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Working Together in Indian Country
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth
National Congress of American Indians, 62 nd Annual Session
Tulsa, OK— October 30, 2005


Mr. President Tex Hall; distinguished elders and tribal leaders; board of directors; tribal membership; and guests: I am honored to be here today.

Personal Commitment

I am Dale Bosworth, Chief of the Forest Service in the United States Department of Agriculture. I come from a long line of foresters. My father grew up on an orange grove in southern California and went to work for the Forest Service. My mother is the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of professional foresters in Germany. She and my father worked together in fire lookouts for the Forest Service. I was raised on ranger compounds in California, where my father was a district ranger and later forest supervisor.

I followed my father into the Forest Service and have worked for the agency for 40 years. My son also works for the Forest Service. Mostly, I’ve worked out West, in Idaho, Montana, and Utah. Today, even though I work in Washington, DC, my true home is out on the land in Missoula, Montana.

Here in Oklahoma we are in the heart of Indian Country, but the Northern Rockies where I come from are Indian Country, too. The Flathead Indian Reservation is just north of where I live; over on the Front Range of Montana is the Blackfeet Indian Reservation; and over in Idaho to the west are the Coeur D’Alene and Nez Perce Indian Reservations. All across the country, tribal treaty rights and federal trust obligations extend across many national forest lands. The Forest Service respects the fact that the United States has a unique government-to-government relationship with Tribes, and I’ve worked closely with many tribal leaders in the course of my Forest Service career. I am proud to say that Tribes have been some of our closest neighbors and best partners.

Although I have worked with American Indians and Alaska Natives at many times and in many different places, I have never had the honor of appearing before the National Congress of American Indians. As Forest Service Chief, I am humbled to have been asked to address you here today, and I have carefully thought about what I should say. It is critical for all of us at the Forest Service to say only what we believe and to promise only what we can deliver.

I’d like to start by talking about some of our common interests. Then I’d like to discuss opportunities we have to work better together.

Common Interests

Since 1944, the National Congress of American Indians has been working to protect the governmental rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives. An important success was passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975. Natural resource management is now one of the pillars of society for American Indians and Alaska Natives, and forestry has become a central concern. That alone gives us much in common.

I have great respect for tribal forest management. For thousands of years, tribal people managed forests in America in a sustainable way. Today, Tribes manage hundreds of timberlands and woodlands all across the country, and forestry provides tribal peoples with about 40,000 jobs.

Tribes are very successful forest managers. Tribal management costs are some of the lowest in the country. At a time when many mills have closed around the country, Tribes have maintained a capacity for utilizing forest products. This is a vital resource for all of us involved in sustainable forest management. As your neighbor, the Forest Service is very interested in helping Tribes sustain a vigorous forest products industry in Indian Country.

As neighbors, I think there are outstanding opportunities for us to expand our partnership. The Forest Service and Tribes share about 2,100 miles of contiguous boundary. Watersheds and ecosystems cross our boundaries all over the country, and they need cooperative management. In many places, we face the same threats, and no one of us can handle them alone—particularly the threats associated with overgrown forests and degraded grasslands, such as exceptionally severe wildfires and outbreaks of insects and disease; or the spread of nonnative invasive plants, insects, and diseases, stealing our natural heritage away from our children and grandchildren.

These threats do not respect borders and boundaries. They spread from national forest land to tribal land and back again. But working together on a landscape scale, we can do something about them. We can protect the forests, fish, wildlife, waters, soils, and air that we all depend on to live.

I think these are some of the things we have in common, and we are entering into more and more partnerships with Tribes to achieve our common goals. Now I’d like to discuss some of those opportunities.

Fire Management

I mentioned the wildfire threat to our communities and natural resources. American Indians and Alaska Natives are a large part of our nation’s firefighting force. We often rely on fire crews from tribal communities to suppress fires and to respond to all kinds of other emergencies. The hurricanes we just had along the Gulf Coast are a case in point. Many tribal fire crews were deployed to the Gulf States, and many are still hard at work there today.

The citizens of the Gulf Coast owe a debt of gratitude to Indian and Alaska Native firefighters. I think I speak not only for the Forest Service, but also for our entire nation in coming before you today and extending our sincerest gratitude to Tribes for their service and sacrifice.

We can never repay that debt. But we can take the opportunity to strengthen our partnership with tribal firefighters. One way is through workshops to build the capacity of Indian and Alaska Native fire crews. These training sessions are being conducted by the Society of American Foresters working with the Intertribal Information Technology Corporation. Workshops recently took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Ocean Shores, Washington. There will be at least two additional workshops in fiscal year 2006.

Office of Tribal Relations

Five years ago, when I became Chief of the Forest Service, I had a long-term vision—a vision for strengthening our relationship with Tribes. We started by creating an Office of Tribal Relations within the agency. Dale Kanen is the director, and Dale has joined me here today.

The role of the Office of Tribal Relations is to make sure that the programs we administer that affect Tribes are based on respectful, supportive government-to-government relationships. The office staff works with employees throughout the Forest Service to strengthen external and internal coordination and communication about tribal concerns. They are also responsible for the education and training our employees need to work effectively with tribal governments.

For example, the Office of Tribal Relations recently sponsored the first ever Tribal Law Training, a one-day session designed for directors and staff in our national office in Washington, DC. The training outlined the legal basis for our government-to-government relationships and clarified our responsibilities and authorities when working with Tribes.  

National Tribal Leaders Committee

When I first started as Chief, I also envisioned a National Tribal Leaders Committee to give Tribes a voice in issues important to Indian Country. I want to institutionalize our government-to-government commitment to Tribes, and the National Tribal Leaders Committee can help us do that by providing Forest Service leadership with regular input and advice.

The size and shape of this committee is still under discussion, but we hope to have it up and running by next year. We sent a letter to the Forest Service Regional Foresters to consult with Tribes on the development of the committee.

TribalForest Protection Act

I mentioned overgrown forests and degraded grasslands and the need to work together across the landscape to restore ecosystem health. It takes hard work, and we can’t do it alone. We need help from our neighbors and partners.

The Tribal Forest Protection Act gives us some great opportunities for this kind of collaboration, and we’re currently drafting a policy for implementing the Act. That policy is based on comments we received from Tribes during consultation with them last winter. The policy will give the Forest Service new authority to accept tribal project proposals for work on national forest land to protect adjacent tribal trust lands.

In the meantime, we are already discussing possible proposals with Tribes. In fact, we already approved the first project just this last August, with the Hoopa Valley Tribe in northwestern California. The project will reduce fuels and the threat of fire along the shared border between the Six Rivers Nationals Forest and the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation.

Sacred Sites

At the Forest Service, we recognize a solemn obligation to respect and protect sites on national forest land that are sacred to Tribes. A Forest Service team is developing a national policy for managing and protecting sacred sites. The team held listening sessions throughout Indian Country with tribal elders, traditional practitioners, and other tribal representatives. They also took a hard look at the legal framework for managing sacred sites.

The team recently submitted its report to our leadership and we are currently reviewing the proposed policy and discussing steps for holding further consultations with Tribes. Once the policy is in place, we will offer training for our employees on how to ensure that sacred sites are protected and well managed.

SpecialForest Products Policy

As you well know, many national forests furnish Tribes with plant materials needed for special purposes, such as traditional medicines or tribal ceremonies. At the Forest Service, we recognize a solemn obligation to respect and protect these special tribal uses of national forest land. We are working on a special forest products policy designed to do just that.

The new policy will authorize us to regulate and conserve native plant materials on national forest land. Last year, the draft policy was sent to Tribes for review and comment, resulting in significant changes to the draft. The latest draft regulations will again be available for tribal comment when they are published in the Federal Register.

Natural Partners

In closing, let me just say that during my 40 years in the Forest Service, I have always valued our government-to-government relationship and our trust obligations. I have great respect for all tribal people, and I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to appear here today.

Tribal people and the Forest Service are natural partners. We share the same country and the same natural heritage. The knowledge, expertise, and spiritual respect for natural resources that tribal peoples bring to land management are part of what we need to learn and apply to the land to restore degraded ecosystems and to keep our shared landscapes healthy. We have rich opportunities to work together in areas such as wildland fire protection, sustainable forest management, and ecosystem restoration.

I come today as your neighbor asking your help. I urge you to take advantage of every opportunity to share with us your thoughts, insights, and knowledge. We are committed to working with you to protect all the values and benefits we get from the land in Indian Country. With your help, the Forest Service can become a more effective and efficient partner. With your help, we will meet our obligation to future generations to keep the landscapes we share healthy and productive forever.

US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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