Tribal forest management comes into the spotlight

2013-11-08 Ashley Bach

This year has been a good year for deals to preserve working forests in Washington. From Mount St. Helens to the Seattle area, several deals have been struck with landowners to ensure that forests will continue to be managed and protected from development.

And now the good fortune continues. In the biggest deal of them all this year, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe just announced it's buying 96,000 acres of forest in King, Pierce and Lewis counties for $313 million, and it intends to keep the land for timber production, according to the Seattle Times. 

Most of the land is a roughly contiguous section of 86,000 acres in the White River Forest in south King County and north Pierce County. The other piece is 10,000 acres of forestland in north Lewis County. See a map here of both properties.

The transaction has both economic and cultural importance for the tribe, which bought the land from a partnership run by Boston-based investment manager Hancock Natural Resource Group .

“This acquisition is another important step toward the Tribe’s goals of increasing our land base, reacquiring portions of our homeland and diversifying our economy,” said Muckleshoot Tribal Council Chairwoman Virginia Cross in a statement.

Cross said the Muckleshoots will manage the land “for the primary purpose of long-term sustainable timber harvest, while preserving natural values including fish and wildlife habitat, plant resources and areas of cultural importance.

“This working forest will provide jobs and revenue for important tribal government programs now and for future generations.”

...Buying back land lost through treaties and forced sales has been a priority, according to the tribe.

“The White River Forest is an important part of the tribe’s homeland,” Cross said in her statement. “Bringing this property into tribal ownership is the realization of a long-held goal of our people.”

The deal actually supercedes a transaction that was announced by King County with much fanfare back in March. The county said then that it was buying the development rights for 43,000 acres of forestland near Enumclaw from Hancock Timber in order to protect the land from development. But as the Seattle Times explains, that deal with King County hasn't closed yet, and the 43,000 acres is part of the land that the Muckleshoot Tribe just announced it's buying. 

Even if the deal with King County is off, it appears the county and the tribe have the same goal: to keep the land as working forest. And for that, we should be happy.

The Muckleshoot deal comes as tribes across the West are taking an increasingly prominent role in forest management. Just a couple weeks ago, several Idaho tribes testified to the Idaho Legislature about proposals to transfer some federal lands to the state. In fact, the tribes should be considered first, tribal leaders said.

"If Congress is to transfer title to any lands, they should transfer them to their original owners, the Indian tribes," said Helo Hancock, legislative director of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.

Jim Petersen, the co-founder of the Evergreen Foundation and a longtime forestry expert, wrote this week that tribal forest management should be held up as a model by federal agencies, and that his Evergreen Magazine is planning a feature that calls "for tribes assuming an expanded role in the management of federal forests along the 3,000-mile border that joins tribal and federal forests."

Tribes do a commendable job of handling a host of environmental, social, cultural and economic challenges without breaking a single federal law. Why can't the Forest Service and the BLM do the same thing? Because as sovereign nations, tribes don't have to abide by the same process-related rules that hamstring both the Forest Service and the BLM to the detriment of federal forests and rangelands. It is this Gordian knot of pointless and frequently conflicting regulation that has become a feeding ground for environmental litigators.

...Indian forestry is a model whose time has come. To their credit, many in Congress seem to agree. Most of the legal groundwork has been laid alongside federal court decisions and treaty laws that date to the 1840s. I can't think of a single reason why the Forest Service and the BLM should not be encouraged to enter into collaborative management agreements with tribes. Nor can I fathom a reason why thinking environmentalists will not bless this sea change in a 30-year political battle that has pushed federal forests to the brink of ecological collapse. If we do not reverse course now, we will rob future generations of the same vibrant forests we inherited a generation ago.