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Greening the Chumash Nation -- Josh Simmons Leads the Tribe’s Active Environmental Office

By James Badham, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management

Josh Simmons

Josh Simmons (MESM 2008) might have become a broadcast football analyst. But a visit to ESPN studios during a high-school internship class led him on a path away from talking about impact players to becoming one himself as the manager of the Environmental office for the Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians.

On that tour of ESPN, Simmons realized what it would take -- in terms of effort and luck -- even to get a shot at the broadcast booth. He didn’t mind the effort, as evidenced by the fact that he would later hold down 20-hour-a-week jobs both in law school and as a Bren master’s student? it was knowing that effort and luck would have equal weight in the outcome.

Asked back at high school what else he was interested in, he mentioned environmental studies and marine biology, which led to an internship with the environmental office of the Mohegan tribe in Connecticut. It was a one-man office run by Dr. Norman Richards, who Simmons describes as "a genius who was a pioneer in his field and had free rein to do the projects he wanted to do for the tribe."

Simmons was inspired by Richards’s work and the simple yet elegant solutions he came up with for greening the operation. "From that point on my career was determined," Simmons says. "Even before college I knew that I would get a bachelor’s in environmental science, go to law school and study environmental law, and then get a master’s in environmental management."

In law school he wrote a paper about Native American environmental law, when he came to Bren his personal theme had to do with developing a blueprint for environmental management for Indian tribes, and when he had to assess an organization’s environmental program for a Bren class, he chose the Chumash. That led to an internship with the tribe, and then to his current job, which he took in 2008. Since then, he has found opportunities everywhere, both on the 137-acre Chumash reservation and through working with other Indian tribes throughout the United States.

"We serve as the EPA, the Fish & Wildlife Service, the Department of Energy, and any other environmental agency you can think of, for the Chumash," he adds. "I’m able to work on any environmental issue the tribe faces, and the concepts I work on aren’t limited to one tribe. They are issues faced by a range of other tribes and other businesses, government agencies, and people at their homes."

With good access to the Chumash decision makers, whom Simmons describes as "open to innovative ideas that make economic and environmental sense, even if they haven’t been tried before," he is able to get the green light on any project that he can find money for and articulate within the tribe’s expanding environmental vision.

It’s a vision he has helped to shape after arriving at an office that was virtually unstaffed and quiet since the previous manager, Willie Wyatt, now Simmons’s supervisor, was named tribal administrator and took on new responsibilities that left him no time to manage the environmental office.

"Josh has done a great job," says Wyatt. "It didn’t take him long to get things figured out. He stepped in and took the reins. He’s been really good at networking with agencies and pooling resources to get funding we need for our environmental programs."

"When I arrived here we were doing X and Y, but I realized we could be doing A through Z," Simmons says. "I just saw so many opportunities."

Since then, Simmons has hired two Bren MESM graduates, Jesse Patterson (2008) as an environmental management specialist and Julie Randall (2009) as a water-quality specialist, while working to expand the scope of the office’s activities and initiatives beyond educational events and a few water-related efforts.

Converting the tribe’s fleet cars to natural-gas power and installing a natural-gas fueling station on the reservation is one opportunity the office, referred to officially as the Santa Ynez Chumash Environmental Office (SYCEO), is investigating. Surface-and groundwater-quality studies are underway. The SYCEO is removing trash and invasive species from spring-fed Zanja de Cota Creek, which runs through the reservation, and plans to restore the area using native and culturally significant plants. Improving waste management, greening the offices, installing solar panels on reservation homes and buildings, becoming more energy efficient -- the list of projects and planned projects is long and varied and demands a versatile manager to lead them.

"Bren people are ideal for these types of positions," Simmons says. "You need somebody who really has a broad base and can handle a wide range of projects, not someone who is too specialized. I know when I need to hire a specialist, and I have the confidence to accurately communicate needs to specialists."

One key aspect of his efforts has been publicizing the tribe’s environmental projects and accomplishments, such as sustainability programs at the casino. "When I arrived, the casino facilities managers were already doing some amazing things as a matter of efficiency," he says. "They had a world-class environmental management program. Their waste management was top-notch. They have a green purchasing program, and they recover their waste oil and sell it to someone who makes biodiesel out of it. They have source separation in the kitchens. Their comingled waste from the casino floor is sorted and recycled to a maximum degree.

"The tribe was doing these great things but nobody knew about them. I saw one of my roles as being a public-relations type of person who could allow others to see what the tribe was doing. Through these efforts, we were able to secure a couple of other grants for pollution prevention and win a 2009 EPA Environmental Achievement Award."

In the past year, Simmons and the tribe have accomplished a lot "because we have the talent we have," he says. "We have this great resource at the Bren School. I essentially contacted the Chumash and then used Bren as a resource to tap in to the talent we need to take on these kinds of projects."

Armed with knowledge and relevant skill sets, Simmons says his faith in the process has paid off. "I ended up falling into exactly the right place at exactly the right time."

This article was originally published in the Bren News Fall 2009, and is republished here courtesy of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management