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Managing forests for tribal priorities

Sarah Farmer
Southern Research Station

Across the U.S., there are 574 federally recognized Native American nations. Each one has a unique culture, language and land management approach. Most have cherished relationships with plants and other living things. Such relationships are vital to the culture, health and economies of many Native Americans.

A picture of a small plant inside a green pot.
Young sochan that was planted at the Snowbird Youth Center in Cherokee, North Carolina. The plants represent local genotypes and were grown for the Center by the North Carolina Arboretum Germplasm Repository, in partnership with the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. (USDA Forest Service photo by Sarah Farmer)

“Plants provide food, medicine, craft materials and economic opportunities,” said Tommy Cabe. “They simultaneously hold spiritual, ceremonial and cultural meanings.”

Cabe is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and works with the tribe’s natural resources department. About six years ago, he became part of a renewed relationship between the Eastern Band and the USDA Forest Service.

“We put a thicker mortar in our relationship with the Forest Service,” Cabe said.

It was necessary because of climate change. Climate change is affecting forests and communities that rely on native plants. Many communities are now preparing for a future where culturally significant plants could be in shorter supply.

One of those plants is sochan, also known as green-headed coneflower. This tall perennial has yellow flowers in late summer and large, dark green, deeply lobed leaves. Every spring Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian members harvest, cook and eat sochan leaves. These meals are not like meals paid for in dollars at a grocery store or restaurant. They represent much more – in some cases, spiritual connections to nature.

A picture showing Cabe working on nursery or garden area.
Tommy Cabe counts ramps at a study plot in western North Carolina. The study compared harvest methods, and preliminary results suggest the traditional Native American methods used are more sustainable. (USDA Forest Service photo by Michelle Baumflek)

Historically, tribal members gathered sochan leaves in an area that is now within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina. However, official park rules prohibited the harvest of sochan. In general, gathering any plant in a national park is prohibited, although there are some exceptions for members of tribes.

To restore tribal food sovereignty and access to sochan on these public lands, Cabe and other experts from the tribe partnered with the North Carolina Arboretum and Forest Service researcher Michelle Baumflek from the Southern Research Station.

Baumflek began by interviewing community members about their current sochan harvesting practices, collecting information about how they prepared, cooked and shared sochan within the community. She then contributed to a monitoring protocol and helped identify potential gathering sites in the national park.

A picture of two tribal members examining the base of a tree.
White oak is among the species that members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians use to make baskets. The trees that become baskets can vary in size, and silvicultural prescriptions could ensure that they are abundant. (USDA Forest Service photo by John Schelhas)

Preliminary results suggest that the traditional harvesting methods do not harm the plants but can lead to more growth. “We’re hitting some plots hard, but that’s part of this process,” Cabe said. “One plot, we just hammer. Every time it’s ready, we go get it. And it did well. I hear from people in the community that they’re not surprised.”

In 2019, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the National Park Service signed an agreement that restored tribal members’ right to harvest sochan from the park.

This research shows how traditional ecological knowledge can be incorporated into federal management policies.

“We are working to meet tribal priorities for culturally significant plants,” Baumflek said. “This includes access to plants and the ability to express and practice traditional knowledge by having it incorporated into forest management.”

Baumflek and others in the Southern Research Station are working with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on other culturally important plant species, including wild onions, or “ramps,” white oak and ginseng. Partnerships with other Native American nations are focusing on sweetgrass, rivercane, ramps and other projects of shared interest.

“We’re rewriting forest management history,” said Cabe. “We as a tribe are impacting how some of these resources are viewed. I hope it continues to be as promising as it has been for the past few years.”