For Native Foresters, Land Management About More than Economics and Timber

Tribal foresters manage roughly 18 million acres of U.S. forestland, often in the face of budgetary and staffing shortfalls. Despite these challenges, tribal leaders are working with Yale F&ES and other schools to develop the next generation of Native foresters. 

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

During a late afternoon thunderstorm last August, lightning struck in the eastern shadow of Mount Adams, Washington state’s second-highest volcano, igniting a wildfire that by the following afternoon had devoured more than 1,500 acres. By the time the Cougar Creek fire was finally contained a month later over 53,000 acres of timberland — an area roughly the size of Boston — had burned. Nearly 80 percent occurred on the Yakama Indian Reservation, which borders the Gifford Pinchot National Forest where the fire began.
The Yakama responded by salvage logging even before the Cougar Creek fire was fully under control. According to Phil Rigdon ’02 M.F., director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Yakama Nation, it often takes the Forest Service six months to two years to develop a harvest plan; but by then timber’s value can be greatly diminished. “Tribes are trying to respond a lot quicker with a lot less resources,” Rigdon said.
yakama reservation
Last year was a particularly bad fire season in the West, spurred by years of drought and extensive bug-killed timber. Nationwide more than nine million acres burned — including a million in Washington between June and August alone — and the Forest Service spent over 50 percent of its annual budget fighting wildfires to protect dwellings and people. But the Yakama, like other tribes, tend to not build their homes in the forests. And when federal funds are diverted to protect individual homes over timberland, it can have a devastating impact on their economy.
“In a way, native lands are better prepared for fire in that they do more fire risk mitigation work on their lands,” said Mary Tyrrell ’97 M.F.S, executive director of Yale’s Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry. “However they’re right up against the national forests and in most cases when the fire comes through it’s gonna hit their lands.”  

The fires typify the types of pressures facing tribal foresters, who collectively manage roughly 18 million acres of forestlands spread across 305 reservations in two-dozen states. According to Rigdon, reduced funding and staffing shortfalls are reaching a critical point.
The Yakama’s mill supports 250 jobs and another 100 throughout the reservation – jobs that depend on a healthy harvest. “You can’t have a sustainable forest if you don’t have the resources,” Rigdon said. But for tribes, this is about more than just money and jobs; forest management is an expression of their cultural relationship with the land.
We have businesses tied to this, but what we do on the land is what we leave to the next generation.
— Phil Rigdon ’02 M.F., Yakama Nation
“We have businesses tied to this, but what we do on the land is what we leave to the next generation,” said Rigdon. “And I think that’s a very important part of our directive and our relationship to the land, that connection of place, of who we are as members of our individual tribes.”
“Reservation tribes have a very different situation in that they have to live with all the consequences of their decisions,” said John Gordon, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). “They live in and among the results of their management, unlike the public at large, who obviously mostly live in cities and tend to have single interests — fire, water, wildlife, fish. The tribes tend to be interested in all of that and want their forests to continue to provide a range of values.”

These issues took center stage at the Yale-Intertribal Timber Council Tribal Forestry Summit hosted by F&ES last October. The historic, two-day event drew together forest managers, scholars, and students from across the country seeking solutions to the complex challenges facing Native forestry.

Some of those in attendance were the very students schools like F&ES hope to recruit in order to cultivate the next generation of tribal foresters.  

Gordon has become somewhat of an expert on Native forestry. Over the past two decades, he has co-chaired three national assessments on behalf of the Intertribal Timber Council, a national non-profit consortium of tribes and Alaska Native Corporations dedicated to improving Native natural resource management.
Gordon admits he had some misconceptions about Native forest management when he began leading the assessments 20 years ago. “You know, never having paid much attention to it, I assumed it wasn’t very good,” he said. “But looking into it, they do a terrific job, particularly considering the [limited] resources they have. The real proof in the pudding is the forests themselves.”
Native forest management, like other agreements between the federal government and sovereign tribes, is unnervingly complex. The 1990 National Indian Forest Resources Management Act (NIFRMA) requires the Department of the Interior to conduct periodic assessments of tribal forests, which are held in trust by the federal government. Since 1993, the Secretary of the Interior has contracted with the ITC to conduct these assessments. Not surprisingly, most reservations with significant timber holdings are located out West. And while tribes must adhere to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations, management tends to reflect the needs of each community.
According to the most recent ITC report, released in 2013, tribal land management is undergoing a “profound transformation” from policies dominated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to those that incorporate tribal visions and values for the land.
itc at yale <p class="p1"> Orvie Danzuka, Forest Manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, left, Jim Durglo, Forest Manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, F&amp;ES Prof. Chad Oliver, Phil Rigdon, director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Yakama Nation, and John Gordon, former F&amp;ES Dean and co-chair of the 2013 ITC report.</p>
In preparing the report, Gordon and his team visited 20 reservations. They interviewed tribal leaders and BIA officials, Native foresters and resource managers, forestry students and elders. Their investigation revealed that Native forests held in trust receive far less funding than other federally managed forests. In addition, more than 800 positions — jobs the federal government is required to fill — are currently vacant. And the report highlights a conflict of interest: the BIA is charged with both providing services for Native forest management and also assessing whether those services are “adequate and well-executed.” Despite these challenges, Gordon insists that Native forests are managed better than most federal forests.
“The results of our studies, and quite a few others, is that tribes that are moving towards self governance do a much better job than those that are managed by the BIA,” Gordon said.
“I’ve testified to Congress several times about our management,” said Rigdon, who currently serves as president of the ITC. “Maybe they should start looking at how tribes are doing business and emulate their values.”
The trust relationship and tribal sovereignty are complex issues that received a lot of attention at the Yale-ITC summit. But perhaps no single issue is more significant for tribes — both practically and symbolically — than the recruitment and retention of the next generation of Native foresters.
Adrian Leighton ’96 M.F., Chair of the Natural Resources Department at Salish Kootenai College [SKC] in Pablo, Montana, understands the challenges in recruiting Native students. In 2005 he helped create a four-year forestry program at SKC — the only one of its kind at a tribal college. At the time, there were fewer than 60 Native American forestry students in the country, according to the USDA.
“In some ways, it’s fairly easy to get students thinking about forestry at a tribal college because they grew up hunting and fishing in the woods, especially the ones who grew up on reservations,” Leighton said. “But generally reservation high schools are very poor. We’re open enrollment and 70 percent of our incoming students need some sort of developmental math or English, and it sounds like that’s becoming more of a common trend nationwide.”
The student population at SKC is 70 percent Native American. When the college was established in 1978, Native students had less than a 25 percent success rate at mainstream universities.
Equally disturbing, Leighton says, is the number of students who feel marginalized and hopeless about their futures.
yale myers tour During the Yale-ITC summit in 2015, forestry students representing tribes from Alaska to Arizona had an opportunity to see what F&amp;ES student life is like &mdash; including a tour of Yale Myers Forest in Connecticut.
“I’ve heard stories where students are told to sit in the back because they’re just going to turn into drunken Indians, so they might as well sit in the back and stay out of the way. I mean, I’ve heard story after story after story of that. I don’t think it’s quite as bad anymore, but students don’t come out of high school thinking they should go to college, let alone grad school,” he said.
That is changing thanks in part to concerted efforts by F&ES and other top forestry programs to recruit more Native American students. At the Yale-ITC summit, forestry students representing tribes from Alaska to Arizona had an opportunity to see what F&ES student life is like — staying with current Yalies and even visiting the Yale Myers Forest in northeastern Connecticut.
“There were conversations between current and future resource managers,” said Tyrrell, lead organizer for the summit. “And they didn’t know each other necessarily because they were from different tribes. I thought it was a very refreshing conversation.”
These intertribal conversations are especially important for Native students who say that, despite the challenges of growing up on a reservation, leaving home can feel very isolating. Simply being able to share their experiences with one another at the summit was both validating and empowering, students said.
“You don’t get a good sense of how the real world is on the rez because it’s so closed off and you just see your family and other members of the community. Being exposed to that whole new world can be a little daunting at times,” said Chad Brown, who grew up on the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico and currently attends Northern Arizona University. “The interactions with other Native students helps a lot.”
Karlen Yallup, a senior at the University of Idaho, who also attended the summit, agrees that life off the reservation can be difficult for many Native students. Yallup, who is affiliated with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon, says Native students are often lumped together as one monolithic group off the reservation. “Every single tribe is different. Tribes have different challenges depending on the types of forests they’re managing,” she said. “But people try to categorize tribes as a one-size-fits-all.
“For tribes, working together is the only solution,” she said.
Student organizer Katie McConnell ’17 M.E.Sc., who has conducted research on the Blackfeet land claim issues, said the Yale-ITC summit felt different from others she’s attended. “It wasn’t just academics talking to other academics, but practitioners talking about mutually-shared challenges,” she said. “And for me it was awesome to meet other students from different parts of the country.”
I have a vested interest in preserving these resources for the future generations, as this has been the life source of my native ancestors for thousands of years.
— Phil Rigdon ’02 M.F., Yakama Nation
One of those students was Sam Wall, a descendent of Pend d’Oreilles and Nez Perce peoples who grew up hunting and fishing on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. Wall, a former advisee of Leighton’s, says he learned natural resource management from a tribal perspective at Salish Kootenai College. He hopes to one-day work as a water resources manager for the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
“I have a vested interest in preserving these resources for the future generations, as this has been the life source of my native ancestors for thousands of years,” Wall said. “Being a steward of the environment was a major influence on my pursuit of education in environmental science, specifically hydrology.”
Wall, a former president of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, has conducted field research in Hawaii, Costa Rica, and Patagonia, and most recently studied coastal hydrology at the University of Hawaii. But Wall says Hawaii was not the correct fit. With Leighton’s encouragement, Wall attended the Yale-ITC summit. The experience helped convince him to apply to Yale, where this fall he will specialize in water resources science and management.
“The summit was an atmosphere of talking not just about the problems, but next steps,” Leighton said. “It was the perfect place for the two groups [Yale and ITC] to be talking, and I think because of that there’s going to be a lot of productive outcomes.”