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Two tribes have been awarded more than a million dollars to support their engagement and consultation efforts regarding offshore wind projects that may impact their tribal interests. 

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts and Stockbridge-Munsee Community in Wisconsin received a combined $1.3 million as the first-ever tribal recipients of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council’s Environmental Review Improvement Fund Tribal Assistance Program (ERIF-TAP).

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The ERIF-TAP program was launched by the Permitting Council in response to requests from tribes for resources to participate in the environmental review process for infrastructure projects covered by FAST-41. The funding, enabled by the $350 million allocated to the Permitting Council under the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, aims to streamline tribal consultation and expedite project reviews without compromising environmental or cultural considerations.  

"Increasing Tribal capacity in the environmental review process is essential," said Eric Beightel, the Permitting Council's  executive director. Providing tribes with resources to engage meaningfully can help them protect cultural resources, mitigate environmental impacts, and ensure critical infrastructure projects are completed efficiently, he said. 

Funding Supports Tribal Self-Determination

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe will receive $690,000, while the Stockbridge-Munsee Community will receive $632,500. Both tribes have cultural resources that could be impacted by offshore wind projects on the Eastern seaboard. The funding will allow the tribes’ historic preservation offices to dedicate staff time and technical resources to analyze the potential impacts of the offshore wind projects. The funding will also help them advocate for their interests during consultations. 

That will help the tribes keep up engagement amid aggressive permitting schedules, according to Stockbridge-Munsee Historical Preservation Office Manager Bonney Hartley. 

Hartley’s office already manages around 500 project reviews a month. In the last year, they’ve added keeping track of three off-shore wind projects to the mix. Those projects are energy company U.S. Wind’s Atlantic Shores South and Atlantic Shores North, and energy giant BP’s Beacon Wind. Reviewing these projects effectively adds a whole new department, Hartley said. It’s created additional demand that has overwhelmed her existing staff. 

The ERIF-TAP funding will allow Stockbridge-Munsee to hire a staff member and buy needed equipment, Hartley said.  

“We've been struggling to keep up with the influx of demands that come with consultations. We haven't been able to travel to go to the sites to have more effective consultations in person,” she said. “The funding supports all of that.”

Mashpee Wampanoag Historic Preservation Officer David Weeden said lacking capacity for consultation could inhibit tribal input on potential issues with projects. 

“Tribes have struggled to effectively keep pace with the demanding permitting schedules in our efforts to preserve and protect our culturally significant, sacred sites and responsibly assess potential adverse environmental effects,” Weeden said. “The ERIF-TAP awards will provide vital support in these endeavors.”

When tribes have tool, everyone wins

Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland called the program part of the Biden administration’s “all-of-government” approach to tribal consultation. The program will ensure tribes would be represented in conversations about sacred sites and cultural resources, Newland said.

“Tribal engagement in the environmental review and permitting process allows for tribes to have input in decisions that will affect their lands and waters,” Newland said in a statement. “It also provides opportunities for Indigenous knowledge to contribute to the well-being of the United States and to the collective understanding of the natural world.”

“This money will facilitate their work,” says Eric Beightel of the Permitting Council. “When tribes have the tools that they need to engage in the environmental review of projects where tribal interests may be affected, everyone wins.” (Courtesy photo)

The Permitting Council was established in 2015 by Title 41 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. Their chief program, called FAST-41, provides infrastructure and transportation projects with resources dedicated to smoothing over complex, interagency permitting processes. (The program saw its first tribal usage in February 2024 at Santa Fe Indian School, supporting broadband permitting.)

Effectively, ERIF-TAP provides tribes touched by a FAST-41 supported project with funding to participate in environmental reviews and consultations. By building capacity, tribes have a stronger voice during consultations, according to the Permitting Council's Beightel.

“This money will facilitate their work,” Beightel told Tribal Business News. “When tribes have the tools that they need to engage in the environmental review of projects where tribal interests may be affected, everyone wins.”

The initial $1.3 million is part of a larger $5 million pool that will be awarded on a rolling basis, Beightel said. If tribes show sufficient interest, he added, there could be more funding down the line. 

Tribes who are near a FAST-41 supported project are encouraged to reach out to the Permitting Council to apply for ERIF-TAP funding. The agency will provide technical assistance on the grant process to tribes who need it. 

“We know there is a need and there are lots of tribes engaged on these projects,” Beightel said. “These were the first two tribes that applied, and we’re having more conversations as we speak. We want to make sure these resources are available - we hope we can maintain that for future opportunities as well.”

About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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