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Forest

Tribal members Matt “MJ” Parrish and William Hargis prepare to plant seedlings on a newly harvested site in the Coquille Tribal Forest.

BRIDGE — You could call it revolutionary.

Or you could call it just getting back to normal.

For the first time in a century and a half, the Coquille Indian Tribe is preparing to manage its forest land by its own rules. Under federal legislation signed in January, the tribe no longer must follow the “standards and guidelines” of federal agencies.

“Now the tribe can begin to lay the foundation for forest management for generations to come,” said Darin Jarnaghan, the tribe’s natural resources director.

The likely result? Increased timber production. A more flexible, sensible approach to environmental protection. Attention to a wide range of species instead of just a few.

“Our focus is on a holistic, balanced approach to forest management,” said Colin Beck, the tribe’s forest manager. “We don’t want to provide for timber harvest while ignoring the needs of the ecosystem, or manage for one or two species while ignoring other management goals. Our goal is to provide a sustained level of timber harvest while still meeting the needs of all of the species that call the forest home.”

Getting out from under the federal rules is a huge step for the Coquilles – a step that takes the tribe both forward and back. Ancestors of today’s Coquille people once roamed more than 1 million acres of southwestern Oregon. They conscientiously managed the forests, using fire and other methods to cultivate desirable plant species and wildlife habitat.

That history breeds a sense of reverent responsibility in tribal members. Matt “MJ” Parrish, a tribal member who works on a forest crew, explains the feeling:

“It’s an honor to be here doing this work for future generations,” he said. “I’m a steward of the land. That’s what I’m here for.”

The Coquille Tribe’s ancestral stewardship lasted until the 1850s, when coastal Indians were driven from their homelands to make way for miners and settlers. The tribe was landless until Congress established the 5,400-acre Coquille Tribal Forest in 1996. Even then, the land came with a condition: The Coquilles would be “coupled” to federal management practices.

Coupling turned out to be costly. Starting in the late 1990s, environmental lawsuits and regulations made logging all but impossible on federal lands. Although tribal land managers consistently outperformed federal agencies, they chafed under cumbersome federal rules.

The situation festered until January 2018, when President Donald Trump signed the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act. At last, the new law not only removed arbitrary federal restrictions, it also freed the tribe from lawsuits filed by environmental activists.

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Now Jarnaghan and his staff are making plans for managing under the new law. Some expected changes include:

• Stream buffers will become more sensible. Instead of arbitrarily banning harvest within 220 feet of a stream, the tribe will capitalize on scientific studies showing responsible ways to use varying buffers.

• The harvest system likewise will be more flexible. Instead of designating broad no-cut zones, the tribe may cut individual trees, or select clumps of trees to be left as wildlife habitat.

• In keeping with ancestral practices, some areas will be managed for multiple resources. Instead of focusing solely on marketable timber, the tribe values plant species such as bear grass, hazel and camas, all used for food or basketry material.

A key difference in the new law is that the tribe won’t need a federal agency’s approval for every decision. Once Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke approves the tribe’s management plan, the tribe will have broad autonomy within the plan’s boundaries.

On this small segment of the tribe’s ancestral homeland, the Coquille people’s ancient partnership with nature finally can be restored.

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