New Tribal Forestry concentration provides deeper understanding for future foresters

By Lupita Rivera and Raven Marshall

In collaboration with the Native American Studies Department, the Humboldt State University Forestry Department is offering a new concentration in tribal forestry.

“Students hopefully can learn about this relationship that people can have to the land that’s not just destructive.”

Erin Kelly

The collaboration that’s been brewing for two years kicks off during the peculiar Fall 2020 semester offering forestry students the opportunity to learn about tribal sovereignty, law and governance.

Forestry professor Erin Kelly believes the collaboration stems from the need to combine forestry and the understanding of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Humboldt State occupies the traditional land of the Wiyot people and is uniquely placed where prominent tribes in land management

Kelly hopes this concentration leads to further collaboration among forestry studies and TEK.

“Students hopefully can learn about this relationship that people can have to the land that’s not just destructive,” Kelly said. “I think there’s this idea that either land is used, it’s used for extraction or it’s protected, and that’s a really false dichotomy, that people can be a part of the land and can be managers.”

She said since the colonization of Native lands in the United States, traditional land management practices of Native Peoples have been disregarded and vilified leading to damaged ecosystems. Part of the
knowledge lost is an understanding of working with ecosystem processes instead of fighting against them.

Christopher Villarruel, a member of the Ajumawi band of the Pit River Nation and HSU forest hydrology student, said he would have picked up
the concentration had it been available when he first started. He helped with presentations and discussions when the concentration was in the works.

To him, this concentration was a no brainer. Local tribes have long been involved in managing their natural resources in ways they deem fit, including his. Foresters looking to work with local tribes needed a concentration that better prepares them in understanding the federal laws and policies that affect tribes’ right to manage these resources.

Having worked with the Hoopa Natural Resources Department, Villarruel gained experience communicating with government agencies and private landowners to engage cultural practices with and on the land. Students with the tribal forestry concentration will have the benefit of understanding how this all works before they head into the field.

Villarruel describes the benefits of this concentration as “cultural competency” for non-Native foresters. But it goes way beyond cultural competency.

“Different tribes may be managing resources for different aspects, but one thing that’s common to all of us is the significance of exercising our sovereignty, and not relinquishing that sovereignty when it comes to any project, exercising our culture or managing our own resources,” Villarruel said.
With an understanding of tribal sovereignty and cultural practices, future foresters can redefine the destructive Eurocentric land management practices that have muted Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

Third-year forestry student Luca Bisharat-Gunderson was the first student to sign up for the concentration. She hopes to work in partnership with tribes someday and is hopeful in the skills the concentration will provide for her.

“I think taking these classes is going to give me the skills and understanding for Native American perspectives about land management,” she said. “And if that’s something that other people are interested in, that’s going to be really helpful for being of service in the best possible way.”

Even forestry students that will not work with local tribes will be able to better understand and respect tribal sovereignty. Villaruel looks to the future and sees students not working with tribes taking key positions in land management decisions at the state and federal levels. These students are future foresters that will meet with government agents and tribes to
make key decisions on land management projects.

A tribal forestry concentration marks the beginning of a new wave of well-balanced foresters that will have the advantage of understanding the nuances of tribal law, policy, and land management.

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