This winter there are various reports about sustainable forest management under the auspices of Native American tribes . I’m pretty sure that the sustainable management practices used are well known, but the Native Americans do it well, and for their own reasons. There are deep cultural connections and traditions of sustaining the whole forest, which in turn sustains the people.
This “discovery” that tribes are capable of taking care of land and forests will not come at a surprise to many Indians. Where able to govern their own lands, many tribes have outstanding records for sustainable harvests for the last century and more. Indeed, many of the government thefts of Indian land have been done to enable the quick sacking by white corporations of the previously healthy forest.
In recent decades, many tribes have been reacquiring land. This is a good thing both for the people and likely will benefit the forests and wildlife.
Even ten years ago, Alison Berry published an interesting comparison of two forests side-by-side in Montana [1, 2], She compared the economic and ecological costs and results of Federally managed forest with the adjacent forest managed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
The report notes that some of the key differences in the management lie in the objectives. The US National Forests have a muddled mission, with multiple goals that do not include making a profit from timber sales. Timber sales are not accounted for since 1990s, but were losing a lot of money when there were accounts kept.
In comparison, the tribal forest management aims to provide sustained income for the tribe. And the sovereign tribal government keeps careful account of the costs and yields, for obvious reasons.
The tribal forests had lower costs not least due to fewer and lower paid workers. The tribal forest had higher revenue, in part because the federal forest sold more salvaged wood (at least in part, a side effect of intended fire prevention policies.) Tribal management seems to have much less legal exposure than the federal operations, at least partly due to the sovereignty of the tribe.
Berry finds that the tribal forest does much better at “balancing” forest production with other uses including sustaining fish and wildlife. The federal forest, ironically, does better at fish and wildlife, while lagging in timber production.
“In comparison with the CSKTs, the Lolo National Forest harvested much more timber from 1998 to 2005, yet it made far less money. A primary reason for the Lolo’s weaker economic performance is that Forest Service managers have less incentive or ability to generate income compared to tribal managers. “ (, p, 17)
Overall, it’s a complex picture, except for one aspect: the local tribal government has both the incentive and the means to manage the forest productively and sustainably. The federal mangers have little incentive less means to do so. As Berry remarks, “Clearly, there is no need to “protect Indians and their resources from Indians.” Rather, it is the federal agencies that need to improve resource management.” (, p. 20)
This is certainly a welcome reversal from the racist paternalism that has marked US relations with Indian tribes over the centuries. It seems that it would make sense to hire tribes to protect and preserve public resources from the feckless government.
Now, Berry is writing for the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), which is “The home of free market environmentalism”. From this perspective, she emphasizes the economic incentives and results of the tribal managers, who are, after all, managing their own forests for their own benefit. Federal forests are managed by bureaucrats for a variety of stakeholders.
Berry floats ideas for giving local managers more flexibility, including reining in lawsuits. In my observation, this kind of “flexibility” generally leads to both inconsistency and wrong headed policies. She also seems to favor the smaller and low paid staffs of the tribal organization, which may be good for making a profit off of the timber, but generally is not a good thing for workers.
Berry has a point about the economic incentives and wage advantages of tribal management. These, of course, are hardly “Indian” things. Almost anyone would manage their own land better than someone else’s land.
However, this analysis underplays a key cultural factor here. Indian tribes have long and deep traditions of sustainable land use, and they consider land management to be a collective activity, for the benefit of the whole tribe. These attitudes and related practices are deep motivations to take care of the forest and its products, and also generally motivate highly effective practices.
So, there is more than economics here, and more than just tribal self-interest. This is a matter of sovereignty and identity and, most likely, pride.
I’m not a huge fan of outsourcing management of public lands, but if you suggested a program to contract out forest management to local tribes, I’s listen very carefully. In fact, the latest farm bill has just such provisions, so we’ll see.
- Alison Berry, Two Forests Under the Big Sky: Tribal v. Federal Management. Property and Environment Research Center, Bozeman, MT, 2009. https://www.perc.org/wp-content/uploads/old/ps45.pdf
- Alison Berry, Two Forests Under the Big Sky: Tribal v. Federal Management, in PERC – Policy Reports. 2009. https://www.perc.org/2009/07/01/two-forests-under-the-big-sky-tribal-v-federal-management/
- Brian Bull, Native American Tribes Gaining Recognition For Timber And Forestry Practices, in KLCC – News. 2019. https://www.klcc.org/post/native-american-tribes-gaining-recognition-timber-and-forestry-practices