Photo credit: Susie Criswell
By Bruno Ubiali
CICR has been working with the Natural Resources Department of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and partners from the U.S.D.A. Forest Service since the Fall 2019. This collaboration aims to foster tribal aspirations related to forest management through faculty and student research . Throughout these three years of partnership, the EBCI Natural Resources Department members and ICON faculty and students have been iteratively discussing and refining research objectives. These conversations resulted in literature reviews by ICON students addressing the collective needs and concerns of EBCI, particularly their challenges to restoring tribal forest practices and values.
The forests of the southern Appalachian region of the United States have been managed by Indigenous groups who have used fire as a landscape management tool for thousands of years. These burning practices are based on deep knowledge of the local ecology and have shaped the way forests function as well as their biological diversity. With colonization and the suppression of Indigenous management, these forests began to change, and species of cultural importance, such as White Oak, became rare. In addition to reducing biodiversity, this has undermined EBCI’s cultural relationships with forests, which are crucial to their economic and spiritual practices and well-being.
Basket making is a distinguishing feature of the EBCI tribe and a highly valued cultural practice. One of EBCI’s primary goals is to restore White Oak, a tree species of cultural importance the tribe uses for basket making. Nevertheless, White Oak has suffered from long-term, colonization-derived fire exclusion and increasing levels of shading and moisture in EBCI forests – a phenomenon named “mesophication.” This has led to a cycle in which White Oak and other sun-loving species have difficulty surviving. In order to find their increasingly rare raw material – White Oak trees – basket makers must travel long hours throughout their territory in Western North Carolina.
Building on previous students’ reports, the most recent work consisted of reviewing literature to identify practical management steps toward restoring fire-dependent ecosystems on EBCI lands and the development of a burn prioritization model that prioritizes areas most likely to induce White Oak regeneration through fire. The literature review on ecosystem restoration does not provide scientific information on restoring to a past ecosystem state but rather informs EBCI’s efforts to recreating the necessary ecosystem conditions that can meet the present and future aspirations of the Tribe. The students built on ecological science and brought an increasingly recognized value-based approach to ecosystem restoration to articulate Cherokee cultural values for managing and monitoring interventions. The burn prioritization model provides a step-by-step method for prioritizing locations for fire restoration on EBCI and adjacent USDA FS lands. The students prioritized areas with the potential for White Oak regeneration through the overlay of data on vegetation, soils, aspect and other variables known to be favorable for White Oak. By translating theory into practice, this work provides information to guide EBCI managers and land users on their management actions toward restoring ecosystems, culturally important species, and EBCI’s forest-based practices.
This work runs parallel to broader efforts from EBCI to regain rights and responsibilities related to natural resource management in their traditional territories. The collaboration builds on EBCI’s endeavor to strengthen Indigenous cultural practices that became more difficult with a long-term history of colonization that severely affected their forests’ ecology. This partnership thus works through complex historical social-ecological challenges and deep concerns stemming from the alienation of Indigenous communities from resources essential to their lifeways and well-being.
Aligned with ICON’s vision, this work builds on the expertise of not only EBCI and UGA members but also the U.S.D.A. Forest Service partners, particularly from researchers in the Southern Research Station in Athens. The role of the U. S.D.A. Forest Service is instrumental in this process, as the expertise of their researchers provided much-needed information about the tribal-federal relationship and how to develop a burn prioritization model.