WASHINGTON (CN) - Taking the United States to court, an Arizona-based Native American tribe blames federal mismanagement for putting their once thriving timber industry against the ropes.
Describing itself as the country’s 11th largest Indian reservation, the White Mountain Apache note that their vast natural resources “are of enormous economic importance to the tribe.”
“If managed correctly, the reservation’s natural resources would sustain the tribe and its members into the foreseeable future,” their complaint states, filed on March 15 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
Though the United States has held these resources in trust for the tribe since at least 1871, the White Mountain Apache say mismanagement has resulted in substantial losses — the full extent of which is not yet known.
One failure described in the complaint the complaint is the government’s abandonment of forest planning. The tribe notes that the last forest management plan was set to run from 2005 through 2014, but the United States has no plans to update it before 2019.
Timber and irrigable agriculture land are a very valuable asset to the tribe, which notes that it is home to one of the world's largest strands of Ponderosa pine. Most of the tribe's 1.3 million forested acres includes accessible commercial timberland and woodlands.
As a renewable resources, according to the complaint, “the tribe’s forests would provide substantial revenue and employment for the tribe and its members indefinitely." The United States just needs to manage them properly.
Instead, however, regulators have allegedly failed to conduct forest-thinning processes, which are necessary to reduce fire risk, and they have failed to control disease and insect infestation.
The expired forest management plan “estimates an annual loss of approximately $800,000 due to mistletoe infection,” according to the complaint.
Spruce beetles meanwhile have allegedly cost the tribe more than 100 million board feet of timber, while bark beetles have impacted approximately 25,000 acres of reservation forests.
Though the tribe owns a sawmill, it says the out-of-date inventory associated with the plan is “wholly insufficient for planning sawmill operations.”
The tribe’s sawmill was designed for large-diameter trees, but small-diameter trees now form the bulk of the tribe’s forests, according to the complaint.
In addition to not helping the tribe update its sawmill, however, the United States has not offered any assistance in developing markets for the smaller trees.
The reservation’s logging mills meanwhile are undermaintained. This caused the train to sustain tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary trucking and road-maintenance expenses in executing the sale of lone pine timber alone.
Mismanagement of a major dam repair project has also cost the tribe, it says.
When the United States began repairs on Davis Dam in 2014, it fully drained Hawley Lake, the manmade body of water it feeds, without any legitimate basis.
“The draining of the lake proved to be unnecessary,” but its effects were severe on the fishery and local tourism economy, according to the complaint.
Aside from nonmonetary resources, the tribe notes that “the United States has never provided a reliable, accurate or complete accounting to the tribe of its trust funds.”
This has been the case since 1946, according to the complaint.
The tribe notes that its claims are echoed by other tribes across the country, pointing to an investigation by the Government Accounting Office in the 1990s, which determined that, despite a "massive attempt to reconcile tribal accounts, missing records and system limitations made a full reconciliation impossible.”
Reports by the independent Indian Forest Management Assessment Team specifically called the systems set up by the government "insufficient" and "understaffed and underfunded" leaving the tribe hamstrung.
Representatives at the Interior Department did not return a call for comment.
The tribe is represented by Brian Chestnut, an attorney with the firm Zionsk Chestnut in Seattle.
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