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Tribal co-management of public lands gains traction

The Big Cypress National Preserve undergoes a series of prescribed fires each year. The objective of such burns include ecosystem maintenance, invasive species management and keeping a healthy habitat for plants and animals. (Photo Michael Gue/NPS)

The role of tribes in public land and waterway management received some rare Congressional focus March 8 when the House Committee on Natural Resources held an online hearing on the subject. The committee invited National Park Service head Charles “Chuck” Sams III (Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes) – the first Native American to lead the agency – to testify on the issue.

The idea is of interest to the Seminole Tribe and the Miccosukee Tribe, as a formalized co-management agreement would likely include Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve and could theoretically include Everglades National Park. The tribes are invested in the health of both – whether it is to monitor the intentions of oil companies or is due to the many environmental implications of Everglades restoration.

The details of how a formal co-management agreement would be implemented are still being discussed. The effort is an extension of the kind of coequal federal-tribal partnership the Department of Interior has sought under Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo).

At stake is the health of lands, waterways and sacred sites that are important to Florida’s Native population. The hope is that through such agreements the federal government will more formally implement Tribal Ecological Knowledge, or TEK, into its stewardship strategies. Tribes want TEK to be used in decision-making about species and habitats, for long-term climate change strategy and to collaborate with Indigenous peoples on other environmental topics of common interest.

Sams said there are currently four parks in the NPS system that have co-management authority with tribes, although formalized agreements are still in work or in early stages. The sites include Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska, the Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota and Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve.

Sams said the NPS wants to hear from tribes about other potential sites that should be added to the list. He said $38 million in annual funding agreements, or AFAs, were available for implementation of co-management agreements.

“This is long overdue,” said committee chair Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat who represents Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District. “Tribal co-management provides an opportunity to work with Indigenous perspectives that can improve management practices, protect the climate and protect federal lands.”

While some committee members used their testimony to propose increased oil drilling on tribal lands in order to, ostensibly, help ease a recent increase in energy prices, the idea of formal co-management appeared to have some bipartisan support.

“We can learn a lot from tribes by the way they manage their land, in contrast to how the federal government does it,” Bruce Westerman, the ranking Republican on the committee who represents Arkansas’ 4th District, said. “We need to be more aggressive with the Tribal Forest Protection Act with an unprecedented fire season coming up.”

The act authorizes the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture departments to consider tribal stewardship regarding U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management lands that borders or is adjacent to Native American trust lands. It is designed to protect Native resources from the threat of fire or disease coming off federal lands.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at