Bears Ears And Other Co-Management Efforts: Relocalizing Federal Land Decision-Making?


Bears Ears co-management is said to be new and unique.  Inquiring minds wonder… shouldn’t Tribal views always be taken into account? Are there legal differences in various places that matter? What is different and better about the Bears Ears approach? How does it compare to other Co-Management efforts?

As I read the cooperative agreement, I wondered..

It sounds to me like there’s much “coordinate” and “provide opportunities for input” in this document.  It sounds perhaps like a Forest FACA committee. There’s even a “meaningful seat at the table before decisions are made.” As I read these, FLPMA also says something about coordinating with local governments. The meaning of that seems to be highly contested, will this work any better?  And who has a “meaningless” seat at the table?

On the face, the Agreement it sounds like something both the BLM and the FS should always do with Tribes with historic ties to that piece of federal land. Isn’t it?

Would co-management actually mean decision-making authority rests in both entities, and have a conflict resolution mechanism if the two groups disagree? Does co-management give veto power over projects and activities the Tribes don’t want, or similarly, if the Tribes want a project or activity, and the Agencies don’t, what happens?  Or do the legal authorities not really change and the Feds just have to take the views of the Tribes into account in some way.

Tribes have unique and special knowledge based on their history and experience with the landscapes, places, plants and animals. Other local people whose families have lived in an area, in some places for centuries (e.g. descendants of Spanish colonists in the SW), also have local knowledge. To what extent should incorporation of that local information take place in a similar way?

Will Tribal co-management ultimately make it less likely that federal lands issues will be dealt with at the national level by national interest groups? That in some sense, non-Native locals were seen to be by some national groups as  obstacles to correct management, but that doesn’t hold for Native locals? Anyway, check out the agreement for yourself and see what you think.

Here’s the text of the Bears Ears Co-Management Cooperative Agreement

C. In order to implement the direction in Proclamation 10285 and Proclamation 9558, the BLM and USFS agree to:

I. Ensure that Federal policies reflect the needs of Tribal Nations and that Tribal leaders have a meaningful seat at the table before decisions are made that impact their communities by centering Indigenous voices, including increasing the recognition of the value of traditional Indigenous knowledge and empowering Tribal Nations to make decisions for their cultural, natural, and spiritual values.
2. Honor applicable Executive Orders, Secretarial Orders, and Memorandums of Understanding including, but not limited to, Executive Order 13175 ofNovember 6, 2000, Consultation and Coordination With Indian Tribal Governments, Secretarial Order No. 3403: DOI and USDA Joint Secretarial Order on Fulfilling the Trust Responsibility to Indian Tribes in the Stewardship ofFederal Lands and Waters, and the November 16, 2021 Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Interagency Coordination and Collaboration for the Protection of Indigenous Sacred Sites.
3. Coordinate and consult with the Commission throughout land use planning and subsequent implementation-level decision-making processes concerning Bears Ears, including preparation of a monument management plan and a travel management plan.
4. Identify opportunities for development of initiatives to cooperatively conduct land management programs concerning Bears Ears.
5. Seek specific opportunities to involve the Commission in public land management activities concerning Bears Ears.
6. Coordinate, organize, and assure appropriate government professional and management involvement in programs within the scope of this Cooperative Agreement.
7. Ensure that Tribal knowledge and local expertise is reflected in agency decision making processes for Bears Ears. Develop and share information and data with the Commission, to the extent possible, to facilitate understanding of issues and sites, such as providing pictures and other information to Tribal Elders who cannot travel, and facilitate Tribal Nations’ work and engagement on the management of the monument.
8. Provide opportunities for input on implementation of interim guidance issued jointly or individually by the BLM and USFS, including the BLM’s interim monument management guidance issued on December 16, 2021, which directs the BLM to (a) inventory monument objects and values, (b) review existing discretionary uses and activities within the monument to detennine whether their impacts are consistent with the protection of the monument objects and values, and (c) update existing monitoring plans to ensure protection of monument objects and values.
9. Provide opportunities for input to the USFS review of existing discretionary uses and activities within the monument to deternine whether their impacts are consistent with the protection of the monument objects and values.
10. Provide opportunities to review and provide input on BLM and USFS policy guidance for the Bears Ears prior to issuance.

10 thoughts on “Bears Ears And Other Co-Management Efforts: Relocalizing Federal Land Decision-Making?”

  1. The Chippewa National Forest and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe signed an MOU in 2018 that in many ways sounds similar to this effort.
    Note that a large portion of the Chippewa National Forest is inside of the Leech Lake Reservation boundaries and has an apparently unique legislative history, in that the National Forest was created with the specific intent of benefiting the tribe. I haven’t followed the implementation of this agreement, but I did see a joint presentation from the forest supervisor and tribal forester about this shortly after the MOU was signed.

    • Thanks, Forrest! I think that’s also true with the Klamaths and the Winema part of the Fremont-Winema, that there is a specific treaty/ NF history. Probably other places as well. I wonder how the treaties interact with the question Patrick raised of legal authorities.

      Which reminds me that the Winema may be the only National Forest named after a woman (or a Native American)

      Winema National Forest (1961-2002)

      The Winema National Forest was established in 1961 and was named for a heroine of the Modoc War of 1872 – Woman of the Brave Heart. More than 50 percent of the Forest is comprised of former Klamath Indian Reservation land. Two purchases by the Federal Government – the first in 1963 of about 500,000 acres and the second in 1973 of about 135,000 acres – were combined with portions of three other National Forests to form the Winema National Forest.

      Members of the Klamath Tribe reserve specific rights of hunting, fishing trapping, and gathering of forest materials on former reservation land. This forms a unique relationship between Klamath Tribe and the Forest for the management of portions of the Forest.

      • Oh yes, I remembered this about the Winema – which I visited in 2005. When they said the Chippewa MOU was unique I thought about the Winema and wondered how similar they were. I remembered people telling me that the Winema was unique in a similar way (but it sounds like they are not identical if the Winema was purchased in 1960s and 1970s, the Chippewa was purchased mostly between 1900-1910 in my understanding). My understanding from the presentation I saw in 2018 about the Chippewa MOU was that it represented a commitment on the part of the USFS to prioritize tribal concerns within the reservation boundary to the extent that it was consistent with the forest plan. The presentation I saw had a bunch of forest industry people present who were concerned that the tribal priorities, which included more older forest, would reduce timber volume. The Forest Supervisor explained that the MOU would not change the total timber harvested off the forest, it would just change where it was harvested. Since the tribe wanted more old forest within the reservation boundary, the area outside the reservation boundary would be harvested more heavily than the area within. So rather than being a commitment to some kind of extra-scoping or consultation, I understood the MOU to be more like a soft forest plan amendment, in which the USFS committed to prioritizing tribal priorities within the reservation boundary to the extent that it was consistent with the already existing forest plan. But the Bears Ears sounds more about consultation, which is in any case legally required so its not clear to me whats new.

        • Seems like it would be an interesting project for a grad student to compare all these.. there’s probably a broad variety across the country. Maybe find a Tribal member interested?

          • I would love to. Finding funding for students is (as usual) the main barrier to answering interesting questions like this. Although here at U of Minnesota we recently received some extra funding for students interested in tribal issues, so if I could find a student interested in it, it might work out.

  2. I’ve had a similar discussion with Ben Burr who runs the Blue Ribbon Coalition. We’re also pretty confused by what this so-called “co-management” agreement actually does, since it really doesn’t sound that different from the tribal consultations federal agencies are already supposed to be doing for management plans.

    As best as I can tell, the actual decision making authority still rests solely with the federal agencies. Which makes sense because I don’t think federal agencies are allowed to delegate decision making authority to third party entities under the administrative procedures act. If they could that would set up a really bizarre situation legally, where the tribes would be subject to the APA and could be sued to challenge management decisions.

    So if the tribes are just acting in an advisory role, is that really any different than what they would be doing without this agreement? So far I’ve seen a lot of grandiose talk about what a great thing this is for the tribes and almost nothing of substance about what this will actually mean.

    The closest I’ve seen to that is one news article that mentioned that tribes would be submitting a sort of model management plan to the agencies with all of their recommendations, and then the agencies will somehow incorporate that into their management plans. But the agencies still have to go through NEPA and have a range of alternatives and all that, so it’s not like they are just going to adopt the tribes’ management plan wholesale. So is the net effect of this basically that the tribes get to make pre-scoping recommendations for the management plans?

    • I don’t know. I think it gives some weight to the Tribal recommendations which the Agencies will use if they agree with them. If not..???
      I think the grandiose talk is due to the fact that Bears Ears has been a powerful political symbol (like the Keystone Pipeline) and folks who were proponents fund much reporting.. plus (most) reporters don’t have the background to know about how things usually work, legal authorities and so on, so perhaps believe what they hear that fits the narrative. I’m always surprised by the number of things that were really BAU but were decried strongly when the Trump Admin did them, but not mentioned when the Biden Admin does them.. and so it goes.

  3. “Or do the legal authorities not really change and the Feds just have to take the views of the Tribes into account in some way.” Yes. A proclamation can’t change legal authorities, and those authorities don’t allow many of the things you have speculated about. I know just enough about Indian law to be dangerous, but in my opinion, “co” management is a matter degree, opinion and optics. This kind of proclamation just puts more emphasis on doing the things that they can legally do (in a visible location where the optics are important). I read “provide opportunities for input.”

    But, “folks who were proponents fund much reporting?”


      “Providers of Foundation Grants:
      The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations | Bullitt Foundation | Burning River Foundation | Compton Foundation | Cornelius King Foundation | Cornell Douglas Foundation | Doris Duke Charitable Foundation | Energy Foundation | Environmental Defense Fund | Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation | Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment | The Heinz Endowments | Hewlett Foundation | The Nature Conservancy | The Pew Charitable Trusts | The Religion & Environment Story Project | Spring Point Partners | Walton Family Foundation | The Wilderness Society | Wyss Foundation”

      • “Grantees retain full editorial control of FEJ-funded coverage.
        Donors have no right of review and no influence on story plans made possible in part by their contributions.
        Binding agreements between donors and the Society of Environmental Journalists and between SEJ and grantees of its Fund for Environmental Journalism reinforce this policy of editorial independence.”

        Of course, if they would like to get this funding again …
        I assume these are to be presented as factual rather than opinions?
        (And I assume the other side does the same?)
        Might be worth a separate post.


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