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Tribal nations, Forest Service partner to revive oak tree population

Collaborations focus on traditional foods, fire history
Partners involved in the Emory Oak Collaborative Tribal Restoration Initiative visited oak stands in 2019. The Yavapai Apache Nation requested the U.S. Forest Service and other partners evaluate the health of the species in Arizona after seeing a decline in the health of oak stands. The initiative was announced Nov. 2 at the start of National Native American Heritage Month.

A project to restore the most important traditional food for the Yavapai Apache Nation sprang to life this month.

The Emory Oak Collaborative Tribal Restoration Initiative partners visited oak stands in 2019. The Emory oaks provide one of the most important traditional food sources for the tribe, acorns.

In Arizona, an intergovernmental, public-private partnership aims to revive the Emory oak, whose acorns play a prominent role in the tribe’s culture.

The nation’s tribal elders put the collaborative effort into motion, drawing on resources from the U.S. Forest Service and others, to rehabilitate Emory oak stands in Arizona’s Tonto and Coconino national forests. It’s the kind of collaborative that the Forest Service says can happen anywhere, including Southwest Colorado.

“It is important that the Forest Service build, strengthen and uphold nation-to-nation relationships that sustain tribal sovereignty and help meet the agency’s trust responsibility and treaty obligations,” said Michelle Stevens, Heritage Program lead with the San Juan National Forest.

In Arizona, the Emory Oak Collaborative Tribal Restoration Initiative aims to reinvigorate Emory oak health for years to come. The initiative was announced Nov. 2 at the start of National Native American Heritage Month.

The Apache community has valued the oaks, which grow across the Four Corners, including around Durango, for cultural uses – including harvesting their acorns.

“Emory oak (Querus emoryi Torr) are vital to almost every Apache social and ceremonial function,” said Vincent Randall, an Apache Nation elder who requested the Forest Service take action. “Apache people, acorns, eagles and otters are an indication of environmental health.”

In a Forest Service video about the initiative, tribal members recalled memories of camping and harvesting acorns with their families and clans. The acorns could also be traded for specialty items, like medicinal plants or sold for income, said Nanebah Lyndon, tribal liaison for the Tonto National Forest.

The oak groves, however, have been disappearing at alarming rates in recent decades. Urban encroachment, habitat loss, fire suppression and climate change have all affected the Emory oak population. Immature oaks are failing to reach maturity because of livestock grazing, lowering groundwater and competing species.

The initiative has identified and assessed 15 Emory oak groves on federal land and three groves on White Mountain Apache Tribe lands. The partnership is guided by tribal traditional ecological knowledge and aims to start some initial treatment protocols in early 2021, Lyndon said.

The project, estimated to cost $300,000 over the first two years, is completely funded by Resolution Copper Mining. This project will mitigate impacts of the mine on Emory oak stands at Oak Flat, an important site for acorn gathering, Lyndon said.

The Forest Service shares hundreds of miles of boundary with Native American reservations, she said.

“What we do on our side of the line has direct impacts to tribal reservations,” Lyndon said. “At the end of the day, we all have the same goal of managing the land in the best way we can to ensure it is still here and thriving for future generations.”

Partners involved in the Emory Oak Collaborative Tribal Restoration Initiative partners visited oak stands in 2019. For generations, the Emory oak has been a ceremonial, social and nutritional aspect of Apache Nation culture.

The San Juan National Forest is neighbors with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Although tribal stakeholders could reach out for a formalized collaborative project, the Forest Service has not had requests so far, said Esther Godson, San Juan National Forest spokeswoman.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe did ask the Forest Service to undertake a fire history project in 2018, Stevens said.

The project, also supported by the Southern Ute and Jicarilla Apache tribes, looks at forest stand history, fire-scarred trees, fire history, climate and traditional occupation and use by Native Americans. The goal is to use data from this project to plan large-scale vegetation treatments and prescribed burns.

“By engaging in shared stewardship of tribal and Forest Service lands and resources, we can better support a healthy and resilient forest that benefits tribal communities and help the Forest Service better accomplish its mission,” Stevens said.