. Except for basically confirming that you’ve had a government to government relationship within your local and state government. On the federal level, it’s completely different, right? You have to go through seven mandatory criteria, and you have to meet all seven in order to be considered a tribal nation. Now, we have been in that process for over 25 years. It is very, very lengthy. And meeting the criteria has actually proven to be quite impossible for some tribes. Simply due to not being able to find the documentation, right?

And in order for my community to be able to thrive and have a say so in what’s happening in our own backyard, such as different projects. We have the Morganza levee system, okay? That we have to deal with different government entities on those things. Without federal acknowledgement, there’s nothing that we can do to stop any of the projects. We technically don’t even have a say so. Now if we had federal acknowledgement, that would change, okay? And it would be an obligation that they actually spoke to my tribal nation before they went about doing any sort of projects.

So that in itself has been difficult. But we’re still going along. We’re still traditional. We still do traditional community harvesting. We’re a water-land people. So our diets are predominantly seafood and vegetable. And due to COVID, right? And climate change … We’ll go to climate change first. So we’ve been an adapting people. And so we’ve always had to adapt to a storm surge and flooding. Right? So our people were always familiar with having to move a little bit further in land to get away from flooding. Well, in the past 10 years or so, we’ve had the effects of climate change. And that’s really accelerated the rate that we’re having to adapt to these changes, right?

We’re losing our land a lot quicker. We’re dealing with salt water intrusion. My community didn’t flood randomly at one time. Now we’re dealing with random flooding. South wind, South-Easterly wind, we have water that stays for days. So we’ve had to go through a lot of adaptation processes in order to stay where we are. And all while trying to achieve federal acknowledgement as a Native American tribe. And of course, COVID secluded than we already were. And a lot of places were shut down. So we had the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of Federal Acknowledgement, that’s who’s in charge of [inaudible 00:07:33] … COVID, it’s got even more interesting.

Lyndsey: Yeah. Yeah. No kidding. We can have a whole panel just on that. John, do you want to go next? Thank you, Chief Shirell.

John T. Cooper: Yeah. First of all, Lyndsey, thank you for inviting me to participate in this conversation. In my work in Texas [inaudible 00:07:55] communities, I work a lot with small towns and rural communities in sometimes marginalized areas within urban places. And the issue we’re facing is one that is not new, well-known. And that is the fact that there are certain populations who suffer disproportionately due to the impacts of disasters. It’s the same thing with COVID. We’re finding out that people with COVID, the poor, the elderly seem to be hit harder due to this pandemic.

And in the places I work, that’s where those populations are concentrated. And I think after Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Katrina was the first time that this phenomenon caught the nation’s attention. People who studied disasters and work in disasters had known about this for a long time. And that’s not to say that disasters discriminate. But there are certain comorbidities, if you will, like they talk about in public health, that make certain populations more vulnerable to environmental disasters. Again, poor, elderly, people who have a much harder time preparing for disasters in advance. So the challenge for me in my work is, how do you build capacity, get people into position, so that they’re better able to prepare for, survive, and recover from disasters on their own?

Lyndsey: Yeah. Thank you. And we’ll get a little bit more specific on some of the work you’re doing in places that you’re working with communities, in a few minutes. Steve, do you want to talk a little bit about what you’re seeing out West? I feel like it’s a whole world that I don’t know about anymore now that I live back South.

Steve Wilensky: Well, we’re changing rapidly. But not always in a good way. We’re suffering the cumulative effects of a whole series of poor policies and bad attitudes. The history of our area is that for 10,000 years, there were great stewards of the land. They were native people in the Washoe and the Miwok tribes in this area. But right after that, the Gold Rush, and even before it was a series of genocidal acts, which we celebrate as Kit Carson. We have statues that are erected for other murderers. I know there’s a good teardown going on in other places. But we’ve yet to fix ours.

But the Gold Rush had eight years of boom, and they washed off the soil, hydro-washing the soil so they could find gold. We then had logging go for 40, 50 years. And we were really a bloom area until about 30 years ago when 20 mills closed and left our communities for dead. Meanwhile the forests have been assaulted by climate change and poor management, or no management. And we had been burning our towns … Burned. We had a fire that went 62,000 acres in two days around here and burned 700 houses. We lost people just North of us, the Fire and Paradise.

Our challenges are not just physical though. The closure of 20 mills left us destitute. And the social mayhem and chaos of meth addiction and extreme grinding rural poverty not always visible the way you might see in a city. But our homeless situation, our housing situation, our employment situation. We were way ahead of the Great Depression, or Great Recession, I should say. We already had unemployment that was higher than what become the national figures.

However, we are proud communities. Our good news is that we still love the place we’re in. And that we still care about each other when we can find our common ground. Our challenges are not just the restoration moving from a resource extraction, a series of resource extractions with bad outcomes. We’re now creating an economy that’s based on stewardship and restoration. And the tribes are deeply involved in fixing the forests, doing fire safe work. But also restoring cultural sites, developing increased land tenure and areas so that a tribe that was once relegated to what once had all of Tahoe, all the way down to Yosemite, has now an 80 acres of sagebrush on the Eastern slope. Those crews are out there restoring Yosemite and Tahoe, and everything in between and gaining employment and beginning to expand their land tenure as well.

So there are exciting comebacks. But it’s not easy. And the headwinds are strong. For corona, to give you an example, this morning we had one of our folks in the Paiute community come in with a 102 temperature, which shut down an entire … We’re putting fire back on the landscape in the right way, as 10,000 years of history shows it’s a good way to be a steward in the Sierra. But ironically, you had to show them your papers, which means you had to get basic 32 training, and you had to do a series of courses to be eligible to do traditional burning on federal lands, which is what we’re engaged.

So we had a bunch of people out there. But the minute somebody got a temperature, the entire class shut down and we’re having to wait until December to qualify for this now. We had two false positives over in the Washoe community. But before we knew they were false, we had 40 people lose eight days of employment while tests were done, and people were cleared. So even if we’re being safe and doing every possible social distancing, and wearing our masks. Even while we’re working in hot temperatures out there in the forest, there are still setbacks that are just part of today’s … Well, I guess once again, we have poor policies and bad decisions that are affecting our outcomes.

Lyndsey: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, thanks for talking about that. I wanted to circle back … I want to circle back to all the things you all are talking about. But just because you’re talking os much about indigenous knowledge and stewardship of the land, I thought Chief Shirell, so Southerly, and I think someone will throw it in the chat here. But Southerly published a story on how the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band has been adapting, like she was saying, for generations. But really around, talked a lot about food systems and how that’s really provided a lot of resilience in a time when it feels like everything else is slow around us, as far as getting federal recognition, and getting resources, and restoring the coast, and that sort of thing.

So Chief Shirell, just if you could talk a little bit about that. How the programs that … Or programs or initiatives that you all are working on, and also just how indigenous knowledge can help communities [inaudible 00:15:24] something that rural places all over the U.S. can really learn from in this moment, I think when we all have a lot of … At least had a lot of time to sort of think through these things.

Shirell: Right. So like I’ve said, we are a water and land people, right? We sustain ourselves with the blessings that we’ve received from the land and the water. Mostly seafood diet. And we’ve had to adapt our diet to all those changes as well. We have overfishing, which is an issue. So the catch isn’t as great. Plus we’ve had the BP oil spill, which did damage there. And now we have to deal with flooding coming through the land. So we can’t keep small livestock or plant traditional gardens like we used to, traditional community gardens, directly in the ground.

So what we’ve had to do is, while we can minimize the fishing that we do. And we do it as needed, right? You have to base everything off of a needs assessment, rather than a greeds assessment. And so that we have a pretty good grasp on. But it’s the community gardens. We’ve had to start working with outside groups, different tribal groups that have come up with new innovative ways to adapt to gardening. We work with USDA and RCS to do hesco basket planting, maybe planting into some straw bales, to have it above ground. So that it’s not susceptible to flooding. We’ve also looked towards having our tribal citizens who live on higher grounds, that can keep small livestock in their areas. And being able to share the goods, such as the eggs or some chickens with the other citizens that are still residing in the low lying areas.

So those are some of the things that we’ve had to do to try to maintain out diet as be we could, and adapt without suffering anything, right? Because we are stewards of our environment. Our beloved Creator gave us everything we would ever need to sustain ourselves on this beautiful planet. And all we have to do is care for her, right? Just care for her. And so our motto has always been to protect, preserve, then utilize the resource, okay? And we stick to that. We absolutely stick to that. And it comes down to a respect, right?

You have to respect the harvest. You have to respect. For example, when we go out shrimping, we don’t say, “We’re going to catch shrimp.” No, no, no. We pray that the shrimp give. Right? We pray that the shrimp will be generous. And we are always thankful for that resource, and we give it respect.

Lyndsey: Yeah. Great, thank you for sharing that. I sort of wanted to pivot just a little bit. Related, but pivot a little bit to John, if you could talk a little bit about the outreach work that you’re doing in underrepresented communities in Texas, or historically underrepresented communities in Texas? And you’ve also, you’ve been working on this disaster sort of preparedness and community response work for a long time. And so I’m curious what you’ve learned kind of working the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast, and how you’ve taken that to your work with Texas Target Communities, and helping people better understand what they’re up against, I guess, and working with it?

John: Yeah. I’ll try to relate it to what the Chief just said actually, in fact. So Texas Target Communities is a program at Texas A&M that provides technical assistance on land use planning and community develop to mostly small towns and rural communities, again. Sometimes marginalized places within urban areas. And whenever we are invited to a community, we start be convening a local taskforce, one that is representative of the people we’re working with.

And then we collect data about the context, demographics, environmental data, hazard history, disaster history, that kind of stuff. And then we facilitate conversations about the future of those places and what strategies are most appropriate for achieving the vision that comes out of those conversations.

And to be honest, I like to be respectful of indigenous knowledge too when I have these conversations, right? So I might not talk about climate change per se. Or any kind of jargon or frames that might not resonate with the folks that we’re working with. Instead I might provide data to kind of illustrate the trends over time, right? And then I’ll ask the folks in that place to share their knowledge of what’s going on from their experience of having lived there. And then we once come to some kind of collective understanding of what’s happening.

I then put it to the folks in the community. I ask them, “Well, what is it you want to do about it?” Okay? And what I’ve learned is that when lay people are given access to information, and a little bit of help translating to understanding that information, they can make wise choices. And so on the back end, those choices also happen to address climate change, well I’m cool with that, right? And so the lesson is, lay people care about their futures. They’re interested and invested in their futures. And with given access to information, they can make wise decisions.

Lyndsey: Yeah. I think that’s such a … I mean, that’s what just I’ve been trying to do with Southerly for the last couple of years is tell stories about climate change that don’t beat people over the head with the politics around it, or the science behind it is there. But it’s really meeting people where they’re at, because I don’t really care what they call it, as long as they want to address flooding, right? It does not matter to me. But a lot of people will talk about it, and that’s really interesting. Are there … In your work in the past like with FEMA, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other agencies on sort of this work, what … I guess what have you taken from that into your work now? Is it a lot of that community listening, and more what people need on the ground rather than just kind of trying to do top-down solutions? Or how have you seen that kind of progress in the last few years?

John: So I think one of the things you want to do after this is share some links from some articles that I wrote for the Daily Yonder in the past. And a lot of what I said in that still applies. For one, the key to resilience in rural places, in wherever I’ve been, is the strength of that community fabric. And where there’s weakness in community fabric, the places are less likely to fully recover. That said, my experience … One of the things I’ve come to accept is that when it comes to disaster recovery in rural places, rural places are most likely to need help from federal and state resources after disasters.

When at the same time, those resources get to rural places last, right? And so it’s very important for rural people to be thinking ahead about what they can do to minimize the impacts of disasters to coordinate their resources so that they could expedite recovery. And not just to recovery that reverts back to the status quo. They need to be thinking about how to address some of the systemic persistent issues that were in place before disasters happened. So the status quo before disasters is unacceptable for a lot of people.

But planning is key, right? And it begins with, “Okay. What do we have to work with now? Who’s in charge of emergency management in the place? And what plans do they have in place, and what could we do to augment those plans?”

Lyndsey: Yeah, yeah. That’s really interesting. I want to pause for just a second and say that for anyone watching, if you have questions on specifics that anyone on here has talked about, please throw them in the comments or on social media, I’ll ask them. But I actually, just to build off of what John was talking about. Steve, I’d love to hear … We’re talking all about water right now. And I’d love to hear sort of your perspective with, and you could maybe talk a little bit more about CHIPS and sort of what you’re doing after working a long time as a county supervisor. To talk about local efforts in communities in California that are adapting to and preparing for, and getting away from … Trying to get away from wildfires. And really what that fabric looks like out in California, and how you kind of work with it.

Steve: Sure. Before getting into that though, John inspired me to make at least one comment about FEMA. Because we’ve had a whole experience with FEMA in the central Sierra. You’ve probably all heard about the fire up in Paradise, which killed 84 people and burned the entire town, and other towns like Concow. But it also covered at least 75% of it was on traditional tribal lands. And there were some of the best tribal workforces in California that had been doing forest restoration for a decade or more, and had certifications that were ready to do the post fire work.

And FEMA has spent, or is about to spend altogether over $2 billion. And when you have a town like our towns that were burned, or Paradise which was burned. And you spend literally billions of dollar, then some of that ought to stay in the towns, so that the recovery can be advanced. And employment, when you lose an entire town, everybody loses their jobs. But FEMA has managed in all these cases, to put contracts together for their federal partners, many of whom make political contributions at high federal levels. And we wind up outcast, and not even employed as people come from all over the country, and major corporations hiring their own people to come into our towns. It is almost like a hit and run disaster.

Yes, it gets cleaned up. But no, it does not have a long term economic effect. And so this gets back to the question you asked me, which is, if you had 10,000 years of sustainable activity, and a relationship with the planet that is not extractive and destructive. And then you have a couple 100 years where you really mess it up bad, we ought to start taking a look at what we’ve been doing and change course before it’s too late. And the Sierra is certainly on the brink of too late as we burn literally hundreds of thousands of acres per year. And people’s homes and lives, livelihoods within it.

So we had to overcome our differences first. Because after the timber, all the logging industry shut down, we were blaming each other. People got into … I was in a meeting where 200 people in a small town of a 150 showed up. And by the time it was over, there were people coming in with T-shirts with a spotted owl latched to logging truck saying, “try to build a house with one of these.” And there were environmental folks that were trying to defend what’s left of the forest. And there were native people who had been unemployed and in terrible health, and housing, and other conditions. All in the same room. But everybody was blaming everybody else for the outcomes in our condition. And the only people who really had a case were the tribes.

But when we put down the cudgels and started talking about what we could all agree on, we founded a forest collaborative that was huge. And it included land owners of all sorts. Fire doesn’t see boundaries between federal, state, and private land holdings. Although we all, we were big on the Sagebrush Rebellion, and the home rule stuff, running the feds out. And not me personally, but it was very popular around here. And a lot of people think that they’re living in the state of Jefferson, which is trying to succeed from the progressive state of California.

So we’ve got a rich tradition of really dumbass politics. But we managed to overcome all of that by getting together and trying to figure out what we could agree on. And what we all agreed is, we needed employment. We needed stewardship. We needed triple bottom line. Something that did not play off economics versus environmental stewardship. Or did not have economics like FEMA where all the money comes in, but doesn’t go to the people who live here. So community benefit, economic developments, and environmental stewardship had to be one in the same. You had to see it as a single unified effort. And when you do, we stopped blaming each other. We stopped litigating against one and other. We rolled up our sleeves, and we got things done.

So we’ve now employing mostly Native Americans, who better to do this work? Who better to run this work and determine its outcomes than the people who were good for 10,000 years? And so that takes care of some of our economic distress. And it also deals with the environmental elements. And it brings money home to the community. So far, $25 million have come in, in contracts and subsidies, and stewardship agreements to this small area. And it is changing our economy. And the old logger who used to be in the bars, blaming the Spotted Owl for their demise are now retooling, and putting light footprint equipment back in the forest, working right alongside native people, often under their direction, using TEK, Traditional Ecological Knowledge as the guiding principles.

Better late than never. And our hope is, and we’ve managed to in our field reduction efforts. Which are not just field breaks, but is actually a more landscape scale approach to this. We’ve managed to save towns, stop fires, give fire assets a chance to get in before the towns burn. And we’re credited with saving at least five towns so far in fires as they approached. So we’re pretty proud of that. But there’s a long way to go. And our motto for putting people back to work, all of a sudden after 15 years of toiling and obscurity, it’s catching on. And we’re spreading this throughout California. There are a number of startups similar to this. And CHIPS gets … We used to be the little brother, sister of other organizations. And we’re now able to embrace many people from many places, and begin this process in other rural communities.

Lyndsey: Yeah. Thank you for sharing on it, Steve. That actually makes me wonder, the other two folks on here. If you all … How you approach conversations about changing local economies. Because obviously, that’s what people want to know is how all of this affects their bank accounts, and how they survive. And Texas and Louisiana are states that are heavily dominated by the oil and gas industry, and also the coast obviously, the seafood industry. And so I’m curious how that plays out where you are, how you have those conversations to actually figure out ways to turn this into an opportunity for sustainable economic development, and not so much extraction as it’s been?

John: Chief?

Shirell: Okay. I’m sorry. So yes, Louisiana is the … And look, that’s a very harmful process, okay? I don’t care where you are, what you’re extracting, it’s harmful. And I’m [inaudible 00:33:01]. What can I say? Any time that I have gotten the opportunity to speak to any of our elected officials, with economic development, I try to kind of connect the bridges between all of these different agencies and organizations. And make them realize how much each one is needed by the next. And how they all need to work together for the greater good, right?

There’s no need to be greedy. And if you have to use an extractive process to create an energy resource of some sort, which technically we should be moving into advanced knowledge today. It’s not really needed to have to extract, right? We have a better system. You need to figure out what to do to repair the damage that you caused, right? It’s very, very simple, common sense knowledge. And a lot of times when they see me coming, they don’t know which way to turn, but they have no choice but to face me. So there’s that.

I sit on several different boards. I sit with the Community Engagement Working Group for CPRA. Where they’re actually starting to seek traditional community knowledge in combination with the science, right? And that’s so necessary. And I have to say, while we have a long way to go, we do. I mean, we can do so much better. And we’re still dealing with people that are more concerned with, “Well, what am I going to do to get my 12 bedroom house? And I want to drive this Maserati,” or whatever the heck. They’re interested in possessing.

They’re actually starting to see that their behavior is destroying their future generations. And they’re starting to look at better ways to generate economic revenue. And not just that, let’s work on creating equity. So that’s a lot of what I myself had been doing, along with the team that I work with. I work with great people from the Lowlander Center. We have First People’s Conservation Council Louisiana. And we reach out to every organization, every group that we possibly can to share knowledge, right? Not just beat them down and say, “Hey, you’ve been messing everything up.” No, no, let’s work together for the greater good.

John: And Lyndsey, I’ll just add to that, that I’ve found that the old adage is true. The ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I think what my experience has taught me is that reservation and conservation is way cheaper than recovery and restoration. And we know from our research that every dollar spent on disaster preparedness and mitigation is worth at least four times the money spent on relief and recovery.

Lyndsey: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great … I actually, it leads to … Someone asked this question in the audience. And I also had this question was, what do you all need to get this work done? What sorts of policies or funding? Chief Shirell talked a little bit about obviously the federal recognition for her tribe. But as far as state level or federal level policies, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what’s actually necessary that could help, I guess, catalyze this movement a little bit faster to catch up sort of with what we’re doing? And also to make it more equitable among especially low income communities, communities of color. We cover that a lot at Southerly how disaster relief is very, very different depending on where you are, and how much money you have. So I’m curious what sort of policy solutions you all are interested in seeing, or pushing for in your own states.

Steve: Well, from this end, I think it gets back to John’s comment. We have to start being smarter about the resources. This country doesn’t lack for resources. But we spend them in strange ways. California for instance spends over $1 billion in an average year in fire suppression. Part of the problem with our forests is a history of fire suppression when fire is a natural part of the restoration process, as 10,000 years of history shows.

So one of our problems that we spend a billion dollars on suppression, but CHIPS has been trying now for the last 10 years to create this restoration economy. And part of it is taking out small diameter wood. Thinning forests that grew up even aged after logging, and really need to be thinned for their own health, and set back from plantations to biodiversity.

And in order to do that, it costs quite a bit of money to go out there and do that work. A lot of it’s handwork on steep slopes in places equipment and machinery can’t go. And you really don’t want a whole lot of heavy equipment messing up the forest floor anyway. So given that, the question is, are there value added things you can do with what used to be wood waste? And the answer is, yes. Lots.

But nobody, no industry, nobody right now. And it’s going to take the federal government and state governments to invest. But we know we can produce three megawatts of power just with the wood that we’re taking out, the small diameter wood, using chips to gas … To gasify chips and produce three megawatts of power that would actually support all the electrical needs of the four towns in the surrounding communities.

Now, that costs about $25 million to put together. And guess how much we’ve been able to raise right here in our poverty stricken communities? So we go to Silicon Valley, and we make our pitches. And we go to the governor’s office and make our pitches. And they’re still spending one billion to suppress fire, while what we could take out in small diameter wood, would prevent fire and produce energy, and a new economy.

So it’s really a question as John’s suggesting, that if we understand healthcare and prevention, and if we understand … Rather than heroic ex post facto intervention, or we understand forestry in that way, or coastal stewardship, or any form of non-extractive use of resources, we’ve got to start taking it from the position of doing the right thing first, rather than heroic ex post facto corrections of mistakes. And that’s the fundamental question, can we have that paradigm change in policy circles?

And that means those of us in rural communities, which are developing. People say rural communities are conservative, and, “Why pay attention to this, because they will always be running backwards?” But in my view, the way we are together, a sense of community, a sense of place, a sense of commitment to one and other. I think that’s partly the solution that can take the rest of the country forward if we can come out of our rural enclaves, and engage our urban counterparts. They’ve got the votes, they’ve got the money. But until we’re able to make this case in a more robust way. Until we can carry rural voices, and our sense of community pride, and when can find it, our unity, I think we can tell the people who are drinking our water downstream, 1.4 million people drink our water out of our river in our watershed. We need to tell them that if their watersheds burn, they’re not going to be drinking so good.

We need to find our common ground with our downstream partners, and develop partnerships that are economic in nature, and fully understanding of what the cost of resource stewardship is that goes along with the water bills, the electrical bills, the other things that we’re doing. The true cost of extraction needs to be paid for in its restoration by the price of the commodities that we’re doing. But also subsidized by federal support for the good. And by the way, we have a long way to go until those things happen.

Lyndsey: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, John, do you have anything? Just specific to Texas to add to that? Just about funding or policy changes that you’re kind of working on or looking towards?

John: So you know I’ve worked everywhere from the Atlantic Coast to Texas. And so the thing … First of all, I’m going to endorse what Steve said. But I also want to say that I’d love to see more emphasis on professionalism in the field of emergency management that focuses on their skill in community building. And I say, “Emphasis,” rather than policy. Because I think if you were to look back over time across the span of government’s involvement in disaster response, you’ll find a lot of rationale, a lot of support for community engagement. It’s just, how do you do that?

I don’t think enough emergency managements understand how to do that. We are a great, no one better in the world at response in short term recovery. But it’s the long term recovery that’s helping communities get back on their feet, I think is where we fall short. And Steve talked about the frustration that happens in the early days after disasters. And the truth is, it’s hard to do things in a thoughtful coordinated way in the midst of a crisis. And then you add other kind of cultural barriers that exacerbates the frustrations. So I’d love to see more emphasis on helping the people with the fiduciary responsibility for managing disasters, be able to do that in a way that’s more inclusive.

Lyndsey: Yeah, thank you. Chief Shirell, do you have anything to add to that? Just as far as what you’re working on?

Shirell: Well, yes. I’m sure as some people might be aware of, we have the UN complaint to the special repertoire. We are still waiting to hear back something on that. And look, we understand the current administration. But that doesn’t mean that you just throw your hands up and say, “Egh.” Right? No, you have to continue to push forward for creating positive change. And that’s for every single person and being on this planet, right?

So being from Louisiana, and looking at all of the legislation that has been drafted in benefit of extractive practices, especially when you have elected officials that have vested interests in oil and gas, that’s basically doing the harm. It really comes down to common sense. We need to have more environmental rights legislation. We need to have more human rights based legislation, right? This is a very, very simple process. It really is.

If you’re willing to cause harm to your environment, how in the heck are you going to protect the people in it, right? So that’s really where we need to be. Environmental rights, human rights based legislative changes. And if we could really come together to do that, man are we going to do some amazing things, right?

Lyndsey: Yeah, definitely. That’s what brings me to just something else that I think about a lot, and I’m trying to do through the journalism that Southerly produces, is connect the dots between different parts of the South, but also just different parts of the country so that no matter where you are, you understand sort of the context around some of the problems we’re facing. Because I think not only if we’re paying attention to the place we live, we kind of forget that other places might be facing similar challenges. But also we’re communities, especially rural communities in extractive … In places that have had extractive industries are made to feel isolated in their fight against an industry or a company, or a pipeline. Whatever it may be. And that’s a very organized effort on the part of the companies and politicians, and everything.

So I just wondered if maybe you all could talk … Anybody can answer this. Could talk just a little bit about how you all think of sort of connecting the dots around the country, in working with different groups or organizations, or organizers, or communities around the country. And how we can better, I think, connect those dots for people so that we’re not all alone trying to get FEMA funding, and solving problems in such an isolate way. Did that make sense? Anybody can kind of jump in on that.

Steve: I’ll take a shot.

Lyndsey: Thanks.

Steve: My heart broke when I saw people in West Virginia who had lost their coal jobs. And people would tell them, “Well, that’s just progress. You’re going to have to just face it.” Without any understanding of the shifts in economics that are going on in this country. You can’t leave rural places for dead without really taking the heart of the country out. And people forget where their water, their timber, their resources, their food comes from. And if you let these places die, it is true, we’ve got to convert economies away from fossil fuels, away from destruction of the planet.

But if we don’t also take people with that. If we don’t have clear policies and economic investments in the places that are going to have to give up something in this transition, what are they going to get in its place? And for me, watching the coal fields, those proud towns, those once prosperous places, and those people just denigrated as too dumb to live in the modern world. That kind of degradation of rural places is actually causing unintended consequences.

Elections in which people are so angry that they vote against their own interests. Situations where people are just so desperate that they tune out altogether. And of course the other pandemics of substance abuse and the destruction of whole communities as they descend into a degrading and disparate form of poverty. Which by the way has environmental consequences as well. So for me, part of this is to understand that each of our … Maybe my issue is fire and forest health, and restoring 10,000 years of good stewardship in the range of light.

But I actually think it’s the same thing as what’s going on in West Virginia. The same thing that’s going on in Texas over there. And same thing that’s happening down there in Louisiana. And I am so rooting for your successes. Because it really sounds like we’re all on the same … I guess we’re on the same boat, paddling in the same direction. I’m sorry that we’ve got … Well, maybe I’ll change my metaphors. We’ve got a moped running a stock car race right now. But it’s only a matter of time before we fix this thing and get it better. Because there are so many good people working in so many rural and urban places that once our voice is …

Once we recognize our commonality in all of this. Once we understand not what we’re up against, that’s clear enough. But what is it we’re going to do that’s different? What are we going to do that’s restorative and traditional? What are we going to do that’s new and using new technologies to be able to lift us out of this dilemma, and stop blaming one and other, or degrading one and other in the transitions? But supporting one and other in the common understanding that a rising tide can lift all boats if we’re willing to accept that basic premise.

John: Lindsey, I want to add to this. I know you’re going to share some links connected to this for folks, for viewers who look into further information. But there are a couple that have come to mind that I didn’t share with you in advance. And so I just want to say, I’m hopeful that the kind of conversations that Steve just references are happening in some other networks that I participate in. For one, I can think about the Aspen Institute’s Rural Development Innovators Group.

There is something called the Center For Disaster Philanthropy that builds itself as a kind of an umbrella organization for funders, disaster grant makers. They lead a lot of conversations. There is the Association of Public Land Grant Universities. And specifically there’s something called The Extension Disaster Education Network. And then most importantly, there are organizations like those that participate in the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, National VOAD, that are keeping a finger on these issues and having those conversations.

Lyndsey: Yeah. That’s great. That was impressive that you got all those acronyms. I think we only have a couple more minutes. And I just thought that maybe, I want to end on a … Starting to end on a hopeful note. And I want to continue that. Because I’ve just been so inspired in my own reporting and editing, and reading in this moment, during the pandemic. And then now also with the protest happening against police brutality and systemic racism in rural places, in small towns, in big cities everywhere across the country. And it’s just kind of this incredible moment, scary but incredible moment. And I’d love to hear how … Something that’s made you all hopeful on [inaudible 00:52:13] like the intersection of climate injustice, and public health recently. If it’s some interaction that you’ve had, or maybe some initiative that is happening in one of the communities you’re working in, that makes you feel hopeful and kind of ready to keep on this good fight.

Steve: Well, I’ll take another shot.

Lyndsey: Who wants to go first? Yeah.

Steve: We’ve been working with a number of federal partners, including for U.S. Forest, Yosemite National Park, and the BLM, Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Department of Interior. And one thing we’ve noticed is that there are all kinds of lands that are right next to what’s left of tribal areas. The 80 acres that I references of terrible sagebrush, waterless land that the Washoe people live on is right next to a verdant forest, and a river running through it that is owned by BLM, but poorly managed.

The tribal folks that we’ve been working with now for 10 years have been kind of adept at stewardship. It was part of their tradition in the first place. But their skills are enormous. What we’re proposing to the Bureau of Land Management is that they give us Good Neighbor status under an act of congress. And that the tribal groups can go on those lands to do restoration. And ultimately have those lands repatriated to their tribes.

And we’ve got two pilot programs that we’re developing this year toward that end. And it involved hundreds of acres. And the beginning of the long … What’s going to be a long effort to make good on treaties that were broken all along the way for a 150 years. Let’s get that back. And restoration is not just about the landscape. It’s about our people. And we’re on that path, and we’re going to see it through.

Lyndsey: Cool. Thanks. Anybody else want to share anything before we go? No?

John: I’ll yield to Chief.

Shirell: Thank you. Thank you, John. So we enacted the Native American Commission in 2018. And that is a commission that is made up of the state and federal tribes here in [inaudible 00:55:07] of that commission. And we’re still kind of working everything out with that. But it’s definitely opened the doors for a more open line of communication between tribal groups and our government. Like I said, we work with many different groups. We will open our arms, and work with any group out there that is trying to create positive progress.

And we’ve taken a lot of proactive measures, right? We know that we’re in the middle of transitioning. That is something that is never going to stop, may it never stop. And we always transition towards wonderful progress. But we being an adaptive people, we’ve kind of taken the steps to say, “Okay. We have a transition coming into a newer, less extractive, newer technology base. So now we’re starting to look towards getting educated in those newer technologies and practices.”

So I guess it’s just kind of positive transitioning all around. It’s happening very, very slowly. But all in all, in my 11 years in representing my people as Chief, I am really, really proud of all of the people that I’ve had the chance to work with, even our elected officials. Maybe they were looking at it one way, didn’t see the bigger picture. When you show it to them, they’re like, “Oh. Okay.” So it’s heading in the right direction, right? And I think the more we open our arms to work with everyone across our great nation, and even across the world, the better off we’re going to be. And I see that happening.

Lyndsey: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for sharing that. Well, I think that’s out of time for us. But I am just so, so grateful that you all three came on to talk with me about this. I really respect your work, and it’s just really wonderful to hear about it. So thank you all. And thanks for everyone who has tuned in for this. And I hope you’ll join us for the next version of Rural Resilience that we’re hopefully going to do here soon. So thanks.

Drawing Resilience: Hannah Evans

Drawing Resilience: An interview with Hannah Evans, former Executive director of Virginia Food Works, a nonprofit that helps farmers and small businesses can their produce and create value-added products like salsa, hot sauce, and pasta sauce.

Read More »

Drawing Resilience: Dorn Cox

Drawing Resilence: An interview with Dorn Cox, farmer and research director for the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport, Maine.

Read More »

Video: Brady Piñero Walkinshaw 

Earth Alliance CEO Brady Walkinshaw talks about changing mindsets about the climate crisis — and why he thinks rural communities will play a critical role in solving it.

Read More »