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After Bad Fire Season, Northwest Tribes Question Federal Firefighting Priorities

September 14, 2015

Several inches of ash blanket the ground where a wildfire recently passed through a pine forest on the Colville Reservation. Most of the trees have scorched trunks and dull brown needles … but some could still bounce back.

Cody Desautel, the tribe’s Natural Resources Director, grabed ahold of a scorched bough on a small sapling. “These buds in the end, see, they’ll still look pretty viable,” he said. “So next spring potentially these things could break bud and you could have green needles come out of this.”

This summer, a pair of large wildfires burned through more than 20 percent of the tribe’s commercial timber land. Other fires burned major tracts of forest on reservations throughout the Northwest. And while the full effect may take years to gauge, the fires have renewed calls by tribal officials to revisit firefighting priorities.

“The single overriding suppression priority is the protection of human life,” Dalan Romero, Northwest liaison for the National Interagency Fire Center, said. 

“After that we start looking at the protection of communities, infrastructure, property and any improvements that may be in place, and then we go on down to natural and cultural resources,” Romero said.

That means second homes, barns, and roads are all technically ahead of forest or natural landmarks. But Romero said the way firefighting decisions get made is actually more complicated. For instance, he said fire managers may see a wildfire start in the backcountry. “But they say, this has the potential to come roaring out of the wilderness,” he said, and so they’ll fight it anyway.

On balance, these policies often make firefighting on tribal lands a lower priority than firefighting everywhere else. Intertribal Timber Council President Phil Rigdon pointed out that in recent years, homes and other developments have spread rapidly on private forest land throughout the Northwest.

But on the Yakama reservation, Rigdon said, “We have chosen as a tribe not to develop and build homes and those things in our forest. The forest is a cornerstone of the tribe’s culture and economy, supporting subsistence hunting and hundreds of logging jobs."

This summer, Rigdon said he watched as hotshot crews and equipment were pulled off a fire on Yakama lands and sent to battle the Okanogan Complex, farther North. “I don’t want to disrespect the value of protecting homes and other things, because that’s an essential part,” Rigdon said, “but tribes just can’t pick up and move their land here or there.”

Joe Kalt, who studies tribal economies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said large fires on tribal lands can have a disproportionate impact. “Down in Arizona, the White Mountain Apache tribe suffered a fire of almost 500,000 acres.” That was in 2002. “And it decimated their forest, decimated their timber industry, and the tribe still hasn’t fully recovered.”

On the Colville reservation, timber accounts for a third of the tribal budget. Natural Resources Director Cody Desautel said the forest there is managed on a long-term cycle: the idea is to have a mix of trees of all different ages, so each harvest only makes a small dent.

A big fire changes that dramatically.

“This will set a third of the acreage potentially back to year zero,” Desautel said. So those acres can’t be logged on the usual schedule.

One reason firefighters protect homes first is that most people’s wealth, and their sense of place, is tied up in their houses. That’s true of Native Americans too. But in many tribes, most of the wealth is collective, and especially in the Northwest, their day to day livelihood is tied to the forests.

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Cody Desautel, director of natural resources for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, examines the forest canopy following a wildfire to see which trees may survive the burn.

Rowan Moore Gerety

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