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Maintaining Healthy Tribal Forests

Producer Profile: Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians

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"The EQIP program from the NRCS has been a godsend. Without financial support from the EQIP program to do pre-commercial thinning, many of our stands wouldn't get thinned.." -- Mike Kennedy

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Healthy forests are an integral part of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians’ way of life—spiritually, culturally and economically.

“I love working in the forest. It just feels good to be out here,” says Kevin Goodell, a Siletz tribal member who serves on the tribe’s natural resources crew. Goodell has worked in the Siletz forests since 1985.

“We are involved in all aspects of the forest, from the planning stage on up,” Goodell says. “We log the trees, we go back in and plant them, we thin them—it’s a cycle that keeps the forest healthy and keeps it here for future generations, for my kids and grandkids.”

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Top: : Kevin Goodell, a Siletz tribal member who works on the tribe’s natural resources crew, uses a chainsaw to break apart pieces of a fallen tree. Bottom: From atop a steep mountain slope, here’s an open view of Siletz tribal forestland, taken about one year after pre-commercial thinning was completed. Pre-commercial thinning removes unhealthy or diseased trees and allows more space and sunlight for the healthier trees to grow taller, stronger, and more resilient. Before thinning, the forest was dense, dark, and overcrowded. The pictured dense forest is slated for pre-commercial thinning in the future. NRCS photos by Tracy Robillard.

To achieve their forestry goals, the Siletz Tribe is working with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to obtain technical and financial assistance for pre-commercial thinning.

“The overall focus on the Siletz project is forest health,” says Kate Danks, NRCS district conservationist in Lincoln County. “Pre-commercial thinning is an essential forestry conservation practice because it removes damaged and diseased trees, and it opens up the canopy, allowing more sunlight for the healthier trees to grow. The open understory also provides better wildlife habitat.”

But that’s just the visible part; what happens in the soil is just as important to forest health. The thinned trees are cut into pieces and left on the ground, where they decompose and supply organic matter to the soil.

“The decomposition process encourages all kinds of biological activity under the surface of the soil,” Danks said. “With increased organic content, the soil can hold more water through infiltration, which in turn reduces run-off and soil erosion.”

NRCS financial assistance is made possible through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)—a popular Farm Bill program that reimburses producers for a portion of the cost to implement conservation practices on private lands. Payments vary based on producer eligibility and conservation practices. EQIP offers a higher cost incentive rate for tribes and other historically-underserved producers.

“The EQIP program from the NRCS has been a godsend,” says Mike Kennedy, director of natural resources for the Siletz Tribe. “Without financial support from the EQIP program to do pre-commercial thinning, many of our stands wouldn’t get thinned. We just don’t have the funding to complete the vast workload.”

“Our relationship with the local NRCS has been great,” Kennedy added.

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Kate Danks (left), NRCS district conservationist for Lincoln County, and Mike Kennedy, natural resources director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, examine a fallen tree that was removed during pre-commercial thinning. NRCS photo by Tracy Robillard.

About 15,000 acres of the Siletz’ tribal land is managed for forestry, which equates to 96 percent of the tribe’s total land. Currently, the tribe has contracted pre-commercial thinning on 833 acres of priority forestlands. In the last three years, the tribe has thinned 327 acres through NRCS contracts—and most of that work was completed by Goodell and his crew.

“When we start work on a typical unit, it’s pretty dense in there,” Goodell says. “The trees are planted really close together when we start out, that’s why we have to come in there and thin them, so we can get more sunlight in. It allows the trees to grow better, and they’re not having to compete with other trees so closely. It just makes for a healthier tree.”

Before thinning, the stand stocking rate was about 250 to 300 trees per acre. Now, the density ranges from 170 to 200 trees per acre, allowing more space for the healthy trees to grow taller, stronger, and more resilient.

Not only is pre-commercial thinning good for the forest, but it also contributes to the economic livelihood of the tribe.

“The tribe depends on the revenue from its timber harvest, so we must have a healthy, well-growing forest,” Kennedy says. “If the trees don’t grow the way we expect them to grow, or if they’re too crowded, then we won’t get the size trees that we want. We won’t get the future revenue that we expect to get from the forest.”

In addition to the Siletz Tribe, NRCS is actively engaged with the eight other federally-recognized tribes in Oregon. Current tribal contracts with NRCS include forestry, rangeland health, and sage grouse habitat improvements.

“Often times our tribes don’t have the financial or technical resources that they need to reach their tribal goals—including both their natural resources goals and their cultural resources goals,” says Kathy Ferge, NRCS Oregon tribal liaison. “For example, they may use lands for hunting and gathering for tribal members. So our involvement goes beyond the typical work that NRCS does, to help them meet their cultural resource goals as well.”

“I believe the NRCS staff in Oregon really go out of their way to engage the tribes and to make our programs accessible to them,” Ferge says. “I’m very proud of the type of planning we’re able to do that specifically serves the tribal needs in the way that they want to work.”

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A scenic view from atop a forested ridge on the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians’ tribal forestlands in Lincoln County, Oregon. NRCS photo by Tracy Robillard.

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