Tribal members, PSU professor help revegetate Nevada low-level radioactive waste site
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Posted: June 28, 2018

Las Vegas, Nev. - In a unique project, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Environmental Management Nevada Program is working with Nevada’s Desert Research Institute (DRI), Portland State University and members from 16 Native American tribes to restore native plants to an area of the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site, the location of nuclear testing from 1951 to 1992) where for decades the nation has disposed low-level radioactive waste.

Researchers are optimistic that a new approach combining Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge with restoration ecology best practices will be more successful than previous efforts to revegetate the acreage.

The project is focused on a 92-acre portion of Area 5, located at the southeastern portion of the NNSS, which has been used for disposal of low-level radioactive waste such as contaminated tools, protective clothing, medical items and laboratory supplies. The revegetation of this portion of NNSS is required as part of a compliance order between Nevada and federal officials.

“There are 16 tribes that consider this land to be their ancestral territory,” said Jeremy Spoon, Ph.D., a professor at PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences whose research focuses on Indigenous peoples and their aboriginal environments. “And when you're Indigenous to a place as unique as this, you wouldn’t leave it alone and say, 'Let's move on to land that's in better shape.’ The land is a relative; it’s an important piece of their heritage and also part of their future. The tribes are committed to making sure that this land is brought into balance from their perspective."

Spoon has helped facilitate a relationship between the Consolidated Group of Tribes and Organizations and the DOE since 2010 and was recruited by the DRI-led research team because of his expertise in ethnoecology, the study of how people relate to their natural and cultural environments.

Michael Clifford, Ph.D., an assistant research professor of ecology at DRI, is working with Spoon and a committee made up of six to nine tribal members from three ethnic groups – Southern Paiute, Western Shoshone and Owens Valley Paiute/Shoshone – as well as Richard Arnold, the American Indian Program Coordinator and spokesperson for the Consolidated Group of Tribes and Organizations.

In 2016, the research team began examining the site and providing recommendations to restore the acreage to a creosote bush scrub habitat.

Spoon describes his role on the project as an ambassador or translator.

“I've been working with the tribal members to figure out how their traditional restoration techniques and knowledge can be translated into formal recommendations that (the DOE) can actually use,” he said. “My job is help create actionable next steps that hopefully produce positive results for everyone involved.” 

One of Spoon’s primary roles is also to make sure that tribal members have the appropriate space to perform traditional spiritual and cultural practices, and are given opportunities to provide input on the research design and fieldwork at the revegetation location.

In December 2017 and early April 2018, the research team moved forward with the planting of 38 test plots and is currently evaluating how different environmental and agricultural factors such as seed or transplant types, traditional planting practices, soil preparations and irrigation techniques can combine to produce a successful restoration design. 

Tribal members will regularly collect data and make a recommendation on the most appropriate methods to best restore the land. Their hope is that by first restoring the native vegetation, wildlife will then return to the area. Successful revegetation of the land with native plants will also support soil health, reduce dust impacts, and enhance overall ecological health throughout this portion of the NNSS.

"We're also including intangible aspects of land management that generally do not exist in Western agriculture and restoration," Spoon added. “We're spiritually preparing the land, blessing the seeds and transplants, as well as maintaining continuous human interaction with the land."

The research team hopes to develop a model that can be replicated elsewhere, including other areas of the NNSS.

"If we can be successful here, it will set a baseline for future projects that integrate local knowledge from the Indigenous people into environmental conservation and restoration best practices," Spoon said.

Captions: At top right, members of the Tribal Revegetation Committee inspect the revegetation site on the NNSS. At left, PSU anthropology professor Jeremy Spoon, left, and Richard Arnold, spokesman of the Consolidated Group of Tribes and Organizations, are pictured at the site. At bottom right, members of the Tribal Revegetation Committee, Desert Research Institute and PSU discuss the best course of action for the 92-acre portion of Area 5.