Indian Forestry at a Tipping Point
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee heard testimony on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 the difficulties faced on tribal lands due to wildfire and forest management budget constraints.
Wildfires, disease, and drought are severely impacting Indian forests, a culturally and economically important resource for tribal nations. Ongoing budget cuts and the federal government’s focus on wildfire suppression, rather than prevention, are leading to higher risks.
There are more than 18 million acres of tribal forestland held in trust by the United States on 334 reservations in 36 states. These tribal forests cover about one-third of all Indian trust lands and serve as the economic and cultural backbone for many Indian reservations.
“The 2014 fire season is just beginning and thousands of families across the country, and particularly in Western communities, are bracing for another season of devastating forest fires,” Tester said. “Wildfire prevention activities, such as hazardous fuels treatments, reduce fire suppression costs. Yet budget requests from the Forest Service and the DOI don’t keep up with the need for hazardous fuels treatments.”
Proactive forest management pays dividends by requiring relatively lower costs to the American taxpayer when compared to escalating spending on fighting the fires once they’ve broken out. Proactive forest management also provides jobs, ongoing economic benefits to tribal and other forest-dependent communities and prevents unnecessary loss of life and property.
James Hubbard, Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry at the U.S. Forest Service noted that, “The Forest Service has had to divert funds from other programs to fund firefighting efforts for 7 of the last 10 years. This takes funding away from forest management activities such as mechanical thinning and controlled burns that reduce both the incidence and severity of wildfires. In addition, over the last two decades, the Forest Service has also had to shift more and more money to firefighting, thereby reducing foresters, Tribal liaisons, and other staff by over 30 percent.”
Phil Rigdon, President of the Intertribal Timber Council, which represents more than 60 tribes with forest interests, noted that, “On a per acre basis, tribes receive only about one-third the funding for forest and wildfire management as the Forest Service. Federal funding is now so insufficient and staffing levels so inadequate that the ability to fulfill fiduciary trust obligations and provide the economic and ecological benefits needed by our communities is very much in doubt.”
Dr. Adrian Leighton, the Natural Resources Department Head at Salish Kootenai College has been reviewing tribal forest practices and policies as a member of the Third Indian Forest Management Assessment Team (IFMAT).
“The lack of stable, equitable funding, an understaffed and aging workforce, and inadequate access to technical resources compromises the long term sustainability of tribal forest management,” Dr. Leighton said. “Twenty-three years after the first IFMAT assessment, Indian forests remain underfunded and understaffed, tribes are constrained by conflicting rules and regulations that hinder rather than help them achieve self-governance and tribal forests are increasingly threatened by inaction on the borders of their lands.”
IFMAT found that Indian forests require $254 million in annual funding to bring per acre funding on par with National Forests.
Jonathan Brooks, the Tribal Forest Manager of the White Mountain Apache Tribe explained the importance of active fire management, “Preserving and protecting our forests is our duty, and that has only been accomplished through our legacy of active forest management. Devastating fires, which are far more commonplace now than anytime in recorded history, are able to occur because of a century of “hands-off” management and a century of fire suppression focus.”
Dan Breuninger, President, Mescalero Apache Tribe said, “Our lands serve as the groundwater recharge areas for much of south-central and southeastern New Mexico. We cannot allow a century of work to restore forest health and reduce the threat of wildfire simply fall by the wayside. Congress must work with tribes to find large-scale long-term solutions to this problem to maintain the forestry infrastructure necessary to accomplish a fully integrated forest health treatment program that will help maintain our way of life, create jobs in Indian Country, and sustain the vital watershed for the Apache people and our neighbors.”
Tester called for further examination of funding strategies for fire prevention programs on tribal lands.
Video of the hearing and witness testimony are available at indian.senate.gov.