More than 6.5 million acres of land managed by the Interior Department is within 50 miles of Tribal lands. Map generated by Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.
BY ERIN MCDUFF
Wildfires know no boundaries. They easily cross between federal, Tribal, state, and private lands, making coordination between wildland fire management agencies essential.
Nationwide, 56.2 million acres are administered as federal Indian reservations. The reservations were created in an era of policies that promoted the subjugation, relocation, and assimilation of American Indians and Alaska Natives, with devastating impacts for Tribes and Native people, the effects of which are still being felt today.
Of the 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes, about 90 currently manage their own wildland fire programs, with direct management services or funding provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as part of the government’s treaty obligations.
Increasingly severe wildfires have had significant impacts on Tribal lands over the past decade. In 2021 alone, nearly 400,000 acres of federal Indian reservation lands were burned by wildfires as of November 1, with additional acreage burned on state reservations and other Tribal lands.
“[It] has become ever so challenging as we transition from what used to be fire seasons to fire years,” said Cody Desautel, President of the Intertribal Timber Council. “There is no single entity across wildland fire management that will be able to successfully manage the landscape before, during, and after a wildfire without help.”
Lands managed by the Department of the Interior share 5,500 miles of border with American Indian and Alaska Native lands. Approximately 6.5 million acres of Interior lands are within 50 miles of Tribal lands. This proximity and interconnectedness necessitates close communication on wildland fire management in order to protect Tribal communities, economies, sacred landscapes, and traditional uses of natural resources.
As the primary intertribal organization that supports the common goals of the majority of Indian Tribes with significant forested landscapes, the Intertribal Timer Council plays a vital role in addressing the threat posed by wildfire. On September 14, the Intertribal Timber Council and Interior Department announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding to improve collaboration on wildland fire management.
“The Intertribal Timber Council is pleased to announce the establishment of a memorandum of understanding between the two organizations that will foster relationships and opportunities to engage in mutually beneficial actions mitigating wildland fire risk and founded in the Federal Trust Responsibility for Tribes,” said Desautel.
The agreement between Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire and the Intertribal Timber Council will improve coordination between Tribes and all four Interior Department bureaus that administer wildland fire management programs: the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agreement commits both organizations to collaboratively work toward reducing wildland fire risk and mitigating post-wildfire impacts, including by:
“The ITC would like to recognize Office of Wildland Fire Director Jeff Rupert, and his staff, for their work on this MOU” said Desautel, “and look forward to the continued effort to pursue and promote stewardship of our lands for the benefit of our communities.”
The Interior Department is committed to honoring and fulfilling its trust responsibilities to Tribal nations. This agreement represents yet another step toward strengthening nation-to-nation relationships and promoting climate resiliency across landscapes and communities while reducing wildfire risk on both Tribal and federal lands.
Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.