Wildfire prevention in Indian Country: Saving lives while respecting tribal lands

Agencies introduce a multi-year shared-stewardship project to reduce wildfire risk and improve the resilience of forest products for traditional uses

Wildfires can cause tremendous damage to landscapes, homes and in the worst case scenarios, take lives. But wildfires can be mitigated — if not downright prevented — by taking early corrective action.

But the most important thing in forestry management to tribes is clearing away forest in a responsible way, that is respectful to the tribal lands and to the tribes in the region.

Jonathan Brooks, tribal forest manager with the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Fort Apache Agency shared this sentiment when he testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs about the effects of wildfires and forest management in Indian Country.

“We have embraced a history, a culture, and a need for forest management to create a sustainable forest landscape adapted to the needs, demands, and objectives of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and the forest itself that provides food, water, medicine, and materials for survival as well as employment and economic gains for our people.

Fort Apache fire crew thinning Sierra Vista Ranger District - Photo Coronado National Forest (2)

“Actively-managed pinyon and juniper woodlands, ponderosa pine, and mixed conifer forests are far more resilient against the threat of today’s catastrophic wildfires than unmanaged forests that don’t receive thinning or prescribed burning.”

He speaks from experience as Apache Land has had to endure the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire, then called “The Monster” that took out 468,638 acres of national forest and tribal lands only to be followed by the even larger Wallow Fire, a decade later, that consumed 538,049 acres. That’s a lot of timber needlessly up in smoke although the devastation did kickstart the ultimate approval of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.

Mitigating the possibility of additional catastrophes while maintaining a respect for the land is the end goal here according to Kerwin Dewberry, Supervisor of the Coronado National Forest, who notes: “We understand the value of partnerships and integrating Native American perspectives into federal land management.”

Fort Apache fire crew thinning Sierra Vista Ranger District - Photo Coronado National Forest (4)

Coronado’s National Forest tribal relations specialist Doreen Ethelbah-Gatewood goes a step further. “As part of the Reserve Treaty Rights Lands program, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Fort Apache Agency, and Coronado National Forest have partnered in a multi-year shared-stewardship project to reduce wildfire risk and improve the resilience of forest products for traditional uses.

“The partnership implements landscape-scale, holistic management that provides protection of values at risk by reducing hazardous fuels, restoring historical forest and woodland structure, improving the resilience of forest products for traditional uses, and employing, developing, and training tribal crews.

“Tribal interest in the management of these ancestral lands remains strong and although managed by the Coronado, they are still regarded as Apache homeland to the five tribes who maintain a government-to-government relationship with the forest. Apaches believe the health of their people is tied to the health of the land and proper management is not just about reducing fire fuels, but also protecting culturally-significant resources on their ancestral lands.”

Keith Burnette, Apache, BIA Western Region Fuels Specialist, notes: “Our ancestors lived and traveled extensively throughout the RTRL (the Reserved Treaty Rights Lands) project area. Because of our connection to the landscape, we share an interest in protecting the natural resources that support our way of life and this partnership offers additional opportunities to maintain our relationship with this special place.”

Fort Apache fire crew thinning Sierra Vista Ranger District - Photo Coronado National Forest (1)

Crews work collaboratively with a variety of partners to mitigate potential impacts to cultural resources and enhance resilient ecological conditions to sustain oak savanna health and reduce wildland fire risk. High on the to-do list was a combination of thinning and prescribed burns that met both treatment goals and tribal priorities.

The Fort Apache crew was able to cut and pile over 100 acres, a beginning in their efforts to address Apache concerns for Emory oak and other native plants at risk. The Apache crew also supported the Coronado National Forests implementation of a nearly 1,200-acre prescribed burn that is intended to create resiliency and sustainability of the tribe’s oak savanna ecosystem.

That’s good news according to the USDA: “Prescribed fire is used to manage interior chapparal where Emory oak occurs, reducing fuel loads and improving wildlife habitat.” Oak trees, specifically Emory with its Bellota acorns, are a tribal tradition in the West. The acorn is a small nut, about the size of a pine nut when shelled, but unlike most acorns that are bitter, Emory Oak acorns are sweet, edible, and gathered in accordance with Apache and Yavapai traditions and used for flour, meal, stewed in soups or eaten raw.

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