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Indian Country forestry is improving, even with challenges ahead. That was the broad conclusion at the 47th Annual National Indian Timber Symposium in Cherokee, N.C. last week. 

During the May 13-16 symposium, event organizer Intertribal Timber Council (ITC) shared news of new economic opportunities, progress for tribal self-determination, and new potential partnerships. Approximately 365 attendees came together for workshops covering topics such as carbon credits, new forestry mapping technology, and climate resilience techniques.  The event was hosted by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.  

ITC Executive Director Cody Desautel said the attitude of many of the attendees was “hopeful.” 

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Desaultel told Tribal Business News. “We’re optimistic about the way this is going.”

For example, Desautel pointed to carbon offsets as an emerging source of revenue for tribal forests. Carbon offsets serve as proof that carbon has been removed as a result of a business activity. Well-maintained forests capture and reduce carbon in the atmosphere, and can create offset credits that, in turn, can be sold and create revenue for tribes. Traditional Indigenous forest management is well-positioned to take advantage of that, Desaultel said. 

“A lot of marketers and project developers are reaching out to tribes, because there’s many tribes that have contiguous chunks of ground,” Desaultel said. “It’s really a way to value good management in the past, or incentivize good management going forward. It’s just another funding source other than just logs as value for that acre.” 

Government agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Wildlife and Forestry Department were on hand to share advancements in co-management and wildfire prevention. Attendees were invited on a field tour of sites across Cherokee. The field tour included examples of safe cultural burning and habitat enhancement techniques. 

Non-governmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International were also on hand to discuss new partnerships and opportunities as well. 

As tribes gain more authority over their lands through purchases, co-stewardship and management agreements, more partners are looking to engage with Indian Country, Desautel said. “There are new opportunities out there.” 

IMFAT IV gets a wider audience

Optimism notwithstanding, there are plenty of obstructions and challenges that remain, Desaultel said. Many are outlined in the ITC’s latest report on Indian forests. That report,  assembled by the Indian Forest Management Assessment Team (IMFAT), served as a chief component of the symposium. 

Titled “IFMAT IV” the report has been widely distributed to tribes in some form since its completion in 2023, Desautel said. The symposium allowed ITC to roll out the information collectively and discuss next steps.

For example, the report notes that BIA-managed forests receive just 14 cents for every dollar of  funding that other federal forests receive. Even in situations where co-management between tribes and federal agencies has begun, that leaves Indian forests totally underfunded, Desautel said.  

“We’ve been trying to send that message to Congress for the last year,” Desautel said. “There’s just not enough support out there right now.”

Stagnant funding has resulted in a severe lack of capacity for tribes and Native-serving federal agencies. The IMFAT-IV report found that as funding remains static year after year, salaries have fallen behind, making it difficult to attract qualified candidates for open positions. 

As tribes seek greater control over their forests, this lack of capacity becomes even more critical, Desautel said. The IMFAT IV report indicated that tribes want more control, less BIA oversight, and fewer approval processes over Native-owned lands.  

“Those [BIA approval processes] are challenging, operationally, for tribes,” Desautel said. “Tribes continue to want more authority to do things on their own.”

As tribal needs and opportunities continue to grow, ITC is bolstering its own capacity with more board members and staff. With a growing number of members, ITC is finding heightened demand for its technical expertise and consultation services.  

“We’re being engaged to work on so many things, which compounds our staffing and funding problems,” Desautel said. He stressed how important it is for ITC — and tribes — to find alternative funding from philanthropic organizations, nonprofits and other federal agencies such as USDA Forestry Services. 

“Tribes largely leaned on BIA to be the sole source of funding in the past,” Desaultel said. “Now we’re looking at a more diverse set of funding options to help meet both our goals on and off reservation.”

About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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