The U.S. Small Business Administration has announced an initiative to assist in the economic development of American Indian owned/operated small businesses by supporting the creation of 20 American Indian-owned firms that will work to reduce wildland fire risks.
The plan, launched under the federal Healthy Forests Restoration Act, passed last year, is to recruit 20 tribes throughout the country to take advantage of new federal forest restoration contracts with an aggregate worth of $200 million, says Malcolm Bowekaty, project director with the Intertribal Information Technology Co. (IITC).
The SBA recently contracted with Rio Rancho-based IITC for its help in establishing new American Indian corporations and with bidding on contracts.
IITC, created in 2002, is a firm composed of ten tribes that work together to build information technology businesses on reservation lands and that advocate economic development on them. About five of the tribes in IITC are already involved in fire prevention efforts, Bowekaty says.
As to how many of the new contracts will be awarded to New Mexico tribes, “It’s difficult to say,” Bowekaty says.
Tribes will need the necessary financial resources to start a company, as well as a sufficient labor force. Most of the tribes do not have the financial means required and will need assistance from the SBA, local banks or the Native American Bank, he adds.
The contracts will be long term and will create year round, in-the-field and management jobs for tribal members in the forestry area. Until now, because of the seasonal nature of firefighting, many American Indian firefighters are unemployed after brief periods of work, says Faron Krueger, IITC’s technical program manager.
There are three goals of the SBA project, Bowekaty says: to secure lines of credit for tribes that want to establish companies; to seek competitive contracts under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act; and to make sure the companies succeed.
Successful bidding for the contracts will involve a completed environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement. The companies also will have to understand how many acres will be assigned for treatment, what their acres are and how to target and position themselves with regard to hiring so that they can clear up to five acres per week, Bowekaty says. He adds that the biggest obstacle to success will be the competitive proposal writing aspect of bidding.
“Those federal contracts have a lot of different forms that you have to fill out. As well as making sure you meet their terminology … making sure you know what treatments are being prescribed, making sure you have the right mix of labor as well as the equipment … doing the invoices and billing and making sure the federal customer is satisfied.”
These are all areas the IITC will help the tribes with, he says.
Several of New Mexico’s tribes are already involved in fire fighting throughout the state — the Zunis, the Jemez Pueblo Hotshots, the Navajo Nation and the Mescalero Apaches, among them.
However, these tribes are not currently receiving contract monies, says Cal Pino, supervisory forester for the Southern Pueblos Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“The tribes are sponsored by the BIA and the BIA does not pay by contract to any of the tribes. … although we are anticipating that in the next four to five years, we will start seeing tribes wanting to contract their firefighting activities. … [When] paychecks are processed … it’s only for the amount of time and the position held by each of the firefighters,” Pino says. “So, therefore, they don’t have a concrete ballpark of what the monies are going to be. … From year to year, it depends on what the fire seasons are [like]. …
“On the national level, … we have gone into a deficit. Some of the forest service individuals were required to pay a portion of [their] monies back to the federal government. … We like to think that it’s a bottomless pot, …. But after these fires have grown to 60 or 70,000 acres, the cost is just tremendous and the liabilities for firefighters killed continues to go up.”
Close to 50 percent of all forest fire fighters in the United States are American Indians, the SBA says. In New Mexico, that percentage is 60 to 70 percent, says Pino.
In the past two years, forest fires have burned approximately 100,000 acres in New Mexico and employed 40 crews of 20 people each, dispatched four times per season, he adds.