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“The earth is our mother,” Chief Seattle is famously quoted as saying in 1854. “Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory.” This kind of sentiment is part of the lore of Native Americans that has caused the conquering European-Americans to feel guilty about the disgraceful treatment accorded the original Americans. The quote also points out the superior ecological values of Indian tribes.
Despite its frequent use, the quote from the Chief is a fake. Tribes were not paragons of ecological virtue as envisioned today. Large fires, for example, were set to force animals out of the woods for often “wasteful slaughters.” Today it is generally recognized that Native Americans did not deserve the treatment received during westward expansion of the nation. The actions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies deserve careful scrutiny. Similarly, Indians deserve serious consideration for their treatment of the environment, given the harsh realities of the world they lived in.
In this policy series, Alison Berry continues her work on the quality of forests that result under different management schemes. She contrasts side-by-side forests in Montana. One is operated by the United States Forest Service under the watchful eye of Congress. The other is run by Indian tribes on reservation lands. The Indians win this battle.
Berry shows that the tribes manage their land more efficiently for timber production and for ecological value. On both the cost and output side of the equation, the tribes do a better job. This is not because Indians are born to appreciate the environment more than people who work for the Forest Service. As Berry explains, the tribes need forest productivity to support their livelihood. The Forest Service is a federal bureaucracy.
There is a lesson to be learned here. Congressional policies controlling the massive areas of timber land are not producing good results no matter how they are measured. A for-profit lesson from the Native Americans is in order.
This essay is part of the PERC Policy Series of papers on timely environmental topics. This issue was edited by Roger Meiners and Laura Huggins and designed by Mandy-Scott Bachelier.