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Tribal Co-Management of California Forestlands: A Review

Dylan Sollfrank


  • Highlights examples of tribal co-management of forestlands in California.
  • Illustrates both the potential possibilities and challenges of co-management arrangements between tribes and the USFS in National Forests.
Tribal Co-Management of California Forestlands: A Review
PhotoAlto/Jerome Gorin via Getty Images

In 2011, former California Governor Jerry Brown issued Executive Order B-10-11, encouraging California State agencies to consult with California Indian Tribes and permit tribal government representatives to “provide meaningful input” for developing legislation and rules on matters that may affect tribal communities. In 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom built on this order by issuing a policy statement encouraging state entities to seek opportunities to “support California tribes’ co-management of and access to natural lands that are within a California tribe’s ancestral land.” This article highlights examples of tribal co-management of forestlands in California that appear to align with these policy objectives, as well alternate forms of tribal forest co-management occurring within the state, on both private and federal lands. 

California State Forests

Tribal Co-Management in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest

The Jackson Demonstration State Forest (JDSF) is one of nine Demonstration State Forests in California. These Demonstration Forests, managed by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire), are intended to show how forests can be managed to achieve multiple objectives, such as sustainable timber harvesting and recreation. Demonstration Forests are managed pursuant to Forest Management Plans issued by CAL Fire, and timber harvesting occurs pursuant to Timber Harvest Plans.

In 2021, the director of the State Board of Forestry called for a redrafting of the JDSF Forest Management Plan to better align forest management with policy objectives set forth in Governor Newsom’s 2020 policy statement regarding tribal co-management of state forestlands. The changes sought are specific to “culturally important plants and animals” to align with state goals, and those of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians (Tribe), whose ancestral lands are located within the JDSF. The call for redrafting came after the Tribe initiated consultation with the state amid protests to stop commercial logging in the JDSF.

As of February 2022, talks between the Tribe and CAL Fire are underway to discuss the potential to formalize a JDSF co-management arrangement between the two entities It is unclear what the resulting co-management arrangement will look like, though it may include protecting cultural and historical resources, allowing for cultural practices within the forest, and implementing “tribal methods of prescribed fires.” If successful, this would mark the first example of a formal tribal co-management arrangement in a California Demonstration Forest. This co-management agreement between the state and the Tribe would align with the listed “action” in Governor Newsom’s 2020 Policy Statement to enter into memoranda of understanding to allow for “comanagement of natural lands under the ownership or control of the State with California tribes.”

The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians is pleased with the state’s willingness to incorporate a tribal co-management arrangement in the JDSF’s Forest Management Plan. However, the Tribe also seeks to discuss amending the California Forest Practice Act’s regulations to enhance Native American cultural resource protections. According to the Tribe, current regulations favor the timber industry and fail to adequately protect the Tribe’s ancestral sites. 

“Tribal Stewardship” with a Conservation Easement on Private Forestlands in Mendocino County

The Lost Coast, located in California’s Mendocino County, consists of state forestlands containing old-growth and second-growth redwoods, as well as several species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In July 2020, Save the Redwoods League, an organization created to restore redwood forest ecosystems, purchased a 523 acre forested property in the Lost Coast. Save the Redwoods League subsequently donated and transferred ownership of this land to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a tribal consortium comprised of 10 federally recognized tribal nations with connections to the traditional Sinkyone Tribal Territory. In this arrangement to “permanently protect coast redwood forestland within Sinkyone traditional territory,” the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council will serve as stewards of the land and grant the Save the Redwoods League a conservation easement on the property. This conservation easement prohibits commercial timber harvesting and development and requires that the easement be managed pursuant to a Habitat Management Plan approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council intends to prevent habitat loss, commercial timber harvesting, and other development in this area through the use of “indigenous . . . guardianship principles” and conservation science. Such co-management arrangements between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and tribes illustrate another method of tribal management of forestlands to conserve forest ecosystems while also restoring tribal stewardship on tribes’ traditional lands.

Conservation easements, as demonstrated by the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council and the Save the Redwoods League, may be an effective method to achieve conservation goals while aligning tribal management practices with state or federal policy objectives and requiring adherence to state or federal management policies. Such arrangements can work on both privately owned and public land, and conservation easements in California can be held by NGOs, governmental entities, and federally or non-federally recognized tribes in California. These factors may, therefore, present an opportunity to align conservation goals, tribal management practices, and government management polices to state forestlands. 

National Forests

Tribal Co-Management Between the Karuk Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service in the Klamath National Forest

A short-lived co-management arrangement between the Karuk Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in the Klamath National Forest illustrates both the potential possibilities and challenges of co-management arrangements between tribes and the USFS in National Forests. The “Ti Bar Demonstration Project” was a co-management arrangement between the Karuk Tribe and the USFS relating to management of “cultural areas” within the Klamath National Forest in the latter half of the 1990s. This arrangement aimed to demonstrate culturally appropriate management techniques and “develop effective processes to jointly undertake projects.”

Karuk tribal land managers served as project co-leads and were empowered to propose restoration treatments for this area within the National Forest. Notably, the USFS appointed a tribal member to the interdisciplinary team that was developing a new Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) for the Klamath National Forest. This allowed the Karuk Tribe to successfully lobby the USFS to “address several cultural resource management concerns,” and include within the LRMP a land use designation for Cultural Management Areas that included a memorandum of understanding between the USFS and the Karuk Tribe to support management activities that are “consistent with [the tribe’s] custom and culture.” Tribal inclusion on the interdisciplinary team enabled “agency managers to work with tribal managers as a new kind of expert,” and was the main method through which the Karuk Tribe participated in the formal decision-making process. This allowed Karuk tribal members to take on an authoritative position in implementing their own chosen restoration projects, such as a novel “eco-cultural” restoration strategy that included prescribe burns.

Unfortunately, after the first management treatments under the Ti Bar Demonstration were initiated, USFS leadership changed, and the new forest supervisor was not supportive of this arrangement. The planned restoration was canceled, and the interdisciplinary team including both USFS and Karuk Tribal members fell apart. Nonetheless, the Ti Bar Demonstration project represents the first time the USFS formally recognized the rights of tribal managers to manage cultural resources within federal forests.

On one hand, co-management arrangements such as the Ti Bar Demonstration Project can enable tribes to operate within existing USFS policy frameworks while also gaining a meaningful decision-making role in management decisions. This decision-making role may even include implementing tribal management practices such as prescribed burning, which in this case was a “significant departure from earlier production forestry approaches.” On the other hand, such arrangements may be difficult to enforce legally and may not adequately allocate management authority to tribes due to existing bureaucratic structures and “dominant knowledge systems” which “often exclude indigenous worldviews.” Co-management arrangements between the USFS and tribes are also potentially problematic because they may result in the USFS impermissibly divesting its statutorily vested management authority to tribal authority. And, as was the case in the Karuk Tribe co-management arrangement, this type of tribal-USFS collaboration is heavily dependent on individual USFS supervisor leadership that can shift as a result of changing political administrations.


There are multiple avenues for tribes to participate in the management of state and federal forestlands in California, though these co-management arrangements are context dependent. Formal co-management agreements between tribes and state agencies provide a route for tribes to gain a role in developing Forest Management Plans for state forests and allow them to work within existing state policy structures, which seem to be increasingly conducive to tribal involvement, as evidenced by Governor Newsom’s 2020 policy statement. In federal forests, tribes may have opportunities to engage in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process relating to the creation of LRMPs. Yet, as evidenced by the Ti Bar Demonstration, these arrangements may be highly dependent on current political conditions and USFS leadership. Returning ownership of forestlands to tribes while an NGO or another entity holds a conservation easement to the land is another route through which tribes may implement traditional conservation and land management practices. Moreover, including requirements in conservation easements that management practices comply with state or federal policy may be an effective way to tie together the goals of governmental, tribal, and private actors.