ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. government is entering a new era of collaboration with Native American and Alaska Native leaders in managing public lands and other resources, with top federal officials saying that incorporating more Indigenous knowledge into decision-making can help spur conservation and combat climate change.
Federal emergency managers on Thursday also announced updates to recovery policies to aid tribal communities in the repair or rebuilding of traditional homes or ceremonial buildings after a series of wildfires, floods and other disasters around the country.
With hundreds of tribal leaders gathering in Washington this week for an annual summit, the Biden administration is celebrating nearly 200 new agreements that are designed to boost federal cooperation with tribes nationwide.
The agreements cover everything from fishery restoration projects in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to management of new national monuments in the Southwestern U.S., seed collection work in Montana and plant restoration in the Great Smoky Mountains.
“The United States manages hundreds of millions of acres of what we call federal public lands. Why wouldn’t we want added capacity, added expertise, millennia of knowledge and understanding of how to manage those lands?” U.S. Interior Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland said during a panel discussion.
The new co-management and co-stewardship agreements announced this week mark a tenfold increase over what had been inked just a year earlier, and officials said more are in the pipeline.
Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community in northern Michigan, said each agreement is unique. He said each arrangement is tailored to a tribe’s needs and capacity for helping to manage public lands — and at the very least assures their presence at the table when decisions are made.
The federal government is not looking to dictate to tribal leaders what a partnership should look like, he said.
The U.S. government controls more than a quarter of the land in the United States, with much of that encompassing the ancestral homelands of federally recognized tribes. While the idea of co-stewardship dates back decades and has spanned multiple presidential administrations, many tribes have advocated in recent years for a more formal role in managing federal lands to which they have a connection.
Tribes and advocacy groups have been pushing for arrangements that go beyond the consultation requirements mandated by federal law.
Researchers at the University of Washington and legal experts with the Native American Rights Fund have put together a new clearinghouse on the topic. They point out that public lands now central to the country’s national heritage originated from the dispossession and displacement of Indigenous people and that co-management could present on opportunity for the U.S. to reckon with that complicated legacy.