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Centering Indigenous Voices in the Northwest Forest Plan Amendment through Co-Stewardship

Emily Struzenberg


  • At the Northwest Forest Plan’s inception in 1994, the Forest Service and other parties to the planning process did not engage with Tribes, but as the agency seeks to amend the plan, Tribal involvement is a focal point of the desired changes.
  • Prioritizing co-stewardship agreements between agencies and Tribes in the Northwest Forest Plan Amendment is an optimal strategy to incorporate Tribal wisdom into Forest management while respecting sovereignty.
Centering Indigenous Voices in the Northwest Forest Plan Amendment through Co-Stewardship
Christopher Kimmel / Aurora Photos via Getty Images

In 1994, the Clinton administration enacted the Northwest Forest Plan, (Plan) a landmark conservation strategy aimed at balancing timber production, preserving wildlife habitat, and ecosystem restoration in Pacific Northwest Forests. Although the Plan achieved collaboration among agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management as well as the timber industry, the U.S. Forest Service largely overlooked Northwest Tribes’ objectives and perspectives during the Plan’s initial development. However, as the Forest Service moves to amend the Northwest Forest Plan, prioritizing Tribal voices has become a key focus.

When it comes to land management, Northwest Tribes draw on cultural and ecological knowledge that dates back millennia. One of the primary Tribal forest management practices in the Northwest is prescribed fire. A 2022 study found that Tribal land use, including prescribed burns to clear land for agriculture or grazing, altered predictable wildfire cycles. This meant that where anthropologists found traces of Indigenous land management, naturally occurring wildfires that resulted from the swing from wet to dry years were less intense than fires in places where there was no evidence of Indigenous peoples’ intervention. Tribes like the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California want to restore this balance using prescribed fire on their reservations, but Forest Service policies have prevented it.

The Forest Service prohibited beneficial fire on federal lands in the 1920s in response to catastrophic wildfires in the preceding decade, and instituted other major fire suppression policies. The aversion to prescribed fire lasted until the 1970s when scientific research suggested the ecological benefits of letting natural fires burn. However, increasingly large wildfires and development in the wildland-urban interface has made incorporating prescribed fire a difficult pill to swallow for the Forest Service. Thus, the conversation around forest management has largely excluded beneficial fire as a valuable tool and it is not a key feature of the Plan as it currently stands.

In fact, fire was not a key consideration at the Northwest Forest Plan’s conception. The Plan was a culmination of more than two decades of conflict between environmentalists and the timber industry. During the 1980s and 1990s clear cutting in National Forests was a ubiquitous practice. The result was large-scale habitat destruction for several species like the spotted owl, the marbled murrelet, and the pacific salmon. Environmental groups began to publicly oppose these practices. The groups centered their advocacy on protecting the threatened northern spotted owl, which relies on old growth forests for habitat. Conversely, the timber industry, an economic powerhouse in the Northwest’s rural communities, actively opposed environmental policies aimed at restricting timber harvests. A slew of litigation concerning a number of timber sales and acts of civil disobedience, that sometimes resulted in violent protests, prompted political intervention.

In 1993, President Clinton stepped in to build consensus around “a balanced policy to preserve jobs and protect the environment.” The Northwest Forest Plan was borne out of that effort. The Plan created management frameworks, designating land according to the amount of timber harvest allowed within. For instance, the Plan allocates 6.5 million acres of land as late-successional reserves (LSRs) or lands in which the least amount of timber harvest is allowed to protect old-growth forest stands. In addition to land use allocations, the Plan also instated wildlife survey requirements before ground disturbing activity and attempted to establish programs to aid rural communities in the wake of curtailed timber harvests.

After 30 years, and in the face of changing socioeconomic conditions and the effects of climate change, the Forest Service has begun to amend the Plan. The amendment intends to respond to larger and more intense wildfires that have made implementing the Plan increasingly difficult and aims to support adaptation and mitigation efforts that address climate change. The amendment also recognizes that the initial 1994 planning process excluded Tribal voices and perspectives. The Forest Service stated that including Tribes in the amendment process is “critical to success.”

Already Tribes have weighed in. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians passed a resolution calling for the Forest Service to engage in several specific ways, like collaboration with Tribal natural resources departments to create strategies for climate resilience and meaningfully consulting with Tribal governments during the environmental analysis process.

Some Tribal members, however, have expressed frustration with the Forest Service’s newfound interest in their intergenerational wisdom, and many Tribal members involved in the process are concerned with the Forest Service’s methods to solicit engagement. For one, the Plan is written in “highly technical and bureaucratic language,” and not generally approachable for Tribal members to give meaningful feedback. Further, soliciting feedback from Tribal members through Zoom calls and through a strict 30-day public comment period are inadequate forums. Instead, Tribal members should be paid to share their ancient wisdom and provided accommodation that is mindful of culture and tradition.

An Indigenous leader and member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, Ryan Reed, sits on the Northwest Forest Plan Federal Advisory Committee; he asserts that it’s difficult to determine the role Tribes should play when what Tribes primarily seek is return of federal lands that were dispossessed during colonial settlement. This is where co-stewardship can play a critical role. Although not a complete restitution of land, co-stewardship offers tribes the opportunity to regain partial control over their ancestral territories, serving as potential precursor to eventual restoration of stolen lands.

Co-stewardship is slightly different from the more well-known term “co-management.” Co-stewardship refers to a broader range of collaborative activities where the federal government can incorporate Indigenous knowledge into decision-making. Co-management is an agreement that allocates decision-making authority between the Tribe and the federal government. Enacting co-management agreements often involves lengthy legislative process, however co-stewardship agreements involve responsibility over singular activities, like fire management in certain areas. Because co-stewardship targets a management activity rather than diving management over swaths of land, it is a great initial step toward co-management and more easily incorporated into the Plan’s amendment.

There are several management activities ripe for co-stewardship in the amendment, including allowing Tribes increased access to certain forests for gathering and harvests, and enhanced protection for cultural resources. But the most relevant management activity to the Plan’s objectives is fire management. Restoring fire through adaptive management has a demonstrated effect on ecological resilience and breaking the wildfire cycles associated with fire exclusion. It is also a critical part of engaging Tribes in the Plan’s implementation. The Federal Advisory Committee has acknowledged this in its draft Ideas and Options Summary, and may recommend decreased regulatory burden for prescribed fire and cultural burns. The Forest Service has also already entered into one co-stewardship agreement with the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, enabling the Tribe to manage and reduce fuel for wildfires on 37 miles of the Umpqua National Forest that borders Tribal lands.

Tribes have a clear interest in reforming fire management policies, and Indigenous practices serve as effective assistants in mitigating wildfire risks. Prioritizing co-stewardship agreements concerning fire management represents a meaningful step toward actively involving Tribal voices while also preserving valuable Tribal resources that uncontrolled wildfire can harm.