Nation to Nation

Lisa Berrios AC ’02 promotes environmental accord between American Indian tribal areas and the EPA

by Christina Barber-Just

Lisa BerriosIn its work overseeing air, water and land quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) faces unique challenges in working with American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, each a sovereign nation with its own environmental priorities. Linking the agency and the tribes is where Lisa Berrios AC ’02 comes in. As one of 10 regional tribal-relations coordinators for the EPA, she strives to ensure that federal environmental protections are serving the needs of the tribes.

“When the phone rings I never know if I might be facing a jurisdictional issue, a contaminant release, a tribal drinking-water system going offline as a result of a hurricane or a question about grants or funding,” she says. “It’s always something different.”

Berrios’ Atlanta office covers eight southeastern states and six federally recognized tribes: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation in North Carolina, the Catawba Indian Nation in South Carolina, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Here, Berrios talks about her work.

Tribal concerns: “They vary quite broadly. For example, the Miccosukee are in the heart of the Everglades, so Everglades restoration is a huge priority for them. In South Carolina, the Catawba have their own separate ozone-designation status because they demonstrated to the EPA that they weren’t contributing to the bad air quality in the area. The Cherokee, who are right at the Smoky Mountains, have problems with haze, so that’s a priority area for them.”

Hands-on: “We provide training for the tribes on managing EPA grants and developing plans for water-quality monitoring. We also provide technical assistance on things like fish-tissue sampling and setting up stations for air-quality monitoring. We interact very closely with the tribes in on-the-ground environmental work. On the flip side, my job entails a lot of policy work.”

Equal safeguards: “The goal is the same or better environmental protection in Indian country as in the rest of the country—the most pristine, highest quality water, air and land. The reality, however, is that we oftentimes fall short of this goal due to lack of resources, funding, staff shortages and jurisdictional challenges, to name a few. It’s often further complicated by the historical relationship between tribes and the federal government.”

Modus operandi: “I think the EPA stands out as one of the lead federal agencies in our working relationship with tribes. We were the first agency to have an Indian policy. We also have national and regional tribal caucuses to give tribes input on things like budget decisions.”

Working together: “There’s a period of trust building that has to take place. It may happen faster if you’re a tribal member because you can relate to growing up on a reservation and to the stereotypes that still exist. As a non-Native I had to take my time, be myself, listen and be respectful—especially in areas of traditional ecological knowledge. We’re so focused on Western science, and tribes go way beyond Western science in what they know culturally and traditionally about the environment.”

Summer ’13 SAQ