When Native Americans ceded their lands during the treaty era, much of it was forest. Today, many tribes – including those in Oregon – are not only working to regain some of those forests, they’re getting national recognition for their sustainable management practices. KLCC’s Brian Bull reports.
Just over a year ago, President Trump signed the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act. It restored roughly 18,000 acres of federal land to the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, and 15,000 acres to the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians. The act gave both tribes a land base for the first time since their tribal status was restored in the 1980s.
It gave the Coquille Tribe something, too. Darin Jarnaghan, a Hupa Indian who serves as the Coquille’s Director of Natural Resources, explains as we drive towards the tribal forest west of Roseburg.
“For the Coquille Tribe, the law allowed the tribe to seek management according to their own vision," he says, shifting his hands across his pickup's steering wheel.
"Previously, the tribe managed under the Northwest Forest Plan since its inception.”
That plan has been in effect since 1994. While federal forest policies have their part in conservation efforts, Jarnaghan says being allowed to self-manage recognizes the Coquille’s sovereignty, and address issues unique to the tribe.
Unlocking the gate to the 5,400 acre Coquille Forest, he explains what those are.
“Speaking just for the Coquille Tribe, the tribe wants to make sure that members have access to historically what was here on the landscape, and what was managed historically for the tribal purposes," says Jarnaghan.
"The wildlife, the plant communities, the bear grasses, hazels, the camas...plants that the tribal members come and use, and expect to be here when we’re done managing the landscape.”
About four hours’ drive north, Michael Wilson, Natural Resources Manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, visits part of the roughly 14,000 acres under tribal management northwest of Salem.
“Yeah, these trees over here are probably, good 70 years old," he says, navigating through brush and mud.
"Back over here, some of the ones we saw down by the stream bank, 80, 90 years old…down to these, I think these are probably three years old…”
Wilson says compared to forest land managed by timber companies, tribal forests tend to have more diversity in their trees and plants, which includes huckleberries and hazel…traditional food and basket-weaving materials, respectively.
Trees are thinned to accommodate foraging areas for elk and deer. Brush is cut by hand instead of using aerial herbicides, and prescribed burns control slash and enable certain growth that benefit the ecosystem.
Driving by forest land that borders the reservation, Wilson points to a ridge that’s been clear cut by a timber company. He says there’s profit potential in many old growth forests both on and off the reservation.
“Y’know…$350, $500, depending on which tree," he says, slowing to make a turn.
"Some of the bigger ones, $800. You start adding those up, it’s a lot of dollars.
"But if you look at what we’re doing over the long stretch…maybe it won’t ever pencil out as far as a good financial decision. But as far as providing habitat and long-term health of the tribe’s reservation, we’re definitely doing the right thing.”
Right enough to get recognition, says Don Motanic, of the Intertribal Timber Council based in Portland. He says independent, 10-year assessments of tribal forests compared to federal forests have highlighted two major differences to Congress.
“One is that tribal forestry programs function at one-third of the cost as compared to the Forest Service," says Motanic. "It’s $9 an acre for the Forest Service, and $3 an acre for tribes.
"The second key point they make, is that tribes are models of sustainability, because some of the programs have been in existence over a hundred years.”
And a 2009 study by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) compared timber returns between the Lolo National Forest and the Flathead Indian reservation in Montana. PERC’s finding was that over a seven-year period, tribal timber revenues exceeded $16 million, nearly seven times more than that managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
“The key thing is knowing their own land, and understanding their language,” adds Montanic.
Motanic says unlike timber companies, tribes don’t up and move once an area has been harvested. The land is part of the tribe and its culture, and is managed for the sustenance and appreciation of future generations…not solely for the bottom line.
Familiar challenges exist: invasive species, diseases, and climate change threaten tribal forests as any other. Helena Linnell, the Coquille Tribe’s Biological and Planning Operations manager, says wildfires are especially worrisome.
“They seem to be lasting longer, they don’t stick to their traditional timeframes," Linnell tells KLCC.
"We’re starting to see – at least here on the Coast – the rain shifting later in the year. That makes a difference.”
Partnerships are budding. Last July, the Forest Service formalized a plan with tribes near the California-Oregon border for managing the Klamath region. Controlled burns will help remove fuels and kill pests like weevils, while allowing new shoots of hazel to grow.
And legislatively, tribes have never been in a better place. Besides the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act, the latest Farm Bill has tribe-friendly provisions…including one that’ll let tribes set up self-governance demonstration projects to manage federal lands adjacent to Indian reservations.
For Coquille natural resources director, Darin Jarnaghan, it’ll all help share tribal perspectives.
“Not only just the present economic return, but thinking about what the forest is going to be for the generations to come. And leaving something better than when you found it, so to speak.”
Funding for KLCC’s “Borders, Migration, and Belonging” series is provided by the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.
Copyright 2019, KLCC.