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Wildfires Hit Northwest Tribal Lands Particularly Hard


This wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest has hit tribal lands especially hard. And when it comes to fighting fires, the focus is mostly on saving property, which has left some tribal members wondering why protecting property, like farms and even second homes, comes before saving tribal forests. That's where Northwest Public Radio's Rowan Moore Gerety begins his story.

ROWAN MOORE GERETY, BYLINE: Several inches of ash blanket the ground where a wildfire recently passed through a north central Washington pine forest on the Colville Reservation. Most of the trees have scorched trunks and dull, brown needles, but some could still bounce back.

CODY DESAUTEL: With these buds in the end, see, they'll still look pretty viable.

GERETY: Cody Desautel is director of Natural Resources for the Colville tribe.

DESAUTEL: So next spring, potentially, these things could break bud and you'll have green needles come out of this.

GERETY: This summer, a pair of large wildfires burned through more than 20 percent of the tribe's commercial timber land. Other fires burned major tracts of forests on reservations throughout the Northwest. The fires have renewed calls by tribal officials to revisit firefighting priorities.


DALAN ROMERO: The single overriding suppression priority is the protection of human life.

GERETY: Dalan Romero is the Northwest liaison for the National Interagency Fire Center.


ROMERO: After that, we start looking at the protection of communities, infrastructure, property and any improvements that may be in place and then go on down to natural and cultural resources.

GERETY: That means second homes, barns and roads are all technically ahead of forest or natural landmarks. But Romero says the way firefighting decisions get made is actually more complicated. For instance, he says fire managers may see a wildfire start in the back country but...


ROMERO: They say this has the potential to come roaring out of the wilderness.

GERETY: And so they'll fight it anyway. On balance, these policies often make firefighting on tribal lands a lower priority than firefighting everywhere else. Intertribal Timber Council President Phil Rigdon points out that in recent years, homes and other developments have spread rapidly on private forest land throughout the Northwest. But on the Yakima reservation, Rigdon says...

PHIL RIGDON: We have chosen as a tribe not to develop and build homes and those things in our forests.

GERETY: The forest is a cornerstone of the tribe's culture and economy, supporting subsistence hunting and hundreds of logging jobs. This summer, Rigdon says he watched as hotshot crews and equipment were pulled off a fire on Yakima lands and sent to battle the Okanogan Complex farther north.

RIGDON: I don't want to disrespect or disregard the value of protecting homes and lives and those things 'cause that's an essential part, but tribes just can't pick up and take their land and move here or there.

JOE KALT: Down in Arizona, the White Mountain Apache tribe suffered a fire of almost 500,000 acres.

GERETY: That was in 2002. Joe Kalt studies tribal economies at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He says large fires on tribal lands can have a disproportionate impact.

KALT: And it decimated their forest, decimated their timber industry, and the tribe still hasn't fully recovered.

GERETY: On the Colville reservation, timber accounts for a third of the tribal budget. Natural resources director Cody Desautel says the forest there is managed on a long-term cycle. The idea is to have a mix of trees of all different ages so each harvest only makes a small dent. A big fire changes that dramatically.

DESAUTEL: This will set a third of the acreage, potentially, back to year zero.

GERETY: So those acres can't be logged on the usual schedule. One reason firefighters protect homes first is that most people's wealth and their sense of place is tied up in their houses. That's true of Native Americans, too. But in many tribes, most of the wealth is collective, and especially in the Northwest, their day-to-day livelihood is tied to the forests. For NPR News, I'm Rowan Moore Gerety in Yakima, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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