Recent years have seen a growing acknowledgment from local, state, and federal governments that Indigenous peoples actively and carefully stewarded their homelands prior to colonization. Indigenous peoples cultivated crops, utilized cultural fire, and maintained the environment so well that early settlers were astonished by the abundance they encountered. On the Klamath River, "salmon were so plentiful, according to the reports of the early settlers, that in fording the stream it was with difficulty that they could induce their horses to make the attempt, on account of the river being alive with the finny tribe” (R.D. Hume, Salmon of the Pacific Coast, 1893). Colonization, land dispossession, and genocide disrupted that Indigenous land management and resulted in a world that is fundamentally out of balance.
Enter tribal co-management. The idea seems simple at first glance. Non-tribal governments invite Tribal governments to enter into agreements to jointly manage the Tribe’s ancestral territory. The Tribe regains access and some control over its ancestral lands, and in return, the non-tribal government receives much-needed support managing the land. It’s certainly not land back, as many Indigenous people have been demanding, but if done correctly, it could be a step in that direction.
In September 2020, Governor Newsom issued a Statement of Administration Policy stating unequivocally that “it is the policy of this administration to…seek opportunities to support California tribes’ co-management of and access to natural lands that are within a California tribe’s ancestral land and under the ownership or control of the State of California.” A proposed law, Assembly Bill 1284, would enshrine that statement into California law for the California Natural Resources Agency. The Biden Administration is also pushing for these agreements on federal lands. In 2021, USDA and DOI signed Joint Secretarial Order 3403, committing to Tribal co-stewardship, including through written co-stewardship agreements with Tribal Nations.
All of this is very exciting, but it presupposes a fundamental question. What exactly does co-management mean?
The federal government surveyed tribal leaders nationwide on this topic and learned that, to them, tribal co-management means tribal governments obtaining equal decision-making authority with the federal government and a focus on long-term planning, not project-by project-consultation.
The California Fish & Game Commission defines co-management as “a collaborative effort established through an agreement in which two or more sovereigns mutually negotiate, define, and allocate amongst themselves the sharing of management functions and responsibilities for a given territory, area or set of natural resources.”
In response to years of protest in Jackson Demonstration State Forest (JDSF), the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has extended opportunities to local Tribes to co-manage discrete projects, including a 75-acre portion of a 500-acre timber harvest plan, a prescribed fire project to stimulate acorn production, and renaming a trail to a culturally relevant name. They have also created a Tribal Advisory Council that has advised, but falls short on co-directing, CAL FIRE on JDSF management decisions.
Internationally, governments have tried other models. In Canada and Australia, for example, national parks and wildlife areas are being governed by boards with members appointed both by the non-indigenous and Indigenous governments. Many of these agreements stem from the United Nations’ call to achieve free, prior, and informed consent before conducting any activities on Indigenous land. For many, this requirement, found within the United Nations Declaration On The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples, is the gold standard for working with Indigenous people to morally operate on their lands. While the U.S. has supported the declaration, it has yet to create any legally binding mechanisms that enforce these consent requirements.
One thing is clear. The term “co-management” means different things to different people. In EPIC’s view, for co-management to succeed, non-native governments must be willing to share power and not simply responsibility. In order for non-native governments to achieve free, prior, and informed consent, Indigenous nations must be able to say “no” to proposed actions and then be listened to. Anything less is not truly co-management, but more of the consultation that has been the operating paradigm for decades.