Indian Iron Curtain (Or the Emperor Has No Clothes)

How many people know that in the state of Washington, more wolves are killed by Native people than any other group? You probably haven’t heard about this, even from wolf advocacy groups.

How many conservationists know that Native people are among the staunchest advocates for oil development on Alaska’s North Slope, including in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and Naval Petroleum Reserve?

Did you know the third largest coal producer in the United States is the Navajo Tribe?

These and many other environmentally harmful behaviors, positions, and attitudes are found among Native people.

I am not anti Indian, but I am pro Nature. Like the Lorax I try to speak for the trees (bison, bees, butterflies, wolves, salmon and the rest of the natural world).

What I call an Indian Iron Curtain exists among the media and conservation organizations. Like the old Soviet Union Iron Curtain, which attempted to promote Communism and censored anything contradicting the notion that Communism was anything but a perfect social and political system. The Indian Iron Curtain exists to promote tribal people as somehow exemplary conservationists.

At the same time, any information that might temper that conclusion is ignored or suppressed. Of course, just as in the larger society, there are diverse opinions among tribal groups. They are no more monothetic than American society as a whole.

Like the fable about the emperor who wore no clothes, people are afraid, especially with the advent of the social justice movement, to suggest that tribal people are like other humans and are capable of good and bad conservation positions.

Anyone who questions the dominant paradigm that tribal people are somehow “naturally” environmenalists (which is a racist assertion in its own right)  is immediately branded as a racist, a colonialist, an imperialist, or, in some cases, a White male, which means you have no credibility since you are the ultimate beneficiary of “white privilege.”

Yet there is plenty of evidence—evidence that is too often ignored or overlooked–that tribal entities are perfectly capable of environmentally destructive policies.

The irony for me, as someone who grew up during the late stages of the Civil Rights movement, where the goal was to create a “color blind” society, the present trend towards identity politics appears to be a complete reversal of that goal. I embraced Martin Luther King’s hope that “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The current social justice movement  is biased towards human justice at the expense of justice for nature.  This includes a tendency to put tribal actions and behaviors off limits to criticism because of past and present injustices. For wild nature, the consequences of anthropocentric thinking can be significant. Biologist David Ehrenfeld described the problem in his book The Arrogance of Humanism.

The media and most conservation groups are unwilling to describe Indigenous people’s environmentally destructive policies and activities accurately, even if those destructive policies and activities are identical to those done by federal, state, or local governments, corporations, or individuals, which are accurately described. As a result, the public is inclined to believe that tribal management or even tribal control of public resources, including public lands, will result in more environmentally friendly outcomes.

Thus, if led to believe that Indigenous people always treat the land as “sacred” and with environmental protection, the public may support proposals like co-management of public lands or even “Land Back” efforts.

One of the pervasive myths is the observation that Native people around the globe appear to live in “harmony” with the land.

However, the notion of living in “harmony” is much more a consequence of low population and limited technology than due to any significant environmental ethic. Yes, in some instances, cultural constraints reduced tribal impacts. Similar cultural and religious myths prevail among all people in history who had limited technology and low populations, including the European, Asian, and African ancestors of today’s American citizens.

Clearcut on Quinault Indian Reservation, Washington. Armed with modern chainsaws, logging trucks, and other technology tribal people are equally able to dismantle ecosytems for profit. 

All humans were and are capable of overexploitation and degradation of landscape, even Native Americans. A tribal government or a Native corporation were and are capable of the exploitation and degradation of people.  Native American tribes enslaved other Native American tribe members, and some also enslaved African Americans.

Even with prehistoric or stone age technology, tribal people have been implicated in the demise of many species, from Pleistocene mammals to birds on Pacific Islands, lemurs on Madagascar to the permanent deforestation of Easter Island, to the regional extirpation of bison after human colonialization.

In all instances, the degree to which people contributed to species’ decline is debated. Still, few would argue with the conclusion that even technologically limited humans can negatively affect wildlife populations. The large mammal Pleistocene extinctions in North America are an example.

I fully acknowledge that tribal people have suffered great injustices over the centuries that still need to be addressed, but that does not mean conservationists should remain silent now if tribal policies or actions jeopardize the protection of Nature and wildlands. Silence is the same as culpability.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

The old truism “follow the money” applies equally to Native people as any other humans. As one cynic suggests, we hear about sacred “Mother Earth” until “Father Cash” comes around.

I must state that I am not judging these tribal decisions to exploit wild nature. I cannot say with any assurances that if presented with the opportunity to reap a fortune from oil and natural gas drilling, logging old-growth timber or mining a significant gold or copper deposit I would reject the financial prospects. Nevertheless, I would expect conservation organizations to criticize my choices.

Tribal governments are sovereign governments, though ultimately they must follow federal mandates just as states are subservient to the US goverment.  The question of state and federal authority is continuously debated.  A tribal government is free to go for the gold, (or its political subdivisions of counties). The same goes for any Native American or non-Native American. However, please don’t cloak avarice in a nobility that we-were-here-first.

THERE IS NO SOCIAL JUSTICE ON A DEAD PLANET–ENVIRONMENTALLY DESTRUCTIVE ACTIONS BY ANYONE SHOULD BE CHALLENGED

FOSSIL FUEL DEVELOPMENT

Across the North Slope of Alaska, tribal groups have supported and benefited from oil development. For instance, the North Slope Borough has repeatedly aligned itself with the oil industry to encourage more oil drilling across Alaska. The North Slope Borough includes eight communities across the northernmost part of the United States. About 95 percent of the borough’s annual $410 million budget comes from local oil and gas operations taxes.

Oil development on the coastal plain of Alaska has largely been supported by the Native people living there, a fact that conservation groups are loath to inform their membership. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Indigenous people, the Inupiat Eskimos, who live on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain where oil development was proposed, generally favor oil drilling. Why? Because they own the subsurface rights and receive royalties from oil development. Across the North Slope of Alaska, Native people have earned hundreds of millions of dollars from oil money.

In numerous articles and conservation videos, Indigenous people are presented as opposing oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge. But it is seldom mentioned that the Inuit people lobbied in Washington DC for decades to open up the coastal plain to oil drilling.

Along the Canning River, Arctic Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Native people living on the coastal plain have supported drilling in the refuge. Photo George Wuerhner 

Arctic Slope Regional Corporation President and CEO Rex Rock, Inupiaq,  wrote an opinion piece for The Hill which supports  drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

He said anti-development advocates who would turn “my homeland into one giant national park, off-limits to all but a select few, guarantee our people a fate with no economy, no jobs, and little hope for the future.”

This Native opposition is certainly not the picture presented by conservation groups who regularly trot out a few natives opposed to drilling as if they represent the prevailing view of all Alaskan Natives.

The recent Biden Administration decision to promote the Willow Oil Project within the Naval Petroleum Reserve is supported by the North Slope Borough and several individual Native villages. As noted above, Native people receive royalties from oil development and potential employment. Yes, there is some Native opposition to such energy development. Still, it is vastly outnumbered by Native people who support oil exploitation, but the media and nearly all conservation groups neglect to mention this.

North Slope Borough residents argue for oil development. “I am here to continue the legacy of past leaders to fight for what is rightfully ours—these are our homelands,” Lampe said, “We fought to have the coastal plain open for oil and gas leasing many times in the past, and we continue that fight today.”

Again, from the same article, those opposed to oil drilling are called “colonialists”conservationists

“Since all these federal actions, we have been subjected to eco-colonialism – we are treated as colonists on our own lands and are subject to federal approvals for almost everything we need,” Lampe said. “Our experience is that living inside the Refuge is one of paternalistic behavior by the federal agencies.”

We get a potential answer when we learn when Doyon Native Corporation (which the Gwitch In are members of) decided to lease its own lands in the Yukon Basin. Apparently, oil development in that region will not impact caribou, or the potential money from oil development will make it less of a problem.

Doyon Native Corporation, which represents Athabascan Native people living in the Yukon Basin, does not own the subsurface rights on the North Slope but has several oil field-related businesses. Hence, they, too, support North Slope oil development. And as previously mentioned, Doyon recently leased some of its Native lands in the Yukon Basin for oil development.

BADGER TWO MEDICINE

The last oil lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Helena- Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana was recently canceled. In numerous newspaper stories and among conservation groups, this was celebrated with many references to the Badger-Two Medicine as “sacred” land to the Blackfeet Indians, whose reservation borders the area. However, it is essential to note that the tribe does not own the national forest lands. Why that is important is critical to consider.

Badger Two Medicine Area on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

What is never mentioned is that for decades, conservationists have tried to protect the Badger-Two Medicine as federal wilderness, which, given the strict limits on any development, would seemingly protect the “sacred” status of the area from any exploitation. Most recently, after the tribe agreed to a watered-down agreement to protect the Badger-Two Medicine by federal legislation introduced by Senator John Tester, the tribal representatives arrived in Washington to testify against the proposal, much to the chagrin of Senator Tester.

No environmental organizations reported on this reversal in tribal support for protecting the “sacred” Badger-Two Medicine.

Oil drill rig on the Blackfeet Reservation, Montana. Photo Tony Bynum

The Blackfeet have continuously opposed wilderness designation for the Badger Two Medicine. Meanwhile, the Blackfeet have promoted oil development on their reservation and the lands they control are leased for oil development. If the Blackfeet considered land “sacred,” wouldn’t they at least place some of the reservation off-limits to oil development.

However, at least some tribal members are not opposed to oil development per se, but rather who gets the financial benefit. Half of onshore oil and gas revenues from federal public lands goes to the federal treasury, while the other have is shared with the states where development occurred). Tribal members are willing to admit that while they oppose oil development on the national forest, some hope to get the Badger-Two Medicine transferred to tribal control so THEY can lease it for oil development.

INDIAN RESERVATIONS WITH OIL AND GAS WELLS

At least twelve Indian reservations possess on-going oil and gas operations. This includes the Standing Rock Sioux, who opposed the Dakota Pipeline based on the idea it might leak and pollute groundwater. However, the pipeline would carry oil from a number of other Indian reservations where oil and gas is exploited. Few in the conservation organizations and media that supported the Standing Rock Sioux pipeline opposition bothered to mention the Standing Rock Reservation is dotted with oil wells and pipelines that apparently do not leak and pollute the water.

The  Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara in North Dakota opposed the Dakota Pipeline but just bought the Plaza/Wabek Pipeline to connect to the Enbridge Pipeline to get reservation oil to refineries.

The acquisition by the MHA Nation’s Thunder Butte Petroleum Inc. subsidiary will help it deliver oil from wells on its reservation to new markets. The 31-mile pipeline, which is not currently in use, can transport up to 15,000 barrels per day. The reservation has more than 2,600 active oil and gas wells that produced an average of 144,190 barrels of oil per day in February, according to an Associated Press report citing the state’s Department of Mineral Resources.

It’s important to note that the Mandan tribe, among others, opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline because It was “cultural genocide”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dakota_Access_Pipeline_protests

As with other issues, some tribes claim sovereignty exempts them from environmental regulation. For instance, the motto of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation—which makes up the Three Affiliated Tribes—is “sovereignty by the barrel.”

Oil rig on the Uintah Ouray Indian Reservation, Utah. Photo George Wuerthner

Altogether, there are at least a dozen tribes who own oil and gas fields on their reservations—

Blackfeet Reservation, Blackfeet Nation – Montana

Cheyenne River Reservation, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe – South Dakota

Fort Belknap Reservation, Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes – Montana

Fort Berthold Reservation, (A, B, C) Three Affiliated Tribes – North Dakota

Fort Peck Reservation, (A, B, C)  Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes – Montana

Jicarilla Apache Reservation, (A, B, C, D)  Jicarilla Apache Tribe – New Mexico

Pueblo Indian Reservations, (A, B, C) Various Pueblo Tribes in New Mexico – New Mexico

Rocky Boys Reservation, Chippewa Cree Tribe – Montana

Southern Ute Reservation, (A, B, C, D) Southern Ute Tribe – Colorado

Uintah and Ouray Reservations, (A, B, C) Ute Tribe – Utah

Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, (A, B, C) Ute Mountain Ute Tribe – Colorado

Wind River Reservation, (A, B, C) Shoshone and Arapaho Tribes – Wyoming

Other tribes, including the Osage, Navajo, and Comanche, are also involved in oil and gas production.

Oil rig on the Navajo Reservation, Arizona. Photo George Wuerthner 

Some of these tribes sought an exemption from a Biden administration-proposed ban on new oil and gas leases on federal lands.

CHACO CANYON

Recent efforts to expand a ban on oil leasing near Chaco Canyon National Park in New Mexico were opposed by the Navajo tribe, who claimed such a ban would harm their economic interests.

UTAH OIL RAILWAY

Oil development on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation Utah Photo George Wuerthner 

The Utes, who live on the Uintah Ouray Reservation in Utah and have significant oil fields, have supported the construction of a new railroad to move oil from southern Utah to refineries. The Utes have a 5% stake in the railway partnership. The Ute tribe also opposed the creation of the new Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument as “cultural genocide”.

NAVAJO COAL

The Navajo Nation is the sole shareholder of NTEC, which owns three coal mines in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming and another near Farmington, New Mexico — making it the third-largest coal company in the nation. It also owns a share of the coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington.

Revenue from NTEC makes up about one-third of the Navajo Nation’s roughly $160 million general fund, which doesn’t account for federal funding of the tribe.

Most Americans are unaware that the Navajo Tribe is the third-largest coal company in the country. As such, they oppose efforts to reduce coal burning, a major factor in climate warming. Recently, the tribe purchased the Spring Creek Strip mine in Montana. When Montana officials demanded that the tribe pay a reclamation bond, the tribe refused, claiming “tribal sovereignty.” It also said it did not have to follow Montana environmental regulations.

What was particularly ironic is that the Northern Plains Resource Council, a major environmental watchdog of Montana strip mining, and the Sierra Club, which has launched a “Beyond Coal Campaign,” never mentioned anything about the tribe’s objection to environmental regulation.

One cannot believe if the Peabody Coal Company refused to follow environmental regulations, there would be silence from these and other environmental groups.

Navajo Coal Plant in Page, Arizona. Photo George Wuerthner 

The tribe attempted to buy the Navajo Coal Plant in Page, Arizona, which is one of the largest polluters of the regional air quality, so it can continue to sell coal from its reservation mines to generate electricity.

OTHER TRIBAL COAL

The Navajo tribe is not the only Indigenous group supporting coal mining. The Hopi tribe also mines coal on its lands. But to demonstrate how environmental groups rationalize and legitimize Native-owned coal enterprises, the Grand Canyon Trust has a piece on its website proclaiming “Coal—A Hopi Tradition”.

The Crow Tribe, which also has strip mines on its reservation, has opposed Biden’s Climate proposals and repeatedly argued against any limitations on coal burning. The Crow have also supported a coal export facility in Washington.

MINING

The media and many conservation groups repeatedly report when tribes oppose a mining operation or proposal but fail to note when they hold a positive perspective on mining.

Unbeknownst to most conservationists, most high-value mineral deposits are owned by Native people or the state of Alaska due to the selection under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Thus, in Alaska, much of the support for mining operations comes from Native corporations (the equivalence of tribes elsewhere in the US) and their representatives.

AMBLER COPPER MINE

The Ambler copper deposits in Alaska’s western Brooks Range is owned by the Native people of Northwest Alaska, including NANA Regional Corporation (NANA), the Alaska Native Corporation established whose shareholders are the Inupiat of Northwest Alaska. The North Slope Borough, which does not own the mineral deposits, also supports the mining proposal. A number of the villages that lie along the proposed road right of way also support the development of the mineral deposit and road construction.

Even the Native people suggests that when they support the Ambler Road  it is often irgnored. As reported in the  Alaska Native News: “The BLM cites Alaska Native subsistence as a reason for its recommendation to not build the Ambler Road, but the Biden Administration is clearly not listening to Alaskans, much less the Alaska Native people closest to the proposed route,” said Governor Dunleavy. The Allakaket Village Council, the Ruby Tribal Council, and the Hughes Village Tribe are federally-recognized Tribes. But when they speak in support of the Ambler Road, to the Biden Administration they become federally-ignored.”

Narvik Lake in the Gates of the Arctic NP Alaska near the headwaters of the Kobuk and just south of the proposed Amber Road. Photo George Wuerthner 

Development depends on creating a 211-mile-long road that would run from the Alaskan Pipeline Haul Road to the mining region. If built, the copper ore would be trucked to Valdez and shipped to China for processing. The proposed mine would have numerous environmental impacts, including disruption of caribou migration, pollution of rivers, and, ultimately, the creation of an expanded road network in this part of Alaska.

Vincent Simon of Allakaket Village, one of the communities along the proposed road, wrote in an Alaska Daily News editorial: “The voices opposing the Ambler Access Project have overlooked the growing support for the project among tribal communities. Most of these voices are not from the region. Eleven villages closest to the project have voiced their support for the permitting process to proceed. In February of this year, the villages of Huslia and Allakaket unanimously voted to withdraw from litigation against the project, leaving only two communities in the lawsuit.”

Simon suggests that the Native-owned Red Dog Zinc Mine in NW Alaska is an example of “responsible development,” never mentioning that the Red Dog Mine is the largest single source of pollution in Alaska.

Simon ends his letter by reminding everyone: “The authorities must listen to the voices who have lived on these lands and stewarded Alaska for time immemorial.”

“In Conservation Biology, Chris Frissell and Steve Trumbulak report: “Roads of all kinds have seven general effects: mortality from road construction, mortality from collision with vehicles, modification of animal behavior, alteration of the physical environment, alteration of the chemical environment, spread of exotics, and increased use of areas by humans.”

LAKE CLARK NATIONAL PARK PROPOSED GOLD MINE

Lake Clark in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

Lake Clark National Park sits across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, Alaska. As with the copper deposits in the Ambler Mining District, there are gold deposits within Lake Clark National Park owned by the Cook Inlet Regional Native Corporation. The Native corporation and a mining company are actively prospecting the site for potential development, which would also require the construction of a new road across the national park. I found no mention of the proposed mine or the problems with a new road through a national park on the Wilderness Society or Sierra Club websites.

TOK ALASKA GOLD MINE

Another new gold mine near the villages of Tok and Tetlin near the Yukon border in eastern Alaska is supported by the local Native group, which, as in other proposed mining operations, owns the mineral rights. The local villagers hope the mine will offer employment opportunities, and even without employment, they will receive royalties from mining operations.

THATCHER PASS LITHIUM MINE, IN NEVADA

A proposed lithium mine at Thatcher Pass, Nevada, near the Oregon border is almost universally opposed by conservation groups and Shoshone tribal members who say the mine will create significant ecological and cultural damage.

What is almost never mentioned is that while tribal groups who live in Reno or other communities far from the proposed mine are opposed to development and will garner no financial benefit from the mine, the local Fort McDerrmitt Tribe, the Paiute-Shoshone closest to the mine site, has signed an agreement to support the mine. Follow the money.

NAVAJO LITHIUM MINE

The Navajo Nation is also supporting an Arizona lithium mine. The Big Sandy Lithium Project, slated to kick off in 2023, is between Phoenix and Las Vegas and consists of 331 Bureau of Land Management claims on roughly 9.6 square miles of land….

While numerous conservation groups have opposed the Thatcher Pass Lithium Mine, I am unaware of any opposition from conservation groups to the Big Sandy Mine. However, Earth Justice is representing the Hualapai Tribe in opposing the mine The only difference I can see is that the Big Sandy proposed mine involves the Navajo tribe.

LOGGING

Many tribal reservations with significant forest cover engage in logging. And the rhetoric one hears from tribal forestry divisions about logging the forest to make it “healthy” or to reduce “catastrophic” wildfires is not significantly different than what one hears from the timber industry. These claims for logging are not supported by science and history.

An article in Tribal Business News suggests: “Tribal holistic management proactively addresses forest health issues through silviculture treatments like thinning and harvest, and post-wildfire restoration through salvage operations and replanting. Tribes are also well positioned to help sustainably manage adjacent forestlands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other forestland owners….”

There is even legislation that would allow tribes to share in timber revenues from federal timber sales, an incentive that is designed to garner tribal support for more logging.

TONGASS TRIBAL LOGGING

Old growth forest on the Tongass NF, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

There are numerous examples of tribal entities clearcutting their lands. For instance, when SeaAlaska Native corporation was awarded lands from the Tongass National Forest as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, most of these lands were clearcut by 2010. And unlike the Forest Service, which must adhere to minimum environmental protection regulations like buffers and setbacks along salmon spawning streams to protect fisheries, tribal entities are exempt from such rules.

Clearcuts on the Tongass NF, Alaska.

There is currently new legislation to transfer 115,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to five tribal corporations (In Alaska, courts have ruled that Native corporations are “tribes”).

TRIBAL LOGGING IN THE COLUMBIA GORGE SCENIC AREA

For instance, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs logged land it controlled in the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area. The tribe is exempt from the National Scenic Area Act provisions that protect the scenic, wildlife, and other values of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area that are on public or private land.

Clearcuts on the Warm Springs Reservaiton, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner

In 2016, the Warm Springs Tribe in Oregon promoted a biomass-burning operation.  Biomass burning has numerous problems, including air pollution, most are subsidized and utilize public forests as fuels, and ultimately promote more logging.

TRIBAL OPPOSITION TO ELLIOT STATE FOREST PROTECTION

Recently, efforts to protect the Elliott State Forest in Oregon’s Coast Range were stymied by opposition from the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians (CTCLUSI), who demanded more logging of the area. The tribes have expressed “significant concerns regarding the limitations and constraints placed on the management of the overall forest and the acreage dedicated to reserves in the research design.”

An insider to the Elliott process confirmed that the Tribes have been expressing their opposition to limits on logging in the Elliott reserves for roughly a year.

Even though conservation groups have been working for years to protect the remaining old growth of the Elliott State Forest, I am unaware of any of these groups  who has publicly expressed any disappointment or criticism of the tribal position for more  logging.

LOSS OF 32,000 ACRES OF PUBLIC LANDS IN WESTERN OREGON

Legislation that transferred 32,261 acres of federal public land in Oregon’s Coos and Douglas Counties, formerly administered by the Bureau of Land Management, has been signed into law by President Donald Trump. H.R.1306 was proudly sponsored by Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-4th-OR) and Greg Walden (R-2nd-OR), and the identical S.508 was sponsored by Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

The new owners are expected to log intensively and road their new holdings.

According to an analysis by Oregon Wild these lands contained the following attributes:

16,000 acres were either riparian or late-successional conservation reserves;

11,100 acres are (but not for long) older (mature and old-growth) forests, some stands of which are 420 years old;

Much of the area is critical habitat for the Endangered Species Act–protected Oregon coho salmon and northern spotted owl; and much is habitat for winter steelhead, fall chinook salmon, and coho salmon.

No conservation groups objected to this loss of critical wildlife and old growth habitat.

BLACKFEET RESERVATION CLEARCUTS

Clearcuts on the Blackfeet Reservation along the border of Glacier National Park, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

One of the ways you can tell when you leave the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana and enter Glacier National Park is by the line of clearcuts that marks the boundary of the park and reservation.

QUINAULT TRIBAL CLEARCUTS

Logging on Quinault Reservation, Washington.

One can distinctly see the border of Olympic National Park and the Quinault Indian Reservation from space due to the numerous clearcuts on tribal lands.

PENOBSCOT TRIBE TO LOG LANDS ADJACENT TO KATAHDIN WOOD AND WATERS NATIONAL MONUMENT

In Maine, the Trust for Public Lands recently acquired 33,000 acres of land on the border of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. During their initial efforts to purchase the land, the Trust promised to sell the land to the National Park Service to expand the national monument significantly. However, in 2023, the “Trust for Public Land” [emphasis added] decided to give the land the 33,000 acres to the Penobscot Tribe. Tribal representatives say the additional lands will expand its “sustainable timber industry”. The tribe will also have the authority to issue hunting and camping licenses for the area.

The  Penobscot Tribe says it will practice “sustainable forestry” on its newly acquired lands next to the Katahdin Woods and Waters NM, Maine. Photo George Wuerthner 

I am not opposed to tribes acquiring private land. However, when an organization explicitly promotes the acquisition of public lands and doesn’t make it public, the public interest is harmed. Worse yet, the land transfer to the tribe will enable logging on the border of a national park unit. I believe this is not in the interest of Wild Nature.

WILDLIFE ISSUES

OPPOSITION TO NORTH CASCADES GRIZZLY RESTORATION

Grizzly bear. Photo George Wuerthner

The Sauk Suiattle Tribe opposes the reintroduction of grizzlies into the North Cascades. They see bears as an obstacle to their “treaty rights” in that it will make it more dangerous to gather berries, fishing, and hunting. Arguably, the grizzly bears were on the land before the Sauk Suiattle Tribe.

IZEMBECK REFUGE, ALASKA, TRIBAL ADVOCACY FOR ROAD  AND THE REVERSAL OF WILDERNESS DESIGNATION

Native fishermen in King Cove, Alaska, are trying to remove the official wilderness in the Izembek Wilderness to build a road to ship fish out of a large airport. Thus far President Biden’s  Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland—as did her predecessor President Trump’s Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke—has supported land trade and road construction in order to build a road to an airport. Notably, Zinke’s predecessor President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said no to the gutting of a wilderness area in a national wildlife refuge.

The refuge is a major stopping ground for waterfowl migrations and is home to caribou, grizzly and other wildlife.

It’s important to recognize if  Secretary of Interior Haaland can negate Congressionally designated wilderness today, a future Sec of Interior do so as well. This is a major threat to designated wilderness across Alaska and perhaps elsewhere.

SUPPORT FOR WOLF AND GRIZZLY KILLING IN ALASKA

The Federation of Alaskan Natives has opposed the Biden administration proposed ban on bear baiting, killing wolf pups in dens, killing swimming caribou, and other proposed limits on “traditional” practices in national preserves. 

The Federation wrote: “Bear baiting is a traditional hunting practice for many Athabascan hunters, a great number of whom now reside in non-rural areas. Because of this, they are not considered federally-qualified subsistence users and would be subsequently barred from practicing their traditional hunting practice under this proposed rule. Regardless of the explicit carve-out separating federal subsistence from this proposed rule, the restriction still would negatively harm Athabascan hunters whose right to practice their traditional hunting technique should be respected regardless of where they reside,” they said in their letter to Haaland.

COLVILLE WOLF KILL

Colville tribal members have killed more Washington wolves than any other group, including the livestock industry. Photo George Wuerthner

The Colville Tribe in Washington has killed more wolves than any other group. Indeed, the tribe and Spokane Tribe have killed dozens of wolves that the state Endangered Species Act supposedly protects. Just like redneck trappers and hunters in other states, the main reason the tribes kill wolves is so they can kill more elk.

OPPOSITION TO WOLF RESTORATION

The voters of Colorado voted to restore wolves to the state. Opposition to the reintroduction came from the usual suspects, including ranchers and some hunters. But seldom mentioned is that the Southern Ute tribe also opposes wolf restoration.

SAN CARLOS APACHE PROHIBITS MEXICAN WOLVES ON RESERVATION

Mexican wolves. Photo George Wuerthner 

The San Carlos Apache Tribe has prohibited wolves on its reservation.

TRIBAL YELLOWSTONE BISON KILL

During the winter of 2022-23, tribal hunters slaughtered more than 1150 bison that were attempting to leave Yellowstone National Park seeking food. Altogether, the tribes killed more than 25 percent of the northern bison herd, harming the bison genetics and population structure and removing bison from the park ecosystem that would otherwise support native predators and scavengers. People are encouraged to watch this video of the slaughter.

Advocates of tribal slaughter suggest treaty rights give them the authority to massacre public bison. However, that assertion has been brought into question. But even when presented with the evidence, conservation groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition ignore the evidence and appear unwilling even to investigate whether the tribes have a “treaty right” to kill bison by Yellowstone.

Bison from Yellowstone Park are internationally significant as one of the least domesticated buffalo in the world. Many of the Yellowstone bison that are removed from the Park ecosystem (a detrimental practice harmful to the park’s ecological function)  are transferred to tribal lands where they are subject to genetic losses resulting from specific breeding, culling, slaughter practices, and a lack of native predators and artificial feeding programs. In essence, there are no wild bison on tribal lands at this point.]

JEMEZ PUEBLO TRIBE EAGLE KILL IN NATIONAL MONUMENT

The Jemez Pueblo tribe in New Mexico was given permission to kill bald and golden eagles within the boundaries of Valley Caldera National Monument.  No Tribe has ever used a BGEPA permit from USFWS within an area of the national park system and this sets up serious precedent.

Tribal members may kill eagles in a national monument under a decision from the highest levels of the National Park Service. Bald eagle. Photo George Wuerthner 

Eighteen members of Jemez Pueblo may camp in a large tent for up to a month. Under a special use permit, tribal members will use off-road-vehicles to move their gear and they will have campfires. Under the special use permit they will be allowed to do things that the public is prohibited from doing.

Valley Caldera Natoinal Monument, New Mexico. Photo Geroge Wuerthner 

It appears that an Environmental Assessment was hastily done for the eagle hunt, the EA was posted on the park website, and within a week or two they issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). This appears to purposefully short-circuit the public’s ability to comment. Unusually, the FONSI was signed by National Park Service Director Chuck Sams rather than a local or regional NPS official.

TRIBAL HATCHERY FISH AND WILD SALMON

One of the most blatant examples of the conflict between rhetoric and behavior can be seen on the issue of hatcheries and their impact on wild fish.

Despite much rhetoric from tribes that they are “salmon people” and other assertions that salmon are “sacred” and critical to their culture, most tribes support hatchery production of salmon and steelhead and condemn any attempt to close hatcheries. Yet the science is overwhelming—there is nothing worse for wild salmon than hatchery fish. Hatchery fish breed with wild salmon, diluting the wild genome and competing for space, food, and even spawning habitat.

The other way that many tribes harm wild salmon is by gill netting. Due to “tribal sovereignty and treaty rights,” tribes can gill net fish on major rivers like the Columbia, Klamath, and others. Gill nets are entirely indiscriminate. Many wild fish are captured in the nets and die.

Most tribes say they want to restore “healthy salmon populations,” but this doesn’t necessarily mean healthy wild fish populations. Indeed, while there are numerous reasons for salmon declines, including dams, livestock grazing, logging, and climate change, the promotion of hatchery production and the gill netting of wild salmon contribute to the loss of wild salmon populations.

Most media have little understanding of salmon ecology and issues. If tribes promote hatcheries, the media usually reports it as a favorable policy.

Why would tribes who say they love salmon continue practices harming wild salmon? Again, follow the money. Tribes are permitted to sell fish they catch.

SNAKE RIVER DAMS

For decades, salmon activists have sought to remove four dams on the Snake River (a tributary of the Columbia) to open up spawning habitat in Idaho, including on the namesake Salmon River.

Recently, the Columbia River tribes, including the Yakima, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Cayuse, and Warm Springs, agreed to accept a billion dollars from the federal government if they would suspend their lawsuit that advocates the removal of the Snake River Dams. Among other things, the money will be used by the tribes to improve hatchery production. Nothing in the agreement ensures the dams will be removed, and in the opinion of friends who have worked on salmon recovery for decades, this appears to be a buyout of tribal interests.

I have not been following the Snake River dams issue closely, but one friend who has been a wild salmon advocate for decades and supports breaching the dams had this to say about the recent agreement.

“You should look into the latest announcement from the Biden administration about the Snake River dams. It has received a lot of press lately as a positive step but it’s mostly BS as far as I can tell. There is NO commitment to breaching the dams, only to spend a lot more on studying the issue and hundreds of millions on hatcheries. A previous agreement in Sept. already gave hundreds of millions to Columbia River tribes to build hatcheries. As you would expect, the tribes are vocal in their support of all of this.”

Another salmon advocate had this to say about the Biden and tribe agreement: “The Biden Administration totally screwed up. Instead of using executive authority to breach the dams they punted the issue to Congress. Congress will never authorize the breaching, certainly not in time to save the fish and orcas. The Tribes got bought off, as did many of the NGOs.”

ELWHA DAM REMOVAL

The Elwha River after the dams were removed. Photo George Wuerthner 

When the federal government removed two dams from the Elwha River in Olympic NP, the National Park Service advocated for natural salmon recovery. The NPS felt there was still enough wild salmon stock in the lower river to ensure wild fish recovery upriver beyond the breached dams. However, the Elwha Tribe opposed this part of the plan and insisted on building a hatchery at the mouth of the river (with taxpayer money, of course) that they would operate.

KLAMATH RIVER DAMS AND TRIBES

There has been an effort to remove four dams on the Klamath River in northern California. The dams harm salmon in numerous ways, including blocking access to upstream spawning habitat and degrading water quality.

Klamath River, California. Photo George Wuerthner 

Most reporting on salmon and tribes is about the cultural connection, rarely mentioning the commercial reason for promoting salmon recovery. The general narrative of most media reporting is on how important salmon are to tribal culture but fails to mention how tribal cultural interests can threaten wild salmon recovery.

As with salmon in other parts of the West, tribal commercial salmon catch also harms wild salmon since most salmon are taken with indiscriminate gill nets. Wild salmon are caught along with hatchery salmon. Since most tribes commercially fish for salmon, they are incentivized to increase overall salmon production with hatcheries, compromising the wild salmon stock.

Yet many tribes along the Klamath, such as the Yurok Tribe, sell wild salmon. Given how rare the salmon are, taking any endangered species, especially for commercial use, would seem counterproductive if you call salmon “sacred.”

In particular, coho salmon in the Klamath River are barely hanging on. Salmon advocates (which is distinctively different from tribal advocates) believe a total moratorium on all fishing is the best way to bring about wild salmon recovery. However, as a generalization, the tribes oppose such a policy.

NORTH UMPQUA RIVER

North Umpqua River, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, Coquille Indian Tribe, and Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde all opposed the closure of a fish hatchery on the North Umpqua River by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. The Commission sees hatchery fish as competitors with wild fish for spawning habitat.

FISH FARMING IN SKAGIT BAY

The Jamestown S’Kallam Tribe has agreed to develop fish farming in Skagit Bay, Washington. Fish farming is notorious for its environmental harm, including concentrating vast amounts of feces and dumping antibiotics in affected waterways.

UTE OPPOSITION TO CAMP HALE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE NATIONAL MONUMENT

The Ute tribe expressed a scathing rebuke to President Joe Biden’s designation of the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument on Wednesday, calling it “an unlawful act of genocide.”…

TRIBAL CONDEMNATION OF PARKS AND WILDERNESS

What I see as an even graver threat to conservation efforts is the on-going denigration of the entire concept of parks and preserves from the WOKE left, social science academics, and their tribal allies. It deserves an entire book, but basically, there is a growing condemnation of parks, wilderness, and other preserves as cultural genocide, colonialism, imperialism, and other such negative terminology that pose a long-term threat to efforts to protect wild Nature. Much of this opposition is based on flawed logic, a limited understanding of conservation biology and ecology, and a revisionist history.

For example, the Muccosukee  tribe in Florida is opposed to wilderness designation for the Big Cypress Preserve because they assert it will limit their ability to hunt, fish, and gather plants. “We’re opposing very, very hard right now because we don’t believe this is the right thing for the Big Cypress,” said Curtis Osceola, chief of staff for the Miccosukee Tribe. “The fear from the tribe is that a compromise is being made to put these lands into wilderness at the expense of the rights of the tribe, the rights of the public.”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF TRIBAL CONSERVATION ADVOCACY

I acknowledge there are numerous examples where Indigenous people have promoted environmental protection. The Chumash of California is advocating a marine reserve along the coast by Santa Barbara. The Apache in Arizona are opposed to the Oak Flat Copper mine. The Yurok tribe is involved in the dam removals on the Klamath River. The Nez Perce seeks to restore California condors to the Hells Canyon area. Numerous tribes have lent support for national monuments, including Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in Arizona, and the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada

I could list many other examples widely distributed in the media and by conservation organizations that promote the idea that Native tribes and Native corporations are conservation advocates.

But all these environmental organizations refuse to criticize, critique, or even acknowledge when tribal actions fail to match tribal.

SUMMARY

I hope I have made the case that some tribes support environmentally destructive or anti-conservation policies is not a rare occurrence. The unwillingness to articulate and discuss these problems feeds the false narrative that Native peoples are somehow different from other humans in their behavior or attitudes towards Nature and conservation efforts.

The danger here is that there is a growing effort and momentum to put tribes in control of public lands. The Biden administration recently announced co-stewardship agreements with tribes on public lands. The support for such agreements is often based on the assumption that tribal entities will promote policies beneficial to wildlife and functioning ecosystems. What is not recognized is that, in many instances, tribal goals are not the same as the public goals regarding public lands management. The status of tribal sovereignty, in particular, poses legal issues about the ability of the public to stop or change environmentally destructive proposals if there is sufficient tribal support.

It’s important to point out that all Native Americans are American citizens and have the same access and rights to comment upon, lobby and otherwise promote or oppose federal land management decisions. It is my view that garnering tribes greater authority over public lands is anti-democratic and potentially damaging to Wild Nature and ecosystems.

As Doug Tompkins eloquently suggested in the preface to my Welfare Ranching book: “Basic human ethics suggest that we must not humanize every square yard of the planet, that the human economy can flourish and humanness become more profound when we protect and promote the wild world and learn to share the planet with all her creatures.”

Comments

  1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    It’s not whether a person is native, it’s whether the Native is a traditional or a progressive. Traditional natives oppose damaging the land, or killing the native life there for any reason other than to eat it. It’s hard to know what the percentage of traditionals to progressives is, because the tribes are all run by progressives. I fully agree with George that it doesn’t matter who destroys the land or kills the native wildlife; colonizer or native, it’s all the same. I also fully agree with George that the current PC/woke BS is largely responsible for environmental groups not calling out natives who act badly toward the natural environment.

    Our attitude should be Earth First!, not natives first. Natives who hold to traditional values and refrain from doing ecological and environmental harm should be lauded and supported, but those who do otherwise should not. Simple as that, really.

  2. Duane Short Avatar
    Duane Short

    John Muir wrote this more than 100 years ago, “Nothing dollarable is ever safe, however guarded.”

    One might expect western ranchers to lay claim to being “the best conservationists.”

    Many ranchers will stop at nothing to squeeze the last penny from land that they command) but do not own).

    Of course wolf-hating ranchers try to convince the public that they care more about the land and wildlife than they care about their livestock and money i.e., profit.

    It is heartbreaking to know that some indigenous people are following the lead of those ranchers, whose predecessors (in many cases) massacred their tribal ancestors.

    No one and no group that claims superior care for the natural world and simultaneously supports and/or participates in a the degradation of land and/or the massacre of wildlife is to be trusted.

    As a lifelong admirer of the reputed nature-loving essence of indigenous people, I am heartbroken to learn that even some modern-day “people of the land” have sold their environmental ethic to the highest bidder.

    Muir was right 100 years ago. His observation is even more poignant today.

    No one or no group is immune to the disease of rogue capitalism, a cancer born of greed, deception, and a fake concern for nature.

  3. BR Andrews Avatar
    BR Andrews

    I am concerned about the push for tribal management of our public lands. Having worked on reservations, I believe there’s another aspect to consider: the stability of tribal reservation governance isn’t always guaranteed. With each tribal election, there’s potential for turnover in the tribal council and chairperson positions. Also, there have been recalls of tribal elected officials, meaning environmental priorities could shift unpredictably.

  4. Maryk Avatar
    Maryk

    Oh man, it is worse than I thought.

    A few years ago I saw an environmental non-profit magazine with a cover photo of some young native Americans on their annual shorebird hunt– each boy was holding 2 or more dead shorebirds.

    Given that these birds are so threatened already from habitat loss and climate change, how is it ethical to have an annual shorebird hunt?

    Absolutely shocking.

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Author
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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