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After A Bad Fire Season NW Tribes Question Federal Firefighting Priorities

Rowan Moore Gerety
Northwest Public Radio

This wildfire season has hit northwest tribal lands particularly hard. Firefighters’ first priority is “life and property.” But, some tribal members wonder why protecting some kinds of property—like farms and even second homes— comes before tribal forest land.

Several inches of ash blanket the ground where a wildfire recently passed through a pine forest on the Colville Reservation. Most of the trees have scorched trunks and dull brown needles…but some could still bounce back. Cody Desautel, the tribe’s Natural Resources Director, grabs ahold of a scorched bough on a small sapling. “These buds in the end, see, they’ll still look pretty viable,” he says. “So next spring potentially these things could break bud and you could have green needles come out of this.”
This summer, a pair of large wildfires burned through more than 20% of the tribe’s commercial timber land. Other fires burned major tracts of forest on reservations throughout the Northwest. And while the full effect may take years to gauge, the fires have renewed calls by tribal officials to revisit firefighting priorities.
Here’s how Dalan Romero, Northwest liaison for the National Interagency Fire Center, explains those priorities. “The single overriding suppression priority is the protection of human life,” he says.
“After that we start looking at the protection of communities, infrastructure, property and any improvements that may be in place, and then we go on down to natural and cultural resources,” Romero says.
That means second homes, barns, and roads are all technically ahead of forest or natural landmarks. But Romero says the way firefighting decisions get made is actually more complicated. For instance, he says fire managers may see a wildfire start in the backcountry. “But they say, this has the potential to come roaring out of the wilderness,” Romero says, and so they’ll fight it anyway.
On balance, these policies often make firefighting on tribal lands a lower priority than firefighting everywhere else. Intertribal Timber Council President Phil Rigdon points out that in recent years, homes and other developments have spread rapidly on private forest land throughout the Northwest.
But on the Yakama reservation, Rigdon says, “We have chosen as a tribe not to develop and build homes and those things in our forest. The forest is a cornerstone of the tribe’s culture and economy, supporting subsistence hunting and hundreds of logging jobs.
This summer, Rigdon says he watched as hotshot crews and equipment were pulled off a fire on Yakama lands and sent to battle the Okanogan Complex, farther North. “I don’t want to disrespect the value of protecting homes and other things, because that’s an essential part,” Rigdon says, “but tribes just can’t pick up and move their land here or there.”
Joe Kalt, who studies tribal economies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says large fires on tribal lands can have a disproportionate impact. “Down in Arizona, the White Mountain Apache tribe suffered a fire of almost 500,000 acres.” That was in 2002. “And it decimated their forest, decimated their timber industry, and the tribe still hasn’t fully recovered.”
On the Colville reservation, timber accounts for a third of the tribal budget. Natural Resources Director Cody Desautel says the forest there is managed on a long-term cycle: the idea is to have a mix of trees of all different ages, so each harvest only makes a small dent.
A big fire changes that dramatically. “This [fire] will set a third of the acreage potentially back to year zero,” Desautel says.So those acres can’t be logged on the usual schedule.
One reason firefighters protect homes first is that most people’s wealth, and their sense of place, is tied up in their houses. That’s true of Native Americans too. But in many tribes, most of the wealth is collective, and especially in the Northwest, their day to day livelihood is tied to the forests.

Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Radio