America’s first forest stewards

A-11 American Indian Forestry

Group walking logging roads. Credit: Sam Beebe
Group walking logging roads. Credit: Sam Beebe

American Indians practiced sustainable forest management before the time of Gifford Pinchot and the USDA Forest Service. Native peoples relied on forests for subsistence and cultural resources, and they actively managed forests for these values. Tribal forestry is still very alive today.

One third of Indian land is forested, a total of 18.6 million acres spread across 36 states. Native Alaskans manage an additional 50 million acres. Tribal forestry provides over 19,000 jobs and about $43 million in annual stumpage returns. Tribal forests are clearly relevant to conservation and natural resource management in the United States.

Native peoples draw on a long-history of land use, traditional ecological knowledge, and oral teachings to sustainably manage forest resources. Some traditional practices are hundreds of years old. Other Tribes adapted traditional practices to new environments. Relocation and treaties with the U.S. government forced many Natives off their ancestral land.

A web of laws and treaties dictate forest management on Tribal lands. Management responsibilities vary from Tribe to Tribe. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) controlled forest management for decades, often to the exclusion and detriment of Indian land use.

Tribal activists and lawyers pushed for the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. Tribes were empowered to take control of BIA programs (but at the discretion of the U.S. government). Also in 1975, over 60 Tribes and Alaska Native Corporations formed the Intertribal Timber Council to negotiate future forest policies.

Tribes manage forests through a variety of arrangements. About 7% of lands are managed through self-governance, 25% by the BIA, 53% through combined contracts, and the rest by other means. The National Indian Forest Resources Management Act in 1990 and Tribal Forest Protection Act of 2004 further define Tribal rights and outline financial responsibilities of the U.S. government to support Tribal forestry.

Key challenges facing Tribal forestry are conflicts with federal land management agencies and recruitment of Tribal youth. The Intertribal Timber Council and individual Tribes continue developing creative solutions to these barriers.

Tribal foresters proactively manage Indian land to address forest health concerns, such as the risk of crown fires and invasion by non-native species. Other landowners, including the U.S. government, do not always follow suit on adjacent land. Dense and degraded forests abutting Indian land can threaten resources carefully managed by Tribes.

To promote landscape-scale forest management, the Yakama, Colville, Spokane, and Coeur D’Alene Tribes, started the Anchor Forest pilot in Washington State. Goals are to (1) coordinate management across ownership boundaries, (2) provide economic and cultural benefits to local communities, and (3) sustain long-term wood and biomass production. Tribal members and representatives from the Intertribal Timber Council, USDA Forest Service, and Washington Department of Natural Resources formed an oversight committee for the project. Examples of project deliverables are recommendations to develop forest infrastructure (e.g., mills and processing facilities) and valuation of non-market ecosystem services.

Another focus of tribal foresters is rearing the next generation of foresters. Reservations have high rates of high school dropout and unemployment. Costs and cultural concerns dissuade many youths from pursuing secondary education. In addition, some Tribes have extreme mistrust for education due to historical trauma from American Indian boarding schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Despite these barriers, Tribes recognize an investment opportunity in their youth. Native enrollment in natural resource fields has increased 19% from 2004 to 2011. Organizations such as the American Indian Science & Engineering Society provide scholarship to Native students, and many Tribes have established colleges on reservation land. Sustainable forest management also ensures that forestry jobs await Native students when they return home.

Organizer Donald Motanic (Intertribal Timber Council) ended the session by encouraging non-Natives to celebrate and learn more about Indian forestry. He quipped, “Nature gave us two eyes and two ears, but only one mouth.” Observing and listening to people from other cultures can reveal new ways of thinking, or old ways of doing that are new to us.

Written by: Megan S. Matonis

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