Tribe takes steps to protect, restore local forests

The Nooksack Indian Tribe signed a historic agreement with the U.S. Forest Service in February that will protect treaty resources.

From mountains to river valleys, healthy forests are needed to preserve resources integral to Nooksack culture, from salmon to cedar. Under the new agreement, the tribe will co-manage lands within the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The agreement was long sought by the tribe’s natural and cultural resources staff.

“I put my hands up to our natural resources department,” said Nooksack Chairwoman RoseMary LaClair. “They work every day to protect our treaty resources and honor the wishes of our ancestors.”

Nooksack families plant cottonwood seedlings.

Establishing the agreement was a continuation of the work of earlier generations, said George Swanaset Jr., the tribe’s cultural resources director.

“Our ancestors are with us all the time. We are just continuing the fight,” he said. “There are a lot of things in those mountains that haven’t been touched by anyone but our people, so when there is logging or other plans, we get concerned.”

Nooksack ancestors relied on areas that today are within the national forest to harvest berries, elk and other resources.

“Since time immemorial, the Nooksack people have hunted, fished, and harvested plants and other resources found on lands now managed by the U.S. Forest Service to meet their subsistence, spiritual, cultural, and medicinal needs, and for the purposes of trade and commerce,” the new agreement states.

For decades, access to those resources has been limited and the resources themselves diminished. Nooksack Councilwoman Victoria Joe said she didn’t realize how lucky she was to have salmon and venison as a child because her family hunted and fished.

“I remember growing up thinking we were poor because we didn’t buy groceries,” she said. “Today I’m truly a poor Indian because I don’t have fish in my freezer.”

The new agreement will help protect resources including salmon, improve the tribe’s involvement in land management, and remove obstacles for tribal access to treaty resources within the national forest.

“Thank you for working with us to protect our way of life,” tribal member Clayton Roberts said to Forest Service staff when the agreement was signed. “What we use out in nature is not only for sustenance…It’s what makes us, us.”

Investing in the future

On the same day the Forest Service agreement was signed, Nooksack families, in a separate partnership with the Whatcom Land Trust and nonprofit Indigenous Beginnings, planted a future forest along the South Fork Nooksack River.

Mature forest is needed along the Nooksack River to provide eventual woody debris habitat.

Tribal youth learned about the value of riverside forests for salmon and placed dozens of Douglas fir and cottonwood seedlings in the ground. Over time, the trees will grow larger than the children who planted them, providing benefits for salmon including shade, stormwater filtration and, eventually, new logjam habitat for the fish.

This type of riverside vegetation is critical in the South Fork where high water temperatures have killed salmon in recent years.

Treaty protection advocate Jeremiah Johnny said it felt good to contribute to the planting.

“It’s amazing what we got done,” he said.

Above: A Nooksack youth plants a Douglas fir seedling near the South Fork Nooksack River in February. Story and photos: Kimberly Cauvel