US touts new era of collaboration with Native American tribes to manage public lands and water

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. government is entering a new era of collaboration with Native American and Alaska Native leaders in managing public lands and other resources, with top federal officials saying incorporating more Indigenous knowledge into decision-making could help boost conservation and combat climate change. to fight.

Federal emergency managers also announced updates Thursday to recovery policies to help tribal communities repair or rebuild traditional homes or ceremonial buildings after a series of wildfires, floods and other disasters across the country.

As hundreds of tribal leaders gather in Washington this week for an annual summit, the Biden administration is celebrating nearly 200 new agreements aimed at boosting federal cooperation with tribes across the country.

The agreements cover everything from fisheries restoration projects in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to management of new national monuments in the southwestern US, seed collection work in Montana and plant restoration in the Great Smoky Mountains.

“The United States manages hundreds of millions of acres of what we call federal public lands. Why wouldn't we want additional capacity, additional expertise, millennia of knowledge and understanding of how to manage those countries?” U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bryan Newland said this during a panel discussion.

The new co-management and co-stewardship agreements announced this week mark a tenfold increase from what was signed a year earlier, and officials said more are in the pipeline.

Newland, a resident of the Bay Mills Indian Community in northern Michigan, said each agreement is unique. He said any arrangement is tailored to a tribe's needs and capabilities to help manage public lands — and at a minimum, ensures their presence at the table when decisions are made.

The federal government has no intention of dictating to tribal leaders what a partnership should look like, he said.

The U.S. government controls more than a quarter of the land in the United States, much of which includes the ancestral homelands of federally recognized tribes. Although the idea of ​​co-stewardship dates back decades and spans multiple presidential administrations, many tribes in recent years have advocated for a more formal role in managing federal lands to which they have ties.

Tribes and advocacy groups have pushed for regulations that go beyond the consultation requirements mandated by federal law.

Researchers from the University of Washington and legal experts from the Native American Rights Fund have created a new clearinghouse on the topic. They point out that public lands that are now central to the country's national heritage stem from the dispossession and displacement of indigenous people, and that co-management could provide an opportunity for the U.S. to reckon with that complicated legacy .

Ada Montague Stepleton, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, said the significant increase in the number of agreements signed over the past year shows that there is a willingness in Indian Country to find a path forward that is mutually beneficial for the tribes and the federal government. government – ​​and ultimately the taxpayers.

“We have been gathering information to try to better understand these agreements,” she said. “There's kind of a double-edged sword. We want to ensure that sovereignty is not eroded and at the same time create places where co-management can actually take place.”

Montague Stepleton said one of the challenges is that tribes are often under-resourced, with much of their focus on preserving their cultures and ensuring their communities have access to food, water and health care.

In an effort to address complaints about chronic underfunding across Indian Country, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on the first day of the summit on Wednesday that will make it easier for tribes to find and access grants.

Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told tribal leaders Thursday that her agency has begun improving disaster guidance this year, primarily in response to tribes' needs.

Hawaii's indigenous people are increasingly besieged by disasters, most recently a devastating fire that killed dozens of people and leveled an entire town. Last month, another fire scorched a swath of irreplaceable rainforest on Oahu.

Tribes in California and Oregon were also forced to file for disaster declarations earlier this year after severe storms led to flooding and mudslides.

Nancy James, first chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal Council in Alaska, said the effects of climate change on tribal communities cannot be ignored.

“Reality check,” she said, after ticking off details about warmer temperatures, bears not hibernating as they should and her people's inability to fish due to changing water conditions. 'Global warming affects us all.'

Criswell said the new guidelines include a pathway for Native American, Indigenous and Hawaiian communities to apply for presidential disaster declarations, which would give them access to federal disaster relief funding.

The agency also now accepts self-certified damage assessments and cost estimates for the restoration of ceremonial buildings or traditional homes, while eliminating the need for site inspections, maps or other details that could compromise culturally sensitive data.