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Conservation a way of life for Deputy Under Secretary Blazer

Arthur “Butch” Blazer stood before a small audience gathered at the indoor patio of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. The festivities were to celebrate the dedication of Chimney Rock National Monument. As a member of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, Blazer was so moved by the honor bestowed on the land so revered by Native Americans that at one point, his voice shaking slightly, he stopped speaking. For many in the audience, his emotions helped them understand the significance of the dedication more clearly.

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Blazer is Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He served 27 years in the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and co-founded the Native American Fish & Wildlife Society. In 2003, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson appointed Blazer as the state’s forester, the first Native American to hold that position.
He joined USDA in October 2011.

A photo of Fabian Garcia and Kids.
USDA Photo


Recently, Blazer sat down with the U.S. Forest Service to talk:


You gave a heartfelt speech at the dedication ceremony for Chimney Rock National Monument. We talk a lot about conserving nature at the Forest Service, but why is it also important to protect these cultural heritage sites?


What I’m hoping is that more and more non-Indian people in this great country begin to realize that these historic, cultural sacred sites are extremely important to native peoples. Chimney Rock is one example of this importance to the Pueblo People. To this day, many of them return to these sites for ceremonies. It’s part of their way of life.
When you dedicate a national monument, it sends a message to all of America. It says “Take note of, understand Indian people. These places are important for all of us.” It also gives Indian people a chance to share and explain their culture. The dedication of Chimney Rock was important to all of Indian Country.


Let’s start at the beginning. Describe your childhood relationship with nature.


That’s the whole reason I got involved in a natural resource career. It was a direct result of the opportunities I had as a young boy. Growing up on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico, it was just beautiful. We have a half-million acres of land that transcends from semi-arid desert grasslands to high, subalpine regions, and I had the opportunity to experience and enjoy all of that with my father. He started taking me hunting at a very young age; I shot my first deer when I was 8. I started learning to drive our old Ford farm tractor when I was 10. I spent every daylight hour out of doors. That was before cable TV, video games and i-Pods.

Growing up on the reservation, my family grew a lot of our own food. We had a huge garden, and my father taught me how to take care of the crops that were grown. It was a lot of work, but a great opportunity to learn. He managed the reservation livestock operation during the early years of my life. I got to ride out on the reservation with him, feeding cows and learning how to mend fences. I learned to swim in the stock water storage tanks on the reservation.


So your father taught you the importance of conservation?


My father and all of the people he worked with taught me to respect the land. A lot of our friends, who included tribal elders, used to go hunting with us. I listened to their discussions about how they grew up, how they were taught to respect the animals they were hunting and the land we lived on. I remember as a very little boy seeing a tribal elder shoot a deer then do a short ceremony in respect of the animal’s sacrifice. That always stuck with me. To this day, this is the type of respect I manage the land with.


Your Native American heritage seems to influence your relationship with nature and conservation.


As I grew up and entered college, I knew from day one that I wanted a career in natural resource management. I enjoyed being in the outdoors and understood that the beautiful reservation that I lived on needed to be managed well.
Many of the tribal elders encouraged me to go to college. They told me that the traditional teachings I learned from them, coupled with the knowledge that I would gain in college, would be a dynamic asset. They wanted me to come back to the reservation and work, and that’s exactly what I did after I graduated from New Mexico State University in 1975.The Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation falls right in the middle of the Lincoln National Forest.


I remember going fishing with my grandparents on the lakes in the Lincoln National Forest. It gave me an opportunity to make comparisons between how resources were being managed and used off the reservation. As a young person, you don’t think in terms of management, but you see and remember the differences.


Does your heritage shape how you view your role as Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment?


I am very much enjoying the work as Deputy Under Secretary. It’s really an exciting position. When I heard Secretary (Tom) Vilsack’s “All Lands” speech in Seattle in 2009, I was thrilled. I had been waiting my whole career to hear a speech like that. As a Native American person, that’s what we’re taught. We’re taught to manage from an ecological perspective, not just within certain jurisdictions. If you get everyone working in that direction, the land will be much better off.


From the strong teachings I received from my tribal elders and from my father about respect for our Mother Earth and our resources, I understand that the only way our lands are going to be well-managed is in whole. So this landscape approach, developing strong partnerships and relationships with all land managers is what needs to happen. With the Secretary’s All Lands approach, we’ve come a long way in developing strategies and useful management tools to protect landscapes holistically. Working at this level, pushing this landscape agenda forward is just so exciting. We’ve seen a lot of success. With these strained budgets, it makes a lot of sense to look at our priorities and bring people and resources together to get the work done.


Do you feel you have a responsibility for the next generation of Native Americans?


One of the reasons that I’m enjoying this job is USDA’s priority on diversity. We understand that all people in this country deserve the opportunity to be successful. At USDA, we are seeing more and more opportunities for not only Native Americans, but all minorities to step forward and enter careers in natural resources.


Education has always been a top priority of mine. When you look at tribal land management across Indian Country, one of the major concerns is that many tribes lack the capacity to manage lands the way they would like. They lack the necessary funding and manpower. The most important way to build that capacity is education. We need to help tribes educate their young people in both their traditional ways and through formal education.

Throughout my career I’ve worked closely with a number of tribal natural resources nonprofits. I helped establish the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society back in 1982. One of the major components of our society is creating a natural resource practicum for our tribal youth. We bring students together from across Indian Country and Alaska for a week-long session to learn about tribal natural resource management. This gives them the opportunity to compare their cultural teachings and experiences, and gives them the background where they might consider entering a natural resources career.

 

But there are a lot of issues to deal with in Indian Country. I just encourage kids to get an education – whatever they decide they want to do with their lives. There are tremendous needs out there. The way we think as native people is that all things are connected. If you have a strong Native American person teaching kids on the reservation, they are going to encourage more kids to go forward and succeed as well. Education is key.

 

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Last modified March 29, 2013
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