Tribal co-management of federal public lands leads to new protections
Following National Public Lands Day, Indigenous leaders discuss working with agencies to manage dispossessed

A welcome sign at the entrance to the Bison Range in Montana, which is now managed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. (Tom Stack/Alamy Photo)

A welcome sign at the entrance to the Bison Range in Montana, which is now managed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. (Tom Stack/Alamy Photo)

This October marked two years since President Joe Biden restored Bears Ears National Monument to its original boundaries, which President Donald Trump had reduced by 85% in 2017. The five tribes of the Bears Ears Commission, along with three federal agencies, have since been working on the monument’s first management plan. The plan is due out in November, according to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. After that, agencies will co-host public hearings with tribal commissioners.

Tribal representatives have been working with agencies like the Bureau of Land Management to share Indigenous knowledge and priorities on land stewardship, said Hopi Tribal Vice Chairman Craig Andrews. It’s a process of balancing a variety of uses — ranging from rock climbing in Indian Creek to livestock grazing — with protecting the cultural sites and relationships that each tribal nation maintains in the area. It’s figuring out “what their perception of it is, and what our Native perception of it is, and trying to mesh that together as close as we can to speak for the monument,” said Andrews, who serves as the Hopi commissioner for Bears Ears.

“This requires bringing together many different worldviews, and “we’re having to speak two languages,” Andrews continued. “For me, it’s Hopi, trying to explain that to our people, and then having to explain it to the agencies on that level. It’s trying to explain our way of life, why we’re protecting these areas out here.”

Federal public lands were created by the displacement of Native people. Despite that, tribes have maintained cultural connections to their ancestral lands, a right recognized by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. Including tribes in public-lands management has been a primary focus of the Biden administration, buttressed by foundational agency policies and Indigenous-led coalitions that have resulted in new protections for millions of acres at recently designated national monuments like Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni in Arizona and Avi Kwa Ame in Nevada.

Between 2021 and 2022, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture signed 20 new co-stewardship agreements required close cooperation between the Bureau of Land Management and the Pueblo de Cochiti. While co-stewardship is a very broad term that covers a range of activities involving tribal nations and other entities, co-management indicates shared authority over something, such as salmon or land. The Interior Department’s first annual tribal co-stewardship report from 2022 noted that hundreds of site-specific agreements already exist between tribes and federal agencies that include both types of management.

“Our ancestors have used nature-based approaches to coexist among our lands, waters, wildlife and their habitats for millennia,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) said. “As the United States works to honor our treaty and trust responsibilities to protect tribal sovereignty and revitalize tribal communities, we must also protect access to resources for subsistence, and cultural and spiritual practices.”

The Interior Department has yet to update the numbers around co-stewardship agreements this year, but Biden’s use of the Antiquities Act has included tribal co-management requirements in multiple instances.

In early August, Biden designated the fifth national monument of his presidency, Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni-Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon, which protects almost 1 million acres of piñon juniper woodland and red rock canyon in northern Arizona.

In the proclamation, Biden acknowledged “the legacy of dispossession and exclusion of tribal nations and Indigenous peoples in the Grand Canyon region,” noting that tribal nations’ steadfast campaigns to protect the area were the driving force behind the designation, which includes protection of the area from future uranium mining claims.

The designation creates a commission for tribal nations with ancestral ties to the area — in this case 13 distinct tribal nations — to manage the lands within the monument alongside the federal government, similar to the commission established for Bears Ears.

“Many Havasupai tribal leaders have carried this battle on their shoulders over the decades and we are the fortunate ones to experience this unprecedented time,” said Thomas Siyuja Sr., chairman of the Havasupai Tribe in a statement.

Beyond co-management lies the concept of land return, which has also occurred during Biden’s term. The Bison Range was originally carved out of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ reservation in 1908 by federal action, but in the early 2000s, it transitioned to co-management between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the tribe, which has an established conservation record. After years of contentious public discourse, Congress passed a bill in 2020 that directed the secretary of the Interior to return the range to the tribe’s management.

While many see co-management as a step toward land return, environmental historian and ethnobotanist Rosalyn LaPier, who is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe, and Métis, has pushed back against that idea. In an interview with High Country News last week, LaPier said that the federal government should be ready to return public land to tribes who want it now, without requiring co-management as a first step. “The federal government doesn’t want to let go of their say over public lands and allow Indigenous people to take leadership. And we’re fully prepared to take leadership,” LaPier said. Pointing to intensifying wildfires in the Western U.S., which are due in part to a century of fire suppression, she added, “Why would Native nations want to co-manage with the United States, when the United States government has shown over and over again how they mismanaged public lands?”

“We’re fully prepared to take leadership.”

Tribes are also moving forward with their own large-scale stewardship goals. Today, the Resighini Tribe of Yurok People, Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria designated 700 square miles of ocean along California’s northern coast as an Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area, the first in the United States. “We do not seek the permission of other governments and can no longer wait to act to preserve and protect this culturally and ecologically important place,” the three tribes’ wrote in the proclamation. The tribes plan to work with the state to co-manage the area and its cultural and natural resources, which include lamprey, green sturgeon and clams.

“At a bare minimum,” the option of co-management and land return “should be available to all tribal nations,” LaPier said. “They should be able to decide how they want to address these issues themselves. That’s what tribal sovereignty is.”

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