Prioritizing Tribal values, collaboration and reconciliation are how we will heal the land and its people 

Prioritizing Tribal values, collaboration and reconciliation are how we will heal the land and its people 

Conservation Northwest / Apr 04, 2024 / Forest Field Program

Jen Syrowitz, Sr. Manager Conservation Programs 

American wilderness sits there with its soul hollowed out, emptied of the peoples who help animate the land. – Priscilla Solis Ybarra 

The colonial effects of Indigenous genocide are being felt around the world, made most evident in the degradation of our lands and waters. When we broke their (and our) relationship with the land, degradation started flowing through the web of life’s interconnected parts. The work of Conservation Northwest is helping to repair these degraded and disconnected natural places, and that includes repairing human relationships to the land. Our Forest Field team plays a significant role in this work due to the vast geography we cover (over 7 million acres of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land in Washington), and the number of Tribal communities that are part of these lands and waters and have been since time immemorial. We offer natural resource expertise and work as bridge builders – we listen to the needs and then bring together the resources and skills required to meet those needs.

These days, our ears are attuned to Tribal needs and values, not only because it is our job, but also because we have a personal and ethical interest in working with our Tribal partners and practicing conservation through reconciliation action. The tide of change is slow. It can be challenging to reconcile USFS history, culture, and Congressional authority with the goals of building partnerships, collaborative projects, and advancing co-management agreements with Tribes. It turns out, even with formal government-to-government consultation, Tribes experience many of the same challenges and partnership-building obstacles as we do when trying to work with the USFS: bureaucratic structures, competing USFS missions (see the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960), differences in perspectives and expectations, lack of partnership resources or emphasis, and personnel turnover.1  

In November 2021, the White House released a fact sheet: Building A New Era of Nation-to-Nation Engagement, followed by a series of Memorandums and Secretarial Orders related to fulfilling federal trust responsibilities to Tribes in the stewardship of federal lands and waters. The USFS has since released a new Tribal Action Plan: Strengthening Tribal Consultations and Nation-to-Nation Relationships, and there is now an annual USDA report on Tribal Co-Stewardship and how trust responsibilities to Tribes are being implemented.  

The actions within the new Tribal Action Plan are meant to help the USFS fulfill its federal trust responsibilities and focuses on “…co-stewardship, respectful application of Indigenous Knowledge, and protection of sacred sites” while honoring treaty obligations and supporting Tribal self-determination. The USFS Chief writes, “[i]t’s an opportunity to better understand, through an Indigenous lens, their perspective on what has happened and is still happening.[2] This level of understanding cannot be gained by merely participating in formal government-to-government consultation meetings but can only be reached through a deeper level of engagement.”  

Rightly so, many actions within the plan are dedicated to improving agency cultural intelligence and practice. The rest of the plan is oriented toward enhancing Tribal and stakeholder collaboration, supporting co-stewardship, expanding communications, updating policies and processes, advancing the protection of treaty rights, expanding the application of Indigenous Knowledge, improving the protection of and access to sacred sites for subsistence and traditional uses, advancing Tribal stewardship of natural and cultural resources, and engaging Tribal youth.  

Just last week, we organized a Biocultural Resource Management special session at the Washington Chapter Wildlife Society conference, where we learned about inspiring partner work to restore language, culture, and environment. We also heard from the USFS Region 6 Acting Tribal Relations Specialist about the need for improved understanding of place-based knowledge and practice – “We have always been here, we are still here, and we will always be here,” was a common keynote shared by our Indigenous friends. Today, there is a wide, agency-supported aperture of opportunity for our Forest Field team to elevate outreach regarding ecocultural land stewardship, and to practice diplomacy, trust building, and co-stewardship with Tribal communities, better informing our connectivity and restoration work on public lands.  

In 2023, Tribal co-stewardship investments in the Pacific Northwest totaled $9,313,587. These investments are commonly used for watershed and habitat improvements, restoration, invasive species management, fuel reduction, and infrastructure and Tribal nursery projects. Engaging Tribal youth is a core component of the Tribal Action Plan, and we are investigating the replication or expansion of Tribal Forestry Ecological Training Programs here in Washington state.  

We are engaged at state and national levels to dramatically increase the use of beneficial fire, including cultural burning. Importantly, there is much work to be done to elevate Indigenous Knowledge as the best available science alongside Western scientific methods. In the meantime, traditional plant management and ethnobotany, cultural interpretation, and traditional methodologies and techniques are being incorporated into USFS planning and stewardship efforts. We will continue to call for including Indigenous ways of knowing in project planning and implementation while the USFS Indigenous Knowledge Implementation Plan is being developed.  

Conservation Northwest’s Forest Field team staff are helping to plan and execute some of these unprecedented co-stewardship investments. We were recently awarded an $813,000 grant that will complement a USFS and Muckleshoot Indian Tribe (MIT) Tribal Forest Protection Act agreement to restore treaty resources and culturally important areas in the foothills of Mt. Rainier. We’ve also been invited to help plan and implement an adjacent MIT-requested forest restoration project. In both projects, vegetation treatments (thinning and prescribed fire) will increase understory forage production and reconnect fragmented habitat for elk, increase huckleberry foraging opportunities, and road and culvert improvements will benefit riparian habitat conditions and passage for fish, including at-risk salmon species.  

In Northeast Washington, we are supporting the expansion of Tribal nurseries (Colville, Spokane, and Kalispel) to build a foundation for culturally appropriate and sustainable native plant restoration on and off reservation lands. Our work also facilitates conversations with local tribes at the Inland Northwest Cultural Burning Network. This group works to build familiarity and knowledge around cultural burning practices and bridge the gap between institutional and communal burning. By reconnecting communities with landscapes, we can improve the management of our natural resources in a way that promotes equitability and health in the face of climate change. These project examples build more than ecosystem resilience; they forge human relationships that enable durable conservation action and outcomes.    

The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest recently hired its first dedicated Tribal Relations Specialist, and the Forest Field team is getting to know our Heritage Program Specialists and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers across the forests in which we work. They are excited to have an external partner talking about the Tribal Action Plan, our desire and efforts to partner on Tribal priority actions and elevate Indigenous Knowledge, break down barriers that will enable this work, and our willingness to push the agency to do better because tribal relations is everyone’s responsibility. Every day, the Forest Field team holds the USFS accountable for its watershed planning processes, decision-making, implementation, and monitoring activities. We will do the same regarding the implementation of the Tribal Action Plan, and doing so will improve our own cultural intelligence and practice with Indigenous partners, the first stewards of the lands and waters we share. We must continue to ask: is our work helping to heal Indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land? And the answer must be yes. Only then will we truly start to repair our relationship with the land and its people. 


Jen Syrowitz, Conservation Northwest Senior Manager of Conservation Programs


Alisha Orloff, Conservation Northwest Colville Forest Coordinator, contributed to this article. 


1: Michael Dockry, Sophia Gutterman, Mae Davenport (2018): Building Bridges: Perspectives on partnership and collaboration from the US Forest Service Tribal Relations Program, Journal of Forestry 116(2):123-132 

2: Kirsten Vinyeta (2021): Under the guise of science: how the US Forest Service deployed settler colonial and racist logics to advance an unsubstantiated fire suppression agenda, Environmental Sociology, DOI: 10.1080/23251042.2021.1987608 


From left to right: Jen Syrowitz, Craig Hill, DR Michel, LJ Stensgar, Doreen Ethelbah-Gatewood, Ralph Allan, Alishia Orloff. Photo taken at the Biocultural Resource Management special session at the Washington Chapter Wildlife Society conference.