THERE are 18 million acres of forests and woodlands on 305 separate Indian reservations in 24 states in the continental United States. Nationwide, tribal forests support an estimated 19,000 jobs from timber harvest alone and many more from related activities.
Local off-reservation economies benefit from Indian forest and natural-resource activities and the jobs generate proportionate economic activity in local economies.
But federal funding needed to manage these forests is in short supply, and Washington state has missed out on economic and environmental opportunities these forests could support.
Tribal forests are healthier and more productive than ever, with sustainable management practices increasing timber yields and maintaining a rich biodiversity for the long term. Tribal forests are even advancing innovative adaptations to climate change that can find broad application on federal forestlands and private forests alike.
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In Washington, the Quinault reservation produces a sustainable flow of timber in a region dominated by federal forests from which little timber flows, as do the Yakama and Colville reservations on the east side of the Cascade Mountains.
The Yakama operate the only processing facility in their area and are rapidly thinning their forests to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fire, improve habitat and increase timber quality. The Colville reservation is practicing innovative silviculture, again to provide timber in a region of timber scarcity due to the low harvest on federal land.
Because tribes live with consequences of all their management decisions, in contrast with the selectivity of litigious groups pressuring the U.S. National Forests, they pursue thoughtful and balanced management geared to the far future. Indians must live directly with the consequences of their actions. Indian forests are a national model of sustainable-forest management for federal and private forests alike.
Every 10 years since 1993, a congressionally mandated evaluation of tribal-management practices assesses the health and productivity of Indian forestlands. Known as the Indian Forest Management Assessment Team report, this year’s iteration concluded that tribal forests are facing a tipping point.
Tribal forests remain grossly underfunded, with current levels roughly 39 percent below investments in the National Forests and Bureau of Land Management. What’s more, Indian forests receive far less management funding per acre than similar state and private lands. The result is a decades-old tale of missed opportunities for economic and environmental benefits.
While the tribes have succeeded at doing more with less for decades, the chronic underfunding is limiting their ability to maximize the forests’ economic and environmental potential.
Funding, in real terms, and staffing levels are lower now than at the time of the original 1993 Indian forestry report — even as threats from fire, insects, disease and climate change increasingly compromise the long-term sustainability of Indian forests.
Budgets for hazardous-fuel management are significantly lower than comparable Forest Service allocations, resulting in enhanced fire dangers within tribal forests, as well as on adjacent private and public lands.
Tribal forests are a critical source of sustainable economic development and job creation for the tribes and local geographies alike.
Indeed, if the tribes were to manage at least a portion of the federal forest estate now managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, all Americans would benefit.
In short, Indian forestry truly serves that often ignored touchstone of sustainable behavior, the triple bottom line: economic soundness, social benefit and environmental protection.
Congress should make sure they have the resources and legislation necessary so the entire country can reap the economic, cultural and environmental benefits.
John Gordon, of Portland, and John Sessions, of Corvallis, Ore., co-chair the Indian Forest Management Assessment Team III. Gordon is a professor emeritus of forestry for Yale University. Sessions is a forestry professor at Oregon State University.