Honoring Our Commitment to Tribes

Gail Kimbell, Regional Forester, Northern Region
United South and Eastern Tribes, Impact Week Meeting
Washington, DC
— February 9, 2009

President Brian Patterson … Vice-President Randy Noka … and the entire USET Board: It is an honor for me to be here with you today. I thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about the United States Forest Service and how our mission intersects yours. Even more than an intersection, it is a coming together based on our common ground and common purpose. I’ll keep my comments brief so we’ll have some time for discussion.

The Forest Service has the complicated job of serving a public that is very diverse, with a wide range of needs, values, and expectations. We recognize that American Indians have a special history and a lineage related to the nation’s forests that is far longer than that of other Americans. Your heritage connects you intimately—and uniquely—to the many landscapes that the Forest Service now has the privilege and responsibility of managing.

Our motto is “caring for the land and serving people.” I believe that echoes the strong connection American Indians have to the indigenous landscapes and resources of America. All of our goals, all of our inspiration ultimately derive from our twin purposes of land stewardship and service to people. Every program and plan we have, every partnership we form, every commitment we make is designed to serve these inseparable ends. People are part of the land; they derive sustenance from the land—the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, the special places they go for recreation and spiritual renewal. We manage forests and grasslands so that future generations will continue to obtain these services and more.

The national forests we manage in the South and East aren’t as large or as dominant as the national forests in the West, but they  are vitally important to you and to all Americans. We work to deliver the broad array of services that society expects from public land—clean water, wilderness, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, economic opportunity, and more.

Through our State and Private Forestry programs, we also support the health and utility of all of the nation’s forests, and we constantly strive to gain and apply new science and technology through our research and development programs.

At the Forest Service, we’ve carefully thought about the century ahead, and we recognize the enormous challenges facing all Americans. Climate change threatens to disrupt entire ecoregions, shifting plant and animal assemblages for generations to come. When the climate changes, many things change: temperature, precipitation, snowpack, runoff, soil moisture levels—the list goes on. Add to this population growth, land use change, invasive species and a host of other challenges, and America’s land managers are in a whole new problem environment. Already, we see major disturbances—devastating droughts, huge wildfires, and widespread insect outbreaks.

These challenges, taken together, are virtually unprecedented in their magnitude, their frequency, their intensity. No one of us can face them alone. I believe that Tribes can help us meet these challenges, and that the Forest Service can help Tribes respond to them in their own communities and on the landscapes they manage. It will take all of us working together—the federal government, Tribal governments, state and local governments, private forest landowners—even the power of the marketplace  in the developing markets for carbon and other ecosystem services. In any case, we can’t wait. We need to act now, in concert with our partners—with you—based on the vision we share.

We know that we have not always met the highest expectations of our Tribal partners. I want you to know that I am greatly disappointed by that. I also want you to know that we are working hard to find better ways of accommodating Tribal rights, needs, and desires across the landscapes we share. Those disappointments in the past should not keep us from working together better in the future.

I am happy to report that we now have more authorities than ever to work with Tribes in ways that are mutually beneficial. The Tribal Forest Protection Act allows us to bring Tribal crews to the national forests to do work. The projects they complete will benefit not only the national forests, but also adjacent Tribal lands. They can protect entire landscapes from devastating wildfires and outbreaks of insects and disease. They will also help ecosystems adapt to climate change by making them more resistant and resilient to drought, wildfire, and insects.

The Farm Bill of 2008 contains provisions that benefit Tribes, some of them specific to the Forest Service. It gives us new authorities for reburials, for confidentiality, for access, and for closures. We look forward to working with Tribes in using these new authorities.

As you might know, we recently published a regulation governing special forest products and forest botanical products on national forest land. The rule is needed because of that new problem environment I spoke of earlier, driven by climate change, demographic change, and a host of other pressures on forest ecosystems. Those pressures seriously threaten the sustainability of the species that go into special forest products and forest botanical products, and we need to protect them if they are going to be there for future generations. We need a mechanism in place to sustain the viability and usability of those plants and other products.

However, we also recognize that their continued use is essential to the cultures and traditions of Tribal peoples. We heard so many concerns about the new rule from Tribes, Tribal members, and inter-Tribal organizations that we decided we needed more time to reevaluate this rule. I am pleased to report that implementation of the rule has been delayed for 60 days and that a new 30-day comment period is in place. I want to assure you that the Forest Service will seriously consider every comment we have already received and every comment we will receive, and that we will make the rule as responsive as we can. We understand and are bound by the sovereign nature of Tribal governments.

For more than a hundred years, Forest Service employees have been part of the communities they lived in, woven into the fabric of the land, serving the people who live in our local communities. That includes Tribes. I cannot stress that enough. All of our work affects Tribes, and Tribes are … and should be … involved in every facet of what we do. As Chief, I will make sure that we honor that commitment.

Thank you again for inviting me.