The next seven generations

While many communities are pursuing environmental sustainability, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians possesses assets that few other communities can claim. For one thing, the tribe has endeavored for many hundreds of years to be good stewards of the land, and to strike a balance between natural, cultural, spiritual and economic needs — now and for the next seven generations.

Another important advantage is that most of the development on tribal lands is managed by various tribal departments, which all report to a common management. That makes it much easier to implement a strategy on the Qualla Boundary, the homeland of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, than in other locations.

For the past four years, there has been new impetus to achieve greater energy efficiency and develop local renewable-energy resources. It started when the Cherokee Preservation Foundation convened tribal members to set goals for being a green community. (The foundation was established by the tribe and the state of North Carolina in 2000 to encourage environmental preservation, cultural preservation and economic development.) The community then established the Generations Qualla initiative to help the tribe implement the Qualla Environmental Resources Initiative proclaimed by Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

Members of the Generations Qualla effort searched for a Cherokee symbol that would come close to the modern-day meaning of environmental sustainability. They consulted with elder Walker Calhoun, who showed them a Cherokee symbol that does not have a direct English translation, but could be interpreted to mean “endless.” The symbol is now used on recycling bags and other sustainability efforts on the Qualla Boundary.

Momentum began to build in 2008, when the tribe received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to complete a strategic energy plan and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation began funding energy audits of tribal and community buildings to identify ways to save energy and money.

Throughout the past three years, 40 energy audits have been conducted by Waste Reduction Partners, a program of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council. The audits identified a range of energy improvements involving insulation, windows, roofs, HVAC efficiency, lighting, water-saving features in restrooms and office equipment that could be made to reduce energy usage significantly in existing buildings.

Tribal departments formed a Strategic Energy Committee to create a strategic plan to implement the recommendations from the audits and determine the best renewable-energy options available to the tribe. The committee also serves as the knowledge base and advocate for the plan. The Strategic Energy Committee is composed of representatives from the transportation, environment and natural resources, building construction, and planning and development departments, as well as the principal chief’s office.

The strategic energy plan targets at least a 30-percent energy reduction at seven tribal buildings.  So far, $1.5 million has been provided by the tribe, the federal government and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation for improvements. The foundation recently made a $374,000 grant to the Strategic Energy Committee so it can create showcase projects in the tribe’s welcome center and two smaller visitor-information kiosks that will demonstrate renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects on the Qualla Boundary.

In early 2012, all three buildings will be retrofitted with new lighting, HVAC systems, waterless urinals, faucet aerators and dual-flush valves, and solar hot water systems will be installed in all three locations as well. Solar PV panels will be installed at the two kiosks to meet part of their electricity needs, and a small wind turbine will be installed at the downtown visitor kiosk for additional power generation. 

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation has installed its own solar PV panels as well, to set an example for the community and to help tribal members get used to the idea of seeing solar panels on rooftops and spur interest in taking similar action.

LED streetlights were recently installed throughout downtown Cherokee.  They are expected to trim $23,000 annually from the tribe’s utility bill.

Two fellows from the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps helped the Strategic Energy Committee accomplish a great deal over the summer of 2011. That included determining which sources of renewable energy hold the greatest potential for the tribe, prioritizing tribal buildings by their energy-efficiency potential if retrofits are installed, and developing a system that will enable the tribe to track energy use now and after building retrofits have been completed. The system also will help in the development of green-building standards on the Qualla Boundary.

The Climate Corps fellows also recommended that the tribe create an energy program manager position to coordinate future projects on the Qualla Boundary, including fleet efficiency and establishing local availability of biodiesel fuel. A new grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation has helped the tribe fund the position. When the new manager is hired, the Generations Qualla initiative will spread its wings and take flight across the entire Qualla Boundary.

Damon Lambert, building construction manager for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Building 
Construction Department, chairs the tribe’s Strategic Energy Committee. He can be reached at