Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Tribal Forests in Oregon

Existing Tribal Lands in Oregon

Larch Occasional Paper #15, Native American Tribal Lands and Federal Public Forestlands in Oregon. Here's the abstract:

Tribal lands have nearly as complex a history as Native American peoples themselves. This paper examines Native American tribal “ownership” of lands in Oregon from a singular perspective: the management of federal public lands. Federal public lands are or could be affected by (1) reserved treaty rights, (2) a special provision of law that applies to federal public forestlands that are adjacent to tribal forestlands, and (3) proposals to establish tribal reservation lands through transfer of federal public lands. From a conservation perspective, establishing tribal forests from private industrial timberlands is preferable to creation of tribal forests from federal public lands.

The paper is out-of-date in regard to current proposals to transfer federal public forestlands to tribal forests (see below), but is otherwise a current overview of Indian tribes and tribal lands in Oregon, how the lands came to be and how the lands are managed.

New Tribal Forests

Senators Wyden and Merkley intend to introduce legislation to transfer over 32,000 acres of federal public forestlands in Western Oregon to two Native American Tribes. While most conservationists support the concept in principle, we do have concerns about the overall magnitude of the land transfer and the impacts of such transfers on conservation values. Some of the particular parcels being suggested for transfer have high conservation values, such as old-growth forest, designated Critical Habitat for imperiled species, conservation reserve status, etc. The loss of such values to the public are the same whether transferred to private ownership, into a "trust" that is managed as private industrial timberlands or to a Native American tribe.

Senators Wyden and Merkley have publicly circulated draft language to transfer certain BLM lands in western to the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw (CLUS) Indians and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. This follows on a history of such transfer to other Western Oregon tribes (Grande Ronde, Siletz and Coquille) in past decades. Their draft bills call for the Cow Creeks getting 17,519 acres and the CLUS 14,804 acres of federal public forestland in western Oregon, for a total of 32,323 acres. To see maps and to review the draft legislative language, as well as to read Oregon Wild's analysis and recommendations, click below:

CLUS Tribe Tribal Forest Draft Legislation

CLUS Tribe Proposed Tribal Forest Map

Oregon Wild Map Analysis of CLUS Proposal

Cow Creek Band Tribal Forest Draft Legislation

Cow Creek Band Tribe Proposed Tribal Forest Map

Oregon Wild Map Analysis of Cow Creek Band Proposal

Oregon Wild Letter to Senators Wyden and Merkley on Both Proposals

Magnitude of Transfer. The first issue that needs addressing is the appropriate size of the transfers. The average acres of lands per enrolled member held by a Western Oregon "restored" Native American Tribe is 2.2 acres/enrolled member. If the average was used as the size factor, the 1,536 enrolled Cow Creek members should get a total 3,311 acres and the 953 CLUS members should get a total 2,054 acres. These tribes are asking for over five and seven times that respectively. A large part of the rationale embedded in the statutes that restored tribal status was to later give them lands for economic self-sufficiency. The timber business is a problematic one, while gambling (er, I mean “gaming”) is always a good business. Both tribes have successful casinos. 

Loss of Conservation Values. Oregon Wild has analyzed the conservation values on the lands Senators Wyden and Merkley are considering for transfer (see their letter attached). They note, among other things, that the lands proposed for transfer include:

• 11,000 acres of late-successional (mature and old-growth) forests, including some as old as 420 years of age;

• designated Critical Habitat for the Endangered Species Act-protected Northern Spotted Owl, Marbled Murrelet and coho salmon;

• 4,000 acres of Late Successional Reserves and 11,800 acres of Riparian Reserves designated under the Northwest Forest Plan;

• lands within municipal drinking watersheds;

• lands that are within Key Watersheds designated by the Northwest Forest Plan; and

• some lands are in critically important connecting corridors that facilitate the movement of species between the Coast and Cascade ranges.

Based on the management of tribal timberlands by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs elsewhere, as well as the management of tribal forests of other "restored" tribes in Western Oregon, it is prudent to assume industrial-style logging (clearcuts, herbicides, plantations, short rotations, etc.) will be the future of any transferred lands. To partially mitigate for the loss of federal public lands, Senator Hatfield included this provision in his 1996 transfer act for the Coquille Tribe:

"Management.--The Secretary of Interior, acting through the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, shall manage the Coquille Forest under applicable State and Federal forestry and environmental protection laws, and subject to critical habitat designations under the Endangered Species Act, and subject to the standards and guidelines of Federal forest plans on adjacent or nearby Federal lands, now and in the future.

Oregon Wild suggests updating this language as follows:

The Secretary of Interior, acting through the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, shall manage the (respective tribal name) Forest under applicable State and Federal forestry and environmental protection laws, and subject to critical habitat designations of the Endangered Species Act and subject to the policies, standards and guidelines of Federal forests on nearby Federal lands, including FLPMA [Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, recovery plan recommendations for endangered species, and Federal land RMPs [Resource Management Plans] and associated decisions.

This approach somewhat worked because all the lands sought by the Coquille Tribe were classified as Matrix (with Riparian Reserves along the streams) under the Northwest Forest Plan. The matrix land in 1996 transfer to the Coquille Tribe included mature (~80 to ~149 years of age) and old-growth (~150+ year old) stands and trees. Senator Hatfield then had no problem with such older forests being logged, but Senator Wyden now is on record as supporting the protection of forests older than 120 years of age.

Mitigation for the Loss of Conservation Values. The loss of some conservation values cannot be mitigated (logging older forest, disrupting genetic transfer of species by degrading connecting corridors, etc.). Others can be by the designation of Wilderness, Wild & Scenic River, mineral withdrawals, etc.

Log Exports. A common provision in all of the restoration bills was a prohibition against the export of raw logs from the restored lands. So that the tribes could maximize their revenues from such lands and minimize the impact to the conservation values of any federal public forestlands transferred to them, the tribes should be free to sell their logs to whomever they want.

An Alternative Approach. A better approach is to sell to the highest bidder an appropriate amount of BLM lands in western Oregon with very-low conservation values with the proceeds being given to the tribes that would be free to acquire private timberlands to establish their tribal forests (owned by the tribes directly rather than held in trust by the federal government) or otherwise using the money as they see fit (timberland may not be the wisest investment for the tribe; it should be their decision)

Conclusion. Conservationists are not opposed to these tribes getting tribal forests, but we do ask—if they are to come at the expense of federal public forestland—for that the overall acreage be fair and comparable to what other tribes received, that the lands given have the lowest-conservation values and that for the lands transfer that there be adequate mitigation to account for the loss of public lands.