Washington, DC — New proposals to jointly manage federal lands with local Indian tribes do not address the major practical difficulties of dealing with disputes that inevitably arise, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Nor do they specify tribal powers to limit public access, harvest resources, or veto federal decisions on federal lands they would co-manage.
In a recent memo to the White House, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed “tribal comanagement” of four national monuments – Bears Ears National Monument (UT), Rio Grande Del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks (NM), and Gold Butte National Monument (NV) – as well as a proposed new Badger-Two Medicine monument (MT). His memo offers no specificity on what this arrangement would mean or how it would work.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) has re-introduced a bill – the Yurok Lands Act – requiring the National Park Service (NPS) to enter into a cooperative agreement with Yurok Tribe that governs the management of all the natural resources in Redwood National Park. The bill also stipulates that the tribe would operate all “Program functions, services, and activities, or portions thereof, carried out” in Redwood Park “on Federal land within the revised Yurok Reservation.…”
The implications of co-managing natural resources with an entity whose objectives may conflict with the NPS vision cannot be fully anticipated but are nonetheless real. For example, the Yurok (and potentially other tribes) may wish to manipulate natural processes to create more favorable conditions for collectable resources. In Redwood, this could mean burning or cutting back forests to create more open savannah that supports oaks and gatherable acorns. It could also mean the hunting of animals that are tribal totems and that have been killed for millennia prior to park creation or restricting all public access but their own to parts of the park deemed sacred to the Yurok. In addition, it may spark conflict over NPS efforts to conserve federally listed species that may require controlling native animals deemed sacred by the Yurok.
“Two sovereigns under one roof is a house divided,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “If it is true co-management, then any disagreement could lead to utter impasse.”
PEER points to the ill-fated attempts at tribal co-management of the National Bison Range (MT) as a cautionary tale. The first co-management agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) was summarily cancelled in December 2006 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service due to a host of CSKT performance-related problems as well as their reported mistreatment of FWS employees. A successor agreement was invalidated in 2010 by a federal court due to the crippling nature of its elaborate dispute-resolution mechanism on refuge operations. A third attempt emerged after another four years of negotiation but CSKT objections scuttled it. A late-term Obama attempt to generate legislation to transfer Bison Range to the tribe was blocked by a PEER lawsuit and finally abandoned by Sec. Zinke.
“Wrangling over competing federal-tribal prerogatives turned Bison Range into a political football, to the detriment of the natural resources within what is called the Crown Jewel of the Refuge System,” added Ruch. “Co-management sounds good but ignoring the details can lead to devilish complications.”