Publication Announcement: Tribal Revegetation Project Final Project Report

It is my pleasure to share our final report for the Tribal Revegetation Project. The project blends Indigenous knowledge and Western science to revegetate a low-level radioactive waste storage area on the Nevada Test Site.


Nuwu (Southern Paiute), Newe (Western Shoshone), and Nuumu (Owens Valley Paiute) are linguistically related, Numic-speaking peoples who are part of the broader Uto-Aztecan language group. Numic peoples view the land as a holistic, living, sentient being with feelings and purpose. The land is personified with human characteristics and it needs to be experienced to be understood through “learning by doing.” Numic peoples do not support ground disturbing activities within their ancestral lands, including activities tied to the storage of low-level radioactive waste or classified materials on the NNSS, which they view as culturally inappropriate. These deep-rooted ancestral connections are the impetus for reinforcing Numic responsibility for healing disturbed areas by integrating respect and patience with consistent Tribal interaction.

Tribal Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is the science of describing Tribal approaches for understanding natural resources. Numic TEK is embedded in traditional teachings learned incrementally over time though experience and it evolves through lessons learned and responses to environmental changes over millennia. Therefore, TEK can broaden and enhance Western scientific knowledge associated with revegetation, especially in highly disturbed areas. The project blended TEK with Western scientific ecological methods to create a vegetative cover within test plots on the 92-Acre Area located at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex (RWMC) located in Area 5 on the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS). The vegetated test plots were systematically created for the Department of Energy (DOE) in tandem with the existing Federal Facilities Agreement and Consent Order (FFACO) with the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP). Three previous contractor-lead attempts at revegetation, one targeting full cover revegetation and two targeting test plot revegetation, did not achieve the anticipated results at this location.

When presented to the 16 American Indian Tribal nations and affiliated groups with cultural and historical ties to the NNSS, the group appointed a Tribal Revegetation Committee (TRC) that included six expert Tribal knowledge holders to collaborate with an ethnoecologist/cultural anthropologist and two biologists. Project design, planning, seed and outplant selection, spiritual land preparation, and methodology were guided by the TRC and an ethnoecologist/cultural anthropologist from Portland State University (PSU) and biologists from Desert Research Institute (DRI).

Using TEK, the TRC recommended a specific seed mixture that contained nine native plant species and three species of outplants. The revegetation effort included preparing and planting thirty 10 m × 10 m (32.8 ft × 32.8 ft) seeded plots, twelve of which also included outplants; and eight 10 m × 100 m (32.8 ft × 328 ft) plots that only received outplants, all atop a waste cell cover. The TRC and the project team creatively adapted TEK with Western scientific methods so that the planned revegetation efforts could occur within the safety and security parameters of the RWMC. Test plots were subjected to one of five soil treatments with varying combinations of straw or mulch applications, soil amendment, and/or outplant planting and one of two watering treatments (watered or unwatered). Planting was divided into two events: one in the fall season and another during the subsequent spring season based on TEK and a corresponding recommendation from the TRC. Monitoring and spiritual management was conducted by the TRC to evaluate plant progress on a monthly basis (in conjunction with the biologist and anthropologist) during each respective growing season for a period of three years after planting.

This approach allowed Tribal members the opportunity to conduct traditional blessings and other culturally appropriate activities to restore balance to the land in accordance with Tribal protocols. Following TEK-guided methods, successful plant establishment from seed stock and outplants was observed in many plots. Overall, plots planted in the spring, as recommended by the TRC, showed higher rates of outplant survival and native seedling emergence than those planted in the fall. This finding is significant because it is contrary to the original guidance and previous approaches provided for planting in this region. The TRC believes the frequent co-occurrence of native seedlings near surviving outplants indicates an important symbiotic relationship understood by Tribal communities and overlooked by others. Watered outplants displayed much higher survivability than unwatered plants, even after watering was reduced after the plants were established. Soil amendments and mulch created higher densities of native plants from seed. Many native seedlings showed significant delays in germination, which is considered a normal adaptation to desert climates. Some native plants did not germinate until the third growing year, whereas others germinated during the first growing year, which demonstrates the complexity of the desert environment.

Evidence of native insects, reptiles, mammals, and birds, as well as native plants that were not part of the planted species, were noted and considered culturally significant. Despite the presence of non-native plants, native outplants continued to thrive and the incidence of native plant germination from seed increased over time. These successful revegetation results where previous efforts were unsuccessful reinforce the importance of integrating regionally appropriate, TEK-guided methodology with Western science to achieve positive results and the necessity of integrating Tribal involvement in all stages of the revegetation effort. Expanded approaches coupled with Tribal knowledge and tools from Western science addressed a complex problem tied to revegetating atop a low-level radioactive waste cell. The level of Tribal participation serves as a progressive model for building collaborative relationships and addressing ecological challenges on the NNSS.

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