American Indians and National Forests by Theodore Catton; The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams
After a half-century of absence, the gray wolf returned to the wilds of Idaho in the late 1990s, thanks largely to the careful stewardship of the Nez Perce tribe. The wolf’s rewilding was both controversial and groundbreaking. For the first time in U.S.-Indian relations, a Native American tribe oversaw wildlife recovery, resuming a practice of stewarding forest and fauna that indigenous nations had performed in the Americas for hundreds of years.
In Idaho, an alliance of sportsmen, ranchers, and lawmakers staunchly opposed to the wolf’s reintroduction made sure that state lawmakers refused to aid any federal program to re-establish the species. But Idaho’s balking left an opening for a third party — in this case, the Nez Perce — to manage federal efforts to bring the wolves back. Having already proved themselves in a trial role with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service overseeing small tracts of forests on reservation land, the Nez Perce tribal government seized this much larger opportunity to manage resources on millions of acres of federal land outside the borders of their reservation. Bureaucrats were dubious: One tribal wildlife biologist mused that state lawmakers were whispering among themselves, “Give it to them [the Nez Perce] — they just might fail.”
Beginning with 15 radio-collared wolves and a modest $150,000 in federal funds, the tribe tracked and monitored wolves, alerted livestock owners, educated the public, and followed up on any incidents of livestock predation. The U.S. Forest Service helped by making summer crew housing available to tribal employees, even airlifting Nez Perce crews into remote locations. By the program’s third year, 55 wolf pups had been born in Idaho. Within a decade, an estimated 850 wolves had expanded to most of the state’s available habitat.
This was a success story not only for the wolves, but also for the tribe, which recovered its own identity as a steward of forests and wildlife. “There was an unusual kinship between the Nez Perce and the wolf; each had been persecuted and driven off the land. For the Nez Perce to help bring back the wolf offered a way for the tribe to bring back itself,” writes Theodore Catton, a public historian who specializes in research for the National Park Service, in American Indians and National Forests.
The wolf story may be unique to the Nez Perce, but according to Catton’s new account, over the past 25 years scores of Native American tribes have begun asserting their sovereignty in managing both Indian land and the federal wilderness areas that often abut reservations or were historically part of tribes’ ancestral lands. Catton claims the U.S. Forest Service was the federal agency most hostile to their demands. Beginning in the 1970s, tribes who shared converging waterways began forming intertribal fishing commissions and hiring fishing biologists to help them advocate and create policy. The result was that both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were forced to change with the times.
Other tribes, inspired by new federal laws protecting Native American antiquities, burial grounds, and religions, found new reasons to mandate that the U.S. Forest Service work with them to prevent mining, drilling, and other resource extraction on sacred lands. The so-called “timber tribes,” such as the Menominee of Wisconsin, used their newfound alliances with the U.S. Forest Service to greatly expand their commercial logging operations while institutionalizing their deep knowledge of conservation practices. Indigenous forestry students across the continent have flocked to the College of Menominee Nation in Green Bay, often referred to, Catton writes, as “a meeting place of Native knowledge and Western science.”
Yet the book is far from a celebration of Native American-Forest Service alliances. As Catton notes at the start of his narrative, recent actions still anger several tribes. Catton recounts that in the summer of 2011, Navajo and Hopi activists chained themselves to snowmaking machinery at the Arizona Snowbowl in the Coconino National Forest. To reduce costs,