When the Tongass National Forest was created in 1907, the U.S. Forest Service became the primary land manager of millions of acres of land that had been cared for by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian communities for over 10,000 years. For decades, many Alaska Native citizens have felt marginalized by the federal government’s land management system and public processes that have been imposed on, and not built with Indigenous people.
The Forest Service has sought to repair relationships and honor obligations to Southeast Alaska’s Tribal nations.
In July 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy [https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r10/landmanagement/resourcemanagement/?cid=FSEPRD950023]. This strategy called for leaders within USDA agencies — including the Forest Service, Rural Development and Natural Resources Conservation Service — to strengthen consultation and collaboration efforts with tribal governments, partners and communities to identify priorities and investments that support local economies, enhance community resilience, and conserve natural resources in the region. Specifically, USDA staff were instructed to build on the collaborative work that has been led by tribes, Alaska Native corporations, and “other partnerships that reflect principles of collaboration and respect for Indigenous knowledge.”
So how is the agency keeping true to its commitment to improve relationships with Southeast Alaska’s original caretakers?
For insight, we sit with Jennifer Hanlon, tribal relations specialist for the Tongass National Forest. She discusses the shifts she’s seen in Tongass management during her lifetime growing up in Yakutat and more recently, working with the Forest Service. We learn about the Yakutat River Rangers program, which Hanlon leveraged as an opportunity to enhance collaboration between her tribe and the agency. She talks about the challenges and opportunities she perceives, and discusses her transition from working with tribal governments for nearly a decade, to her current role within the federal government.
Can you begin by giving an introduction to yourself and your role with the United States Forest Service?
Before any professional affiliation, I am Tlingit and my roots and lineage run deep in the Tongass. I am Teik.weidi (Eagle/Brown bear clan) from Yakutat and the daughter of the Luknax.adi (Raven/Coho clan). I grew up in a commercial and subsistence fishing family where our cultural and economic livelihoods depend on a balanced relationship with our natural surroundings. My love for culture inspired me to pursue an education and career in natural resource management.
I serve as the head tribal relations specialist with the Tongass and have been in this position for over a year. My primary role is to help develop relationships between the USDA Forest Service and federally recognized tribal governments, as well as Alaska Native corporations. This role helps foster relationships built on trust and accountability and as part of broader obligations that come from various authorities including the U.S. Constitution that recognizes the sovereignty of tribal nations.
Can you share a bit about your trajectory into this position and some of your previous work between the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe and the Forest Service?
In my former role as the environmental director with the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, I built various environmental and natural resource programs that the tribe would operate. That included projects framed around traditional foods, ranging from monitoring food sources for contamination, to preserving the availability and abundance of foods that has nourished our people since time immemorial. The ranger district would commit their interns or available staff to come with me into the field when I was understaffed or needed extra support.
My former supervisor Nathan Moulton encouraged me to pursue and assisted with going after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funding meant to enhance tribal communities’ ability to participate in federal subsistence management. Working with the Forest Service, we built a collaborative proposal to enhance the Yakutat River Rangers program by getting the tribe involved. In 2020 we were awarded the funding for the tribe to join the River Rangers to shadow and learn from their respective work. They go out in the field, learn more about and monitor the area, and interact with various river users. The tribe’s biologist is able to collect data that helps inform and guide the tribe in participating in the Southeast Alaska Regional Advisory Council and federal subsistence meetings.
What was the impetus for crafting the Yakutat River Rangers Program specifically? What have been some of the outcomes?
The Yakutat River Rangers program had been in existence, but operated by the Yakutat Ranger District as the tribe previously had limited staff and funding. The River Rangers provide stewardship guidelines and promote good etiquette to an increasing number of visiting sports fishermen to the area. Working closely with Nate Catterson, a fisheries biologist for the Tongass National Forest, we were able to put together a proposal for the tribe to hire a fisheries biologist that would contribute to the River Rangers program.
Developing the capacity of the tribe to operate its own fisheries program was prompted by community concerns about salmon returns diminishing over the years and addressing the need to have more information available. Overall, the partnership with the Forest Service helped fill data gaps and enhanced the tribe’s ability to be out in the field, interact with visitors who are using an important traditional resource, while having a stronger tribal presence on the water. That initial collaboration between the tribe and USFS has since grown to include stream restoration, eulachon monitoring, beach cleanups and more. I’m encouraged to learn that the tribe received additional funding to retain Hava Rohloff as the tribe’s biologist and continue to nurture the development of a tribal fisheries program.
So now you work with the Forest Service. Can you describe that transition of working with the USFS on behalf of the tribe, to now working with tribes on behalf of the USFS?
It was a hard decision to consider working for the federal government, as I had been driven to serve my tribal community and didn’t want to step away from the programs I put my soul into building. But I focused on the opportunities this role would provide, benefiting the tribes on a much broader scale. I’m fortunate to carry forward existing relationships but the dynamics have changed, now that I am in a federal role. I’m grateful I am able to carry insights and experiences as a former tribal government employee to help ease tensions or misunderstandings.
What does your work look like on the ground?
My initial focus has been working with the Rangers that have decision-making authority and overseeing how government-to-government consultation occurs, and the basic obligations are upheld. I’m also in a position to create cultural awareness within the Forest Service. There’s well-intended individuals that aren’t familiar with anything Indigenous. That’s really not their fault as it’s a consequence of the education system where there is not a comprehensive history or contemporary understanding of the first people from the North American continent.
Can you describe some of the changes you’ve seen between the Forest Service and tribal government relations over the course of your lifetime?
I played a particular role while working for tribal governments, mostly in environmental and natural resource programs. In that capacity, I’ve always had a strong working relationship with the USFS field staff and in a district that didn’t experience much turnover. But I know that’s more kumbaya than what may be typical. I know there are some situations where the relationship has been tense and that’s not always because of a lack of understanding — it’s a deeper systemic issue.
It’s been encouraging to see how things are evolving to this day with the current administration recognizing the need and value of promoting tribal sovereignty, traditional ecological knowledge, and co-stewardship. This has been a pivotal shift — not just with the Forest Service, but across all federal agencies.
What is co-stewardship? How do you define it and what does it look like at its worst, at its best?
Co-stewardship doesn’t really have a standard definition and I think that’s intentional by design, since there’s a lot of variation on local priorities and a one-size-fits-all approach would not be appropriate. But I think some of the elements include sharing resources — whether that’s funding, staff, equipment and supplies, data or information — to work towards common goals and objectives. For example, that can look like sharing data that informs better decision making for both entities.
Practiced at its worst, it’s just an assumption on either side without having dialogue, that two-way conversation and mutual agreement. I think at its best, it’s a shared effort where both parties agree on true collaboration and it’s integrated from the planning stages through to the actual implementation of the work.
With the announcement and implementation of the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, and more recently with the process of making changes to the Forest Management Plan — does the USFS’s actions mirror their commitments?
Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy forest management (SASS-FM) is a process where the Forest Service has been seeking public and tribal input from the beginning, rather than coming out with a pre-developed plan and asking for comments. It’s an opportunity for the public to provide guidance to the agency on what aspects of forest management meet their needs and match the priorities in their community earlier on in the planning process than ever before. The input submitted online or during community meetings, will help the Forest Service develop a 10-year list of priority projects that helps meet community needs while sustainably managing the forest’s abundant natural resources.
For example, if a community identifies access to an abundance of traditional foods as a priority and they’ve identified an area that used to have a very strong salmon run, but it needs some work now because it’s been damaged by prior development, then a restoration project that can help meet that local need.
During the spring Sustainable Southeast Partnership retreat in Sitka you helped the Sitka Ranger District, Tlingit & Haida and Spruce Root run a meeting with visiting participants from all around the region to inform the SASS Forest Management process. Giant maps of the Tongass were spread across tables. Can you describe how that went and what you noticed?
We opened with an activity that asked participants to circle an area on that map that is special to them and to share memories from that area. I saw a lot of people wanting to circle the whole map, which indicates just how much people love and engage with local lands and waters.
The session was a great opportunity to interact and engage with so many perspectives and expertise, and so many people who care about the Tongass and to see everyone being inspired about the opportunities ahead.
It also highlights how the Forest Service could potentially change our approach for engagement because I know this is a shift from the way things are usually done where the agency would come out with a plan and then have public comments. Now, we’re trying to get the feedback input before a plan is put together. We are still learning how to move away from conducting business as usual and continue to improve, but it’s not going to all happen overnight.
It seems like part of improving tribal relations with the Forest Service is about changing the WAY the agency operates but some of it is also changing WHO the Forest Service is. Can you describe any shifts you’ve seen in expanding Tribal Relations and/or Indigenous representation within the Forest Service?
The Tongass has a new forest supervisor, Frank Sherman, who’s been very supportive of my respective work and he’s recognized that one person for the entire Tongass working in tribal relations is not sufficient. He’s authorized hiring additional tribal relations specialists and, in the near future, what has historically been a one-person-led program will soon become a team of six. That is going to enhance the agency’s ability to uphold our trust responsibilities to tribes and be able to further relationships, enhance our government-to-government obligations, and just have better interactions based on trust that won’t necessarily go away if one person moves on.
To close, I’d love to hear what drives you to continue this work and what excites you most?
What drives me is just having my ancestral roots go very deep in the Tongass — long before the National Forest System was established. What excites me is having the opportunity to create a broader change in agency culture and approach when it comes to engaging with the First Peoples of this land. I’m in a position to encourage reconciliation and build up trust and build up opportunities to work together by tapping into local knowledge and love of this area — and that will help the agency better live up to the Forest Service motto of “Caring for the Land and Serving People.”
From late February to the end of June, the Forest Service held community meetings, tribal consultations, online workshops, and other focused sessions to deeply listen to the region’s priorities and needs. The Forest Service is now processing this first phase of public engagement, and looking forward to applying the input towards a priority project list that will influence the next ten years of forest management.
• Bethany Goodrich is the storytelling program director for Sustainable Southeast Partnership. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. SSP can be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly.