Since the start of his administration, President Joe Biden has taken significant actions that have resonated in Indian Country: restoring Bears Ears National Monument; nominating the first Indigenous Cabinet member, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo); investing billions in tribal water-rights settlements and infrastructure. In 2021, his administration took a historic step when it committed to a policy of restoring tribal oversight of ancestral lands and of working with tribes in co-stewardship to manage public lands. Since then, a flurry of agency memos and reports have filled out more details of what these co-stewardship arrangements might look like. But what do all these statements amount to in practical terms?
Tribes across the country are seeking the return of lands that were illegally or forcibly taken by the United States. For some, co-management with federal agencies is a way to regain a measure of control of their ancestral lands and can be a first step toward the restitution and sovereignty sought by the LandBack movement. Given the declining budgets of federal agencies and tribes’ deep, place-based knowledge and growing governing capacity, co-stewardship can be a natural fit.
“There really is an ongoing nationwide conversation right now about co-management,” Kevin Washburn (Chickasaw Nation), who was assistant secretary of Indian Affairs under Obama and worked on the Biden transition team, said in an interview. “I’m firmly convinced that tribes can run a lot of these units — parks and refuges — as well as or better than the federal government can.”
Durable policy is a slow-moving ship, but the administration is making headway. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture signed 11 new co-stewardship agreements with tribal nations, and the department has said another 60 are in development. Meanwhile, the Department of the Interior finalized an agreement to co-manage Idaho’s Dworshak National Fish Hatchery with the Nez Perce Tribe. In the Southwest, after decades of campaigning for protections for Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, the Fort Mojave Tribe and other Yuman-speaking tribes have been promised that protections will be established soon. And, given the administration’s new policies, advocates are hopeful that some measure of co-stewardship will be included. Fort Mojave Tribal Administrator Ashley Hemmers said in an interview that the Biden administration has been intentional in its engagement and has consulted with her tribe throughout the process. “That has been really healthy, and hopefully something that can be ongoing,” she said.
The distinction between co-management and co-stewardship — terms the federal government uses for agreements to collaborate on land management with tribal nations — is subtle but important. “Co-stewardship” covers a broad range of collaborative activities like forest-thinning work in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest in partnership with the Hoonah Indian Association, where Indigenous knowledge can be included in federal management. But “co-management” is more narrowly defined. In those instances, tribal and federal governments share the power of legal authority in decision-making of a place or a species. This is the case with Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, which is co-managed by the Pueblo de Cochiti and the Bureau of Land Management, and with the salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest.
The administration has already begun to grapple with the practical realities of setting up these collaborations with tribes. One challenge is ensuring that the ideals behind co-stewardship and co-management are upheld by the career federal employees who carry out the projects, not just by the political appointees who may change with a new administration. To this end, in 2021 Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack signed a secretarial order requiring that co-stewardship efforts be addressed in individual employee performance reviews. “It’s an effort to really change the career-level staff in the agency’s approach to doing their jobs on a day-to-day basis,” said Monte Mills, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington, who wrote a white paper on tribal co-management possibilities. “That’s really where it’s going to make a difference,” Mills said in an interview.
Though tribes and the federal government are both currently enthusiastic about co-stewardship, there are still hurdles to clear, primarily with staffing and funding. Tribes already take on contracts with agencies like the Indian Health Service or the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide treaty- or trust-mandated public services, such as running hospitals, schools and fire departments. In those cases, tribal governments receive federal funds to help pay for staff and other costs of fulfilling the contract. But Congress hasn’t appropriated additional funds for tribes to manage public lands, which means that tribes and federal agencies — both of which are underfunded by Congress — must find the capacity on their own.
“It’s really been a conversation about making sure that our leadership is ready for what we’re asking for.”
In the case of the Fort Mojave Tribe, preparing for these obligations has been part of the effort to secure protections for Avi Kwa Ame. “It’s really been a conversation about making sure that our leadership is ready for what we’re asking for,” Hemmers said, adding that it’s important that the tribe “can be a true partner, to show that not only do we have the traditional knowledge but we do have the resources to be able to maintain it, regardless if there is funding at a federal level or not.”
While the Biden administration has prioritized co-stewardship, Congress has not passed legislation ensuring that future administrations follow the same policy. This leaves tribal nations vulnerable to the shifting tides of politics. Legislation could create a federal process for considering co-stewardship proposals, giving tribes a more permanent avenue to push for collaborations that emanate from tribal priorities. A good starting point could be the millions of acres across the West that lie within tribal reservation boundaries and are managed by federal agencies. “As much as anything else, it’s about sort of changing the mindset and agency approach and identity to land management,” Mills said. “And that takes time. If it’s going to be a wholesale sea change, that’s still yet to come.”
Anna V. Smith is an associate editor for High Country News. She has placed in the Native American Journalists Association’s Native Media Awards in the category of Best Coverage of Native America three times. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.