Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Advances to Step 5 in the GreenStep Tribal Nations Program

May 2023

With an impressive portfolio of projects completed, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (LLBO or Band) is a leader on sustainability and clean energy in Minnesota and across the Midwest.

map of LLBONotably, LLBO is active in the GreenStep program and has been an early adopter of clean energy technologies like electric vehicle charging stations, solar furnaces, and solar PV — installing the first 100% low-income community solar array in Minnesota.

As LLBO advances to Step 5 of the GreenStep Tribal Nations program, Central CERT staff Jordan Sligar sat down with LLBO staff Brandy Toft and Eugene Strowbridge, as well as GreenCorps member Monica Miles, to reflect on LLBO’s sustainability work.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has built momentum on sustainability by intentionally strengthening collaboration among partners, such as Tribal government entities, their Sustainability Coordinator, and the Green Team. LLBO’s Green Team, which includes employees and community members, gets together to promote traditional teachings, sustainability, and green or eco-friendly ideas on the Leech Lake Reservation. 

“The green team is the group of people that has been working on sustainability work across the government…It’s difficult to get many things done when you are working alone, you need collaboration. That collaboration across the Tribal government is our way to do that. We meet regularly to discuss sustainability ideas and projects. We discuss funding opportunities.”

-Eugene Strowbridge, Sustainability Coordinator

Having a dedicated Sustainability Coordinator has also been useful, providing a single point of contact for discussing sustainability and moving projects forward, while the collaboration among Tribal government entities has led to requirements for efficiency requirements for building construction and other green goals. 

“One thing I’m happy about is having a Sustainability Program. We may only have one staff person plus a GreenCorps member, but having people keep things pushing forward is very useful…having that main point of contact that can keep things on track, that can work the projects, that can identify connections that need to be made, and that can be advocated for.”

-Brandy Toft, Environmental Director

solar panel in fieldWorking with partners like paleBLUEdot and CERTs, LLBO created a sustainability framework plan that provides a starting point for establishing future sustainability policies. Another important collaboration was on the Solar Master Plan for LLBO’s 70-plus government buildings. The plan laid the foundation for future solar installations, which now total 280 kW across the Reservation with plans for another 538 kWs.

“The Solar Master Plan has allowed us to not only analyze our current potential solar applications on Tribal government buildings, it has also given us a path forward and an essential part of our next phase to implement an overall sustainability strategic plan. One of the most positive outcomes is that the plan was put into use immediately upon completion — it has had no time to sit on a shelf as so many plans do.”

-Brandy Toft, Environmental Director

With each new clean energy project, LLBO has built momentum, using project success to justify new projects, lift up the community, and serve as a visual reminder of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s commitment to sustainability. The Guaranteed Energy Savings Project (GESP) was particularly impactful. This project retrofitted 22 public facilities on the Reservation with a variety of clean efficiency measures at a cost of $3.8 million, which will be paid back by the energy savings in 12 years. 

This project has shown others that these projects can reduce inefficiencies in a cost-effective way. According to Toft, reactions from within LLBO’s government have been positive: “The GESP program turned attitudes around, was the biggest change. Many of the biggest devil’s advocates turned around and said, yes, this was a good project. We are no longer hesitant about these kinds of projects. We can do these projects and have success. We can do the right thing and be sustainable. More in line with the teachings that being sustainable is attainable and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. This was a big turning point in the government.”


Another successful clean energy project that lifted up the community and increased visibility of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s commitment to sustainability is the community solar project, which includes five 40kW systems spread out throughout the Reservation. The proceeds from the energy produced by these five solar arrays supports up to 100 Leech Lake families on energy assistance. This 100% low-income community solar array is the first of its kind in Minnesota, and is visible front and center around the Reservation. According to Toft, this is important for showing the efficacy in people’s minds. “The biggest project with direct benefit is from the solar garden — the direct benefit is subsidizing low-income Band members’ heating bills for the winter.”

“Another good example is the solar furnaces….The thermal solar furnaces act as mini billboards, they create a conversation. People ask what they are, and then you get to explain what they are and how they work. All the folks with panels on their homes love them, they also share the information in the community about what they are. They are super easy to put up. One Tribal member who put one up was really proud of being able to do it herself and provide for her family’s energy needs that way. They reduce heat bills by 30%. Going back and harvesting the first energy, the sun has always been there; we have just forgotten how to utilize it. Now we’re orienting our buildings for passive heating or shading.”

-Brandy Toft, Environmental Director

Brandy Toft, Eugene Strowbridge, and Peter Berger (MN Department of Commerce) sharing LLBO’s achievements at the 2022 State Fair EcoExperience.Another way the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has built momentum is by utilizing the GreenStep Tribal Nations program. The GreenStep program is a voluntary challenge, assistance, and recognition program to assist Tribes and cities in achieving their sustainability goals. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe was the first Tribal nation in Minnesota to join this program. LLBO has used the program as a way to evaluate their progress in sustainability. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe advanced three steps in the 2022-2023 program year, most recently achieving Step 5, the program's highest step. “I think the GreenStep program shows that we are more advanced than people give us credit for. We are quiet about our advancement…. We are doing a lot of stuff quietly along the way and then we figure out there are ways to measure it and promote it.”

As part of the GreenStep program, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is also participating in this year’s new Gold Leaf Climate Action Pilot Program. Climate adaptation is not a new priority for LLBO, however. In 2018, for instance, they completed a Population Vulnerability Assessment and Climate Adaptation Framework.

“Working with the climate adaptation plan, the template asked us to rank our priorities and that was very difficult to do. Normally in the Ojibwe worldview… things are seen as more interconnected. So it’s hard to answer what the community feels is a priority. Things are interconnected… it’s a matter of being concerned with the bigger picture of things. I think for people that live around here, that comes down to how they live their everyday life. Are people going to be able to still use the sugarbush and make maple syrup? Are people going to be able to go to the same lakes and catch the same fish? It’s all these little day-to-day things that people do that are really being impacted in really drastic ways.” 

-Eugene Strowbridge, Sustainability Coordinator

Thinking further on community priorities, Toft shares that “anything that affects the natural resources is impactful: the changing tree species, a longer growing season that allows for invasive species to spread, more road salting because of warming climates and more ice events, which affects water quality. There is so much more and it's so much bigger than us with climate change, it’s hard to answer and it’s quite complex. We are starting to figure that out with the climate adaptation plan. We know we need to head some things off.”

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