IUFRO Spotlight #28

American Indian forestry: blending science and tradition

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For thousands of years, American Indians have been managing the forests in which they live. 

Today, with trained professionals who are tribal members, their forests are managed with modern tools and methods; include manufacturing facilities and address global forest issues such as climate change, forest certification, carbon sequestration and a changing work force. 

But the way in which American Indians manage their forests often differs from the philosophies and methods of non-native forest organizations that have been in North America for only a few hundred years. 

And, those philosophical and operational differences – which will be elaborated on in less than two weeks at the IUFRO World Congress in Salt Lake City – leave American Indian forestry facing three major challenges, says Don Motanic, technical specialist with the U.S. Intertribal Timber Council.
One challenge to tribal forests is from fire or other forest health hazards that can spread from adjacent federal lands where forests are often allowed to age without being thinned or using prescribed burns, says Mr. Motanic. 

Prescribed burns are relatively small-scale controlled burns, he explains, and are widely used on tribal lands as a management tool. The fire removes dead and dying trees as well as other combustible materials from the forest floor and, by reducing these potential fuels, limits the occurrence and scope of wildfire; diminishes the danger from insect and disease infestations; and opens up space to allow sunlight in to promote grass and shrubbery growth that increases biodiversity and provides browse, berries and other foods for deer, elk, bears and other wildlife.

A second challenge is funding. Tribes, he says, receive only 30% of the funding that goes to other federal forests.

The third challenge is the gap between a science-only forest management philosophy and the tribes' approach that uses scientific knowledge, but connects it to traditional knowledge, culture and values. 

As an example of the different perspectives, Mr. Motanic notes that non-tribal forest organizations may name a forest for a single person. But many tribal people take their identity from the forest, from landforms, animals and other aspects of nature. They see themselves as part of a natural, holistic continuum.

They view nature, and their relationship with it, as an infinite event. So, naming a forest after one person is a reference to only one lifetime – a finite unit – and, from the American Indian perspective, doesn’t make sense, he says.

Mr. Motanic says the IUFRO World Congress will give American Indians an opportunity to show the rest of the world what the tribes are doing in terms of forest management and, once those people are aware, the hope is they will want to learn more.

They will see, he says, that American Indian forest stewardship supports thriving, fully empowered communities that share success in exercising sovereign decision-making, creating sustainable economies for communities and implementing strategies that perpetuate forest health for future generations. 

The world will learn that the tribes are sovereign nations dealing with the United States on a government-to-government basis, unique to each of the 565 tribes in the country. They will also learn that the values for each tribe may differ and in each case their forest management is guided by culture and tradition absorbed over thousands of years.

This Congress session, entitled "American Indian Forestry" will also illustrate how the tribes have developed a balance among social, economic and environmental issues in terms of their forest management, Mr. Motanic says, and will show how a growing workforce of tribal technicians, professionals and researchers is guiding their forest management.

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IUFRO Spotlight is an initiative of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations. Its aim is to introduce, in a timely fashion, significant findings in forest research from IUFRO member organizations and/or involving IUFRO officeholders to a worldwide network of decision makers, policy makers and researchers.

IUFRO will encapsulate, and distribute in plain language, brief, topical and policy-relevant highlights of those findings, along with information on where/how to access the full documents. The IUFRO Spotlight findings will be distributed in a periodic series of emails as well as blog postings.

The findings reported here are submitted by IUFRO Member Organizations. IUFRO is pleased to highlight and circulate these findings to a broad audience but, in doing so, acts only as a conduit. The quality and accuracy of the reports are the responsibility of the member organization and the authors.

Suggestions for reports and findings that could be promoted through IUFRO Spotlight are encouraged. To be considered, reports should be fresh, have policy implications and be applicable to more than one country. If you would like to have a publication highlighted by Spotlightcontact: Gerda Wolfrum, IUFRO Communications Coordinator, wolfrum(at)iufro.org.


The International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) is the only worldwide organization devoted to forest research and related sciences. Its members are research institutions, universities, and individual scientists as well as decision-making authorities and other stakeholders with a focus on forests and trees. Visit: http://www.iufro.org/


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IUFRO Spotlight #28, published in September 2014
by IUFRO Headquarters, Vienna, Austria.
Available for download at: 
Contact the editor at office(at)iufro.org or visit http://www.iufro.org/

Imprint: http://www.iufro.org/legal/#c18944