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Federal support for tribal forestry activities could widen under the direction of new legislation introduced this week by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). 

Murkowski introduced S.4730, or the Tribal Forest Protection Act Amendments Act of 2024, to the Senate on Monday. The bill would expand federal protections and support under the Tribal Forest Protection Act of 2004, or TFPA. 

Currently, the TFPA only allows tribes to enter into co-management agreements for federal forests bordering or adjacent to tribal jurisdictions. Additionally, the TFPA does not allow for Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) to enter into such agreements. If Murkowski’s legislation passes, the TFPA would be expanded to include lands held by ANCs, as well as culturally significant tribal lands. 

The current law was so narrowly written it excluded Alaska from fully participating and prevented Tribes across the country from being able to protect ancestral resources simply because they did not border tribal trust lands or resources, according to Murkowksi.  

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“These are inequities that Congress has a responsibility to correct,” Murkowski said in a statement. “Wildfires and other threats do not care about land classifications or geographic connections like borders. My bill provides straightforward, meaningful changes that will go a long way to improve this program to work better for all.”

The bill’s introduction drew praise from Sealaska Chairman Joe Nelson, who said the regional ANC was “grateful” for Murkowski’s approach. 

“There are literally thousands of years of wisdom in these amendments,” Nelson said in a statement. “Sealaska maintains title to a tiny fraction of our aboriginal territory, but our relationship with the entirety of the Tongass [National Forest] is ancient.”

‘These amendments are critical’

When the TFPA was enacted in 2004, it allowed federally recognized tribes to perform forest management activities on federal lands within their territory. These include thinning, burning, and restoration projects meant to protect forests amid oncoming climate change and other threats.

The bill was most recently amended in 2018’s Agriculture Improvement Act, allowing the Forest Service to enter into co-management agreements with tribes. These agreements stem from the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act section 638. That section allows tribes to take over administration of federal programs on tribal lands. 

These “638 agreements” — increasingly popular in other areas of the government — allow tribes greater sovereignty over their lands. Amending the TFPA further to include ANC and non-adjacent federal lands fulfills that same purpose, say Native Farm Bill Coalition (NFBC) representatives. 

In a joint statement, the NFBC called the existing federal limitations a “barrier undermining TFPA’s intent.” 

“TFPA as currently authorized limits the scope of the federal lands that Tribes can effectively manage in furtherance of protecting Tribal lands and communities,” write Cole Miller and Kari Jo Lawrence, NFBC co-chairs. “These amendments are critical to ensuring that Indian Country can more effectively work in partnership with USDA’s Forest Service to promote the health and well-being of federal and Indian forests and rangelands.”