Dan Meza, the Tribal Relations Program Manager for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service, is known to his colleagues as an exceptional practitioner of managing Tribal relations. A careful listener who is known for his sincerity and simplicity in managing the broad range of issues and topics involved in the Forest Service mission, he is a man who knows how to cross and bridge boundaries - whether land ownership boundaries, cultural boundaries or boundaries of perspective.
What is your role as the Regional Tribal Relations Program Manager for the Southwestern Region?
I provide policy advice and guidance to 11 national forests who work with 55 Tribes who have interests in the management of national forest lands in this region. My primary role is to ensure we fulfill our trust responsibility to these Tribes. The joy is finding that my personal values and the values of the Forest Service are the same at the basic level. The mission and vision of the Forest Service are very aligned with Tribal values when it comes to restoring natural resources and providing clean water and habitat.
What are the biggest concerns you have in managing the program?
Every federal agency has trust responsibilities with Indian Tribes which are defined by law, executive orders and court decisions that carry a legal mandate. We take those trust responsibilities very seriously. We want Tribes to be successful. We want them to prosper today and into perpetuity.
In many cases that involves work that’s mutually beneficial across landscapes, so we sit down and roll our sleeves up and look at opportunities. I’m a strong proponent of this approach. We’re looking for agreements to restore watersheds, to reduce the threat of wildfire, build wildlife habitat, and offer technical assistance programs for capacity building.
Many things are involved in developing relationships. It takes time to get to know your neighbors to foster relationships, to build trust and to overcome past obstacles. We’re focused on developing strong partnerships to accomplish common goals.
What types of opportunities are open to Tribal members?
The Tribal Relations Program touches many Forest Service mission areas such as lands and minerals, fish, wildlife and plant stewardship programs so the opportunities to participate are only limited by an individual’s creativity
For example, the Taos Pueblo and the Santa Ana Pueblo received funds to undertake forest restoration work to reduce wildfire risk and restore the Pinyon Juniper Uplands. This is the kind of work we do on lands managed by the Forest Service so it benefits us when our Tribal neighbors are meeting similar objectives. We’re working across all lands.
We also provide technical assistance to help train Tribes in meeting grants management and reporting requirements. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, five individual Tribes were funded to work on nine projects valued at more than $23 million. The Mescalero Mill, on Tribal land near Ruidoso, is an important piece of infrastructure in the region as it was the last operational sawmill in that part of New Mexico. We don’t lay out the timber sales like we used to, so, when that work disappears, your capacity to support restoration diminishes. In 2000, Ruidoso was ranked the number one at-risk community for catastrophic wildfire in New Mexico and the number two at-risk community in the nation. With the grant, the mill is being re-engineered to treat small diameter material to help reduce the risk and eventually process wood for biomass uses.
Watershed restoration work with the White Mountain Apache Tribe after the 2002 Rodeo–Chediski Fire helped to reduce the fire risk around three tribal communities, reduce erosion and provide training and employment. With $4.5 million of funding assistance, the unemployment rate on the reservation was reduced by 60 percent. The Tribe also received a $2.2 million cooperative grant to fund their Native Plant Nursery in Canyon Day to grow conifer seedlings for reforestation. In cooperation with the Southern Research Station, they were able to use the latest technology for nursery designs and operating systems. They will also provide seedlings to us for Forest Service reforestation. These were funded as American Reinvestment and Recovery Act programs.
What challenges you in your job?
I love the hard work. It’s challenging and complex and I think that’s why I like it so much. But I’m not the one that deserves all the credit. The Tribal Relations Program is really built on all the great support from the people in the field, the district rangers, the forest supervisors and the regional directors and executive team. There is more awareness today about our responsibility of working with Tribes. Any success I’ve had builds on the foundation that my predecessor helped establish.
We’ve accomplished so much through successful collaborations. In one case, two forests had different collection polices for plants and woods needed for ceremonial use. After examining Tribal needs, we were able to develop a consistent collection policy for forest products for both forests through the consultation process with Tribes, forest staffs and law enforcement.
In another case, we funded a local Hopi filmmaker for a film project to highlight some collaborative work in Snake Canyon and how that work would assist forest plan revision. The project received a national Forest Service Windows on the Past award with recognition for the Kaibab National Forest, the Hopi Tribe Cultural Advisory Team, and the Culture and Heritage Director and the filmmaker.
I understand you have a hobby that’s going to take you to a new destination?
I used to be an avid hunter and fisherman but I no longer have the opportunity to hunt like I used to. My 12 fishing poles just don’t get used in the desert. So now I drive my Harley Road King and spend a lot of time wrenching on my scoot and riding around. I grew up on the west coast of California and always saw the sun going down in the ocean. Now, I want to ride to a chain of islands on the East coast, and find a campground on Cape Hatteras. I know I can visit the Kitty Hawk Museum, see civil war battlefields and even discover a few unique lighthouses. But all I really want to do, is see the sun come out of the ocean and sit on the beach and watch the shorebirds. I’m real happy going outside and just being by myself - outside.