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New online collection seeks to foster Native co-stewardship of public lands

In December, members of several tribal nations conducted a cultural burn on the Sequoia National Forest, an event that was enabled by a co-stewardship agreement.
Forest Service
In December, members of several tribal nations conducted a cultural burn on the Sequoia National Forest, an event that was enabled by a co-stewardship agreement.

In recent years, the federal government has tried to work more closely with tribal nations on land management, and a new online collection of such agreements seeks to facilitate that collaboration.

In 2021, the departments of Interior and Agriculture issued a joint order calling for agreements to co-steward federal lands with tribal governments, and to incorporate Indigenous knowledge.

It called for these arrangements “where Federal lands or waters, including wildlife and its habitat, are located within or adjacent to a federally recognized Indian Tribe’s reservation, where federally recognized Indian Tribes have subsistence or other rights or interests in non-adjacent Federal lands or waters, or where requested by a federally recognized Indian Tribe.”

Earlier this year, an online repository of such agreements was compiled by a number of organizations, including the Colorado-based Native American Rights Fund. It’s hosted by the University of Washington.

After outreach to tribal representatives, organizers identified “Sovereign-to-Sovereign Agreements” as the preferred term for such arrangements. They’re also known as co-stewardship or co-management agreements, according to a release from the Native American Rights Fund and the Wilderness Society.

Some have recently talked about building bridges to a new era of public lands management.

“The time has come for a more holistic and inclusive approach to public lands management,” University of Washington Native American Law Center Director Monte Mills and University of Montana Bolle Center for People and Forests Director Martine Nie wrote in 2021. “The legal framework for federal public lands must no longer be divorced from and exclude tribes and tribal interests.”

“The repository is basically the place to get the bricks to build that bridge,” said Ada Montague Stepleton, a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. “It's the raw materials you need to understand what are the legal mechanisms that allow for these types of arrangements to exist on the land.”

“More and more, we are getting requests from tribal nations who are expressing an interest in these opportunities through co-management and co-stewardship agreements,” she added. “They want to take on bigger roles in land management and stewardship, but oftentimes it's hard for them to know where to start, what's already been done, where did it work, where hasn't it worked well.”

Montague Stepleton cited a cultural burn on the Sequoia National Forest last year by members of several tribes as an example of the sort of work that such agreements can enable. Cultural burning refers to the traditional use of fire for land management and cultural purposes by Indigenous people in the U.S. and around the world.

Climate change and other growing threats to public land are only adding urgency to the development of these collaborations, according to Montague Stepleton.

“Despite the history of colonization in this country, there are relationships still intact and there is still a willingness,” she said. “And I think some of it does come from this time pressure that people are feeling generally in the face of these really catastrophic conditions that we're starting to face. And the thought of, ‘what's this going to be like for our kids and our grandkids?’”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.

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