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MSU Joins Choctaws In Environmental Studies
By Laura Martin
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Land, water and wildlife mean as much to today's Choctaw tribe as they did to its ancestors. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has teamed with Mississippi State University to study fisheries resources, solid waste disposal and tribal perceptions.
Because the tribe is self-governed, it is responsible for maintaining its own environmental standards, including water quality and waste management. In the past, the tribe has depended on state and federal agencies for environmental monitoring.
Seeking to develop its own tribal standards, the MBCI worked with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the College of Engineering at MSU to improve the environment on tribal lands. When the team received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency in 1997, they began to study how the environment on the reservation was being affected by community development activities.
The MBCI, one of the top 10 employers in the state, is impacting local economies through its development efforts. Tribally-run programs on reservation lands have increased and the tribe is meeting the needs of its people. As the tribe improves economically, it can better address issues that may have been of lower priority in the past, especially environmental programs.
The EPA awarded about $100,000 to the MBCI to fund the study including a survey of the people and an analysis of fisheries resources and pollution, said Dr. Bernadette Hudnell, environmental resource specialist for the MBCI's Office of Environmental Protection.
Completed this fall, the study's report will include suggestions to improve the environment on the reservation. The final proposal to Chief Phillip Martin and the Tribal Council will be submitted by the end of this year. The council will consider the recommendations made in each area of environmental conservation. Researchers at MSU are optimistic about the report's acceptance.
"We will give a copy of the proposal to the Tribal Council for review to develop resolutions for the tribe," Hudnell said. "It will be used for development planning and activities."
The research focused on collecting information from tribal members on their perceptions, uses and behaviors regarding the natural environment. Additional studies focused on aquatic resources, particularly fisheries associated with the Pearl River and its overflow and backwater habitats used by tribal fishers.
"We hope to maintain our relationship with the tribe," said Dr. Don Jackson, a professor of fisheries with MSU's College of Forest Resources, who has also studied fisheries resources on the eight reservation communities during the past several years. "We appreciate their unique and valuable perspectives regarding environmental conservation."
Looking at rivers and fisheries, Jackson found that fish on the reservation depend on Pearl River flooding to replenish the ox-bow lakes.
"The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is very fortunate to own areas around the Pearl River. It is a good interactive system," Jackson said. "Flooding is important. The Choctaw Indians also recognize the importance of maintaining the good hardwood forests."
Working with the industries on the reservation, Dr. Dennis Truax, a professor of civil engineering at MSU, collected information hoping to find a way to achieve high quality products at minimum cost and minimum waste.
"We are looking for an opportunity to reduce wastes and minimize power usage that, in turn, causes more pollution at power plants," Truax said. "Each of the industries on reservation land had in place a significant program in waste reduction and recycling. The industries have been good corporate citizens. They have a supportive environmental attitude among workers who then take those attitudes home. The industry by and large is a positive force."
Dr. Donna Minnis, who specializes in the application of the social sciences to natural resource conservation, studied tribal members perceptions of the environment.
"Building on this research, the next step is to implement environmental education on a one-on-one basis," said Minnis, an assistant professor with MSU's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "This will involve identifying key tribal members to share the conservation message within the communities."
Truax had four suggestions for the MBCI:
* Put more emphasis on environmental education in schools and the community.
* Maintain strong support for the environment.
* Maintain a high level of environmental stewardship.
* Minimize the use of natural resources, like water, timber and soil.
"Reservation officials, individuals and community representatives seemed very supportive of our undertaking," he said. "They are environmentally conscious and will probably take into consideration what we have suggested."
Contact: Dr. Don Jackson, (662) 325-7493