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Tribal consultation on wind farm could be model for other projects

A company’s efforts to consult with Native American tribes on a wind farm planned for south central North Dakota could serve as a model for other infrastructure projects, a Standing Rock Sioux Tribe official said.

Jon Eagle Sr., the tribal historic preservation officer for Standing Rock, recently worked with NextEra Energy to identify and protect cultural resources in Emmons and Logan counties, where 123 wind turbines are proposed.

“As tribal historic preservation officer, it’s not my job to stop an undertaking. It’s my job to protect the resources,” Eagle said. “I enjoy my pickup, just like everybody else does. I enjoy our lights. We can do it in a more sensible way, a more respectful way, in a way that values all of our voices.”

For this wind project, NextEra reached out to five tribes and other stakeholders early in the planning stages, said NextEra spokesman Steve Stengel. The 300-megawatt project is anticipated for 2019 and has yet to be proposed to the North Dakota Public Service Commission.

NextEra involved tribal representatives in micrositing, or surveying turbine locations out in the field.

As a result of those tribal consultations, the company moved a number of turbine locations to protect cultural resources, Stengel said.

“Ultimately, in working with the tribes we were able to avoid all sensitive areas identified,” he said.

Fern Swenson, deputy State Historic Preservation Officer, said companies don’t always engage in that level of tribal consultation unless a project triggers federal requirements.

NextEra’s approach to this wind project was standard for the company and not affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Stengel said.

“Our philosophy and our practice is we reach out to all of the tribes and share information and ask them if they’re interested in talking to us,” Stengel said. “It is in our best interest, as well as for the project and all stakeholders, to be as open and transparent as possible.”

The months-long demonstrations against Dakota Access stemmed from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s argument that the tribe was not adequately consulted on the project and the pipeline threatened sacred sites.

In the aftermath of the protests, Eagle said he’s seeing positive signs that North Dakota regulators and the energy industry want to do more to consult with tribes early.

Eagle said he thinks other companies proposing infrastructure projects could use NextEra’s approach as a template to follow.

“I really believe there’s an opportunity for them to set the bar on what consultation with tribes should look like,” Eagle said.