Indian Forestry vs. Federal Forestry

Newly posted in the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: Forest and Fire Science [here] is Two Forests Under The Big Sky: Tribal V. Federal Management, PERC Policy Series No. 45, by Alison Berry, a research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center [here].

Two Forests Under the Big Sky compares the management styles on adjacent forest ownerships in western Montana - the first being that of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the second being the Lolo National Forest.

Some reviewer comments:

We have long been enthusiastic supporters of tribal forestry and less than enthusiastic observers of what is wrong with current federal forest management policy. Two Forests Under the Big Sky strikes deep at the heart of everything that is wrong with the way our national forests are being managed today—and everything that is right about the way Indians manage their forests. I’ve said for years that it is time for America to give its federal forests back to the tribes from whom these once beautiful lands were taken more than a century ago. Alison Berry’s essay only adds to my belief. — Jim Peterson, Evergreen Foundation [here].

Why is it that neighboring forests of similar size and makeup produce different economic and environmental outputs? In this essay, Alison Berry again demonstrates PERC’s unique ability to analyze how different governance structures, and their inherent incentive systems, impact the ability of land managers to achieve their objectives. The comparison Berry provides between federal and tribal forest management is a clever way to demonstrate what works, what doesn’t, and why. — Doug Crandall, Director, Legislative Affairs, USDA Forest Service

The Lolo National Forest (LNF) and the forests of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are comparable in area, species composition, and ecological factors. The LNF is larger and has a larger timber sale program, but the CSKT actually earns a positive return from timber sales while the LNF loses money.

As one consequence, the CSKT has an effective conservation program and their forests provide “a range of products and amenities including not only timber, but grazing, recreational opportunities, wilderness areas, and habitat for fish and wildlife such as grizzly bears and Canada lynx.” The CSKT has managed for and increased the populations of peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans, northern leopard frogs, and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse.

In contrast, the LNF is beset by widespread beetle infestations and megafires. The ecosystems there are in collapse, including populations of the aforementioned wildlife.

Ms. Berry posits some explanations for these differences:

Since the CSKT rely on timber revenues to support tribal operations, they have a vested interest in the continuing vitality of their natural resources. Tribal forest manager Jim Durglo comments, “Our forest is a vital part of everyday tribal life. Timber production, non-timber forest products, and grazing provide jobs and income for tribal members and enhance the economic life of surrounding communities” (Azure 2005). The tribes stand to benefit from responsible forest stewardship — or bear the burden of mismanagement.

In contrast, on the Lolo, there is little connection between performance and reward. Management decisions are often dictated by politics rather than local conditions. National forests receive funding from Congressional appropriations apparently regardless of timber revenues or ecological concerns. Revenues from forest operations are sent to the general treasury. The disconnect between budget inputs and revenues generated means there is scant incentive to operate efficiently, or to manage the forest for future productivity. Moreover, there is no direct constituency for cost-effective national forest management comparable to the tribal members on the reservation. …

She also notes that

Some problems stem from a rash of environmental litigation on the Lolo National Forest, which diverts time and resources from on-the-ground management (USDA Forest Service 2002b, 2002c). Between 1998 and 2005, nineteen cases were filed against the Lolo (USDA Forest Service 2007a). In 2007, more than 21 million board feet were held up in appeals and litigation (Backus 2007) — about the equivalent of an average year’s harvest for the forest since 2000 (USDA Forest Service 2008a).

In contrast, tribal forest management is rarely challenged in court, so managers are more able to address environmental concerns in a timely fashion (Skinner 2005–2006). As Jim Peterson, editor of Evergreen Magazine said, “The tribes do a lot of things I wish we were doing on our federal forest lands if we weren’t all knotted up in litigation” (quoted in Hagengruber 2004). Only one timber sale has been appealed on the Flathead Reservation.

In the 1980s, Friends of the Wild Swan brought suit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The case was dropped, however, when the court required Friends of the Wild Swan to post a bond to process the appeal. “If they lost the appeal, they would lose the bond” (Jim Durglo, quoted in Skinner 2005–2006).

The CSKT is managed by and for the resident owners. The LNF is managed by an absentee government, politicized confusion, and enviro lawsuits. The former has a vibrant, conservation-minded stewardship program and healthy ecosystems. The latter is in ecological disarray and prone to megafire, insect infestations, and disaster.

Can we afford to allow our public forests to be the play toys of lawyers? Are we content to sit back and watch our priceless heritage forests being destroyed by nincompoops? Or should we learn a lesson from the First Residents and tend our lands with care and respect?

11 Sep 2009, 2:41pm
by John Gordon

Read the reports IFMAT I and II, available from the Intertribal Timber Council in Portland, OR, and you will find that this is the story for a vast area of Indian Country, and has been for some time. The clear message is to expand Tribal management of federal trust forests (which is of course, what the National Forests and BLM lands really are, in that they are held in trust for all).


JOHN C. GORDON is Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where he was Dean from 1983-1992. Before that he was Head and Professor, Department of Forest Science, Oregon State University, Professor of Forestry and Iowa State University, and Principal Plant Physiologist at the Pioneering Project in Wood Formation, USDA Forest Service, Rhinelander, Wisconsin. He has B.S. (forest management) and Ph.D. (plant physiology and silviculture) from Iowa State University, and has been a Fulbright Scholar in Finland (University of Helsinki) and India (Bangalore). His primary expertise is in the biological basis of forest productivity, the management of research, and forest policy. He is senior editor of the primary book on biological nitrogen fixation in temperate forest ecosystems and researches the interaction of carbon and nitrogen fixation in forests. He has led several national-level assessments, including those on research and resource management in national parks, forestry research (for the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences), and indian forests and forestry. He served as a member of the Congressionally-mandated Scientific Panel on Late Successional Ecosystems, and was co-chairman of the Seventh American Forest Congress. He has extensive consulting experience with public and private organizations, including forest product firms, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme. He has authored or coauthored over 100 publications, and has overseas experience in a variety of places, including India, Pakistan, China, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Finland and Scotland.

See: The Ecological Condition of Indian Forests: The IFMAT View by John Gordon, Gary Morishima, Jerry Franklin, K. Norman Johnson in Evergreen Magazine, Winter 2005/2006 [here]



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