The Intersection of Tribal and Environmental Law

by Amber Aumiller, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

While many of us are aware of some of the federal environmental protections that became law and policy in 1970 thanks to pressure from an increasingly aware and concerned citizen population, as well as the recent rollbacks of environmental protections attempted under the Trump administration, not many people are aware of the role tribal nations can and are playing in environmental protections.  Tribes are generally free to develop their own governments unless they have been restricted by the federal government via treaties, statutes, or dependence. American Indian land has also historically suffered some of the heaviest pollution, like the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.  The development of sovereign tribal environmental law provides an opportunity to not only address holes in federal regulations surrounding things like pollution due to resource extraction, but can also bolster protections for indigenous sovereign rights, and provide a systematic structure for addressing a future made unpredictable by climate change. Our laws are an expression of what we value and sovereign tribal environmental law is helping to push the boundaries of environmental protection and conservation to support values beyond economic profit.

S.J. Quinney’s College of Law School Dean Elizabeth Kronk Warner’s lecture, “Tribal Environmental Law” on Tuesday, January 14th, from 4 – 5 p.m., in ASB 210, will examine the intersection of tribal law and environmental law and look at ways tribal law is helping to innovate beyond federal environmental law. The talk will also explore opportunities for fields and disciplines other than law to engage in the development of tribal environmental law.

Kronk Warner, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians is both the first female and the first Native American dean at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law. She grew up with the challenges of reservation life and cites her parents, both attorneys, as inspiration for her career trajectory. “I saw all the positives there were to being a lawyer and the difference you can make being a part of your community and that was very inspirational to me,” she says.  After earning a B.S. in Communication from Cornell University, Kronk Warner earned her Juris Doctorate at the University of Michigan, both schools appealing to her for their strength in American Indian programs.  She practiced environmental, Indian and energy law for years before serving in faculty positions at Texas Tech University, the University of Montana, and as the Associate Dean and Professor of Law for the University of Kansas Law School.  She was also the Director of the Tribal Law and Government Center and a leader in developing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in both curriculum and among staff and students at the University of Kansas Law School.  With her natural leadership skills, a long list of accolades following hard and passionate work, and her vision for possibilities and constructive solutions she is already building a foundation for an inspiring and impactful future at Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law.

As a nationally recognized expert on where environmental and tribal law converge, she speaks to the need for the tailoring of solutions to places. “Many of our environmental protection laws were developed in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and there hasn’t really been any notable innovation in federal law since then,” says Kronk Warner. “There are some real environmental issues which have come to the forefront more recently, like the effects of climate change, so tribes all over the country have been addressing the issues on a local scale.” Climate change affects specific locations differently from others and tribes, as sovereigns, can enact and enforce tribal environmental laws that are suited to the needs and ethics of the tribal community as well as the situational circumstances of the historical present with an eye toward the future. “Tribes are out front in terms of developing mitigation and adaptation plans to deal with climate change and its effects,” she reminds us.

To learn more about the sovereignty of tribes, the laws being implemented, and the exciting possibilities for furthering environmental protections come to ASB 210 on Tuesday, January 14th for Dean Kronk Warner’s lecture, “Tribal Environmental Law” as part of the GCSC seminar series.  As always, there will be coffee and treats so bring your mug and enjoy!