Mescalero Apache Tribe Adapts to a Warmer and Drier Climate
Contending with higher temperatures, lower precipitation, and ecological shifts
The Sacramento Mountains—home of the Mescalero Apache Tribe (MAT) in southern New Mexico—are experiencing a shift to a warmer and drier climate. Local meteorological records reveal that three of the area's worst 10 droughts and some of the highest temperatures ever recorded in the region all occurred since 2011. Trends show that the monsoon season is arriving later in the year, and the average duration and frequency of monsoon rains is decreasing. Additionally, the average duration and intensity of winter snowfall has decreased, reducing the Tribe's water supply and negatively impacting its Ski Apache ski resort.
These averages, though, don't reflect the extreme events that are also occurring more frequently on MAT lands. These events include catastrophic wildfires, unprecedented flood events, crop-killing cold snaps, devastating winds, and extreme diurnal temperature shifts (the range from the minimum to the maximum temperature every 24 hours).
In the face of these environmental challenges, members of the tribe are looking for the best ways to keep their forests and waters healthy. They also have a new interest in growing healthy and sustainable foods for their community.
Working across governments and landscapes
- Recognizing the threats of a changing climate, MAT tribal government and managers are working with a range of federal, state, and local government agencies and academia to maintain forest health and resiliency.
- A research project through Northern Arizona University is studying the impact of climate change on Native American forest lands in order to maximize resiliency and identify forest management strategies that will enhance future ecosystem services.
- The Tribe's Forest Management Plan is being updated in light of climate change to address cultural plants and resources, including the harvest of culturally important resources such as tepee poles.
- The Tribe's Forest Plan features reducing forest fuel loads, monitoring forest and ecosystem health, and managing invasive species. Their active forest management plan has promoted recovery from the 2012 Little Bear Fire, which devastated surrounding communities.
- The U.S. Forest Service, with whom the Tribe shares common boundaries and watershed oversight, has noted that the Tribe may have the most effective invasive mistletoe treatment program in the Southwest.
- The New Mexico State Forestry Division is supporting a 600-acre tree-density reduction project to improve the quality of three critical watershed areas on tribal lands.
- The Tribe is a member of the Rio Grande Cutthroat Conservation Team—a group that plans and facilitates activities to protect and expand Rio Grande cutthroat trout habitat. Through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Tribal Wildlife Grant Program, the Tribe is working with the Fisheries Department at New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office to determine the potential influences of a changing climate on the species' native range.
- With funding from several Bureau of Indian Affairs programs, supplemented with assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the tribe is improving water quality in its hatchery to prevent higher contaminant loading as climate change decreases the frequency of flushing streamflows.
As members of the Tribe take on various leadership roles in these efforts, the Mescalero Apache Tribe builds capacity at the same time as they increase their environment's resilience to the impacts of a changing climate.
Improving access to healthy food
Mike Montoya leads operations at the Mescalero Tribal Fish Hatchery. He also serves as project leader for the Sovereign Nations Service Corps (SNSC), an AmeriCorps program. Starting with a simple idea to use hatchery water to grow a small garden, Montoya's staff and volunteers expanded the concept. Now, they're engaging college students and the larger community to promote the growth and consumption of healthy, local foods.
Though not traditionally an agrarian culture, the Tribe worked with its New Mexico State University County Extension Office to create an innovative real-world classroom where students build and use various technologies to grow food. The farm features two 15-foot by 40-foot hoop houses and two 12-foot by 18-foot greenhouses. Power for the greenhouses comes from a 17 kW photovoltaic solar array, capable of producing 2500 kW each month—community members built the structure for the solar array using excess materials from Holloman Air Force Base. After constructing the garden and greenhouse, the group planted various vegetables and fruits to evaluate the feasibility of growing particular crops in the harsh conditions typically found on Mescalero Apache tribal lands.
A collaboration between the Otero County Extension Office, the SNSC (supported by Bureau of Indian Affairs Youth Initiative funding), and MAT tribal government led to the development of N'de Farms, an organic agricultural initiative to support the production of farm-to-table produce for the benefit of Mescalero community residents. The collaborative group also provides instruction and demonstrations in the school and community about the benefits of healthy eating. They also provide opportunities for area farmers to sell their produce directly to area residents. One intent of the project is to reduce the use of fossil fuels spent traveling off the reservation to procure food. The project also helps tribal members avoid foods that are produced using pesticides and fertilizers.
Through these efforts, the Tribe is developing stronger internal community resilience as well as robust regional partnerships. "On a national and an international level, the dependency upon fossil fuels will continue even as fuel prices continue to rise; therefore, the cost of producing, processing, and delivering food to local retailers will continue to rise," says Montoya. "Indeed, the ability to source food locally is not only environmentally sustainable, it is also a critical step toward food security and independence, as well as making healthy food choices accessible to the local community.”
The SNSC has also developed a composting program, a recycling program, and xeriscaping demonstration areas with drought-tolerant, native plant species. The SNSC directs the local 4H program, and donates excess harvest to community members in need. The program promotes healthy living, foods, and lifestyles, and continues to seek public input on initiatives to better the community.
Seeking harmony to thrive
Montoya believes that the Tribe must first understand the impacts of climate change, and then use that knowledge to adapt. "Technology is a wonderful tool, but we should use it, mindful of its limitations and applications," he says. "I am afraid that if we do not learn from our errors and the direction that the food manufacturers and brokers are taking us, including the impacts to our health such as obesity and diabetes, we will lose our ability for our children to make choices for their future. We must constantly strive to live as one, living in harmony with our environment, with the Earth Mother as our teacher. Even though Western thought may lead us to believe otherwise, we do not hold dominion over our environment. When we attempt to control and manipulate the natural world, we become the victims of our own endeavors."