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Northwest Regions

Communication and Collaboration to Grow the Tribal Forestry Workforce

By Andrea Watts

In 2013, the Indian Forest Management Assessment Team (IFMAT) released its third 10-year periodic assessment of Indian forestlands. Of the eight National Indian Forest Resource Management Act-mandated task reports, Task C “Staffing patterns of BIA and tribal forestry organizations” focused specifically on employment and workforce development.

Among its key findings: in 2012, 51.1 percent of Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal forestry, and fire employees were 50 years and older; and 24.1 percent were in the young professional demographic of 30 to 40 years old.

In 2018, the Intertribal Timber Council (ITC) created a Workforce Development Workgroup to generate ideas for increasing the tribal workforce to fill the positions that would become available as older employees retired. The workgroup’s discussion produced the ITC Workforce Development Strategic Plan 2018-2022, and the group identified four strategic pillars necessary to increase workforce development.

  1. Develop organizational capacity to collaborate with partners to implement workforce development strategies.
  2. Support membership and leadership programs.
  3. Create communication initiatives that use modern technology.
  4. Develop recruitment and engagement strategies.

To address the collaboration and communication pillars, the Growing the Tribal Forestry Workforce in the Pacific Northwest and Beyond project was started. “The impetus for this project was to address that gap [identified by the IFMAT report] and that need to train up more people in the workforce,” explains Stephanie Cowherd, the forests and community program manager at Ecotrust and project manager of the tribal forestry workforce development project, and a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, adding, “It’s not just focused on Native youth, but also underemployed adults looking for opportunities to take skills they have and transition to a new career.”

Cowherd is the Tribal Forestry Workforce project developer. The project is funded by the US Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry program and project partners includes representatives with the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corporation, the United South and Eastern Tribes, Heritage University, the Intertribal Timber Council, and Ecotrust.

Surveying and assessing

The first phase of the project was conducting a survey of tribes to identify current tribal workforce programs and the future needs. “The intention was to look at commonalities to connect tribal forestry programs with each other’s learning and training opportunities,” Cowherd explains.

Of the nearly 50 individuals who responded to the survey, they represent over 20 tribes that produce 95 percent of the tribal timber volume in the United States.

Once the data is analyzed, Cowherd says that phase two will consist of conducting one-on-one interviews with the tribal foresters to gain a more qualitative and deeper understanding of findings to include in the report. Originally, phase three was to identify and place interns with tribal forestry programs across the Pacific Northwest.

“Unfortunately, that’s on hold until covid-19 is over,” she says. “We were also going to do a field tour with high school students to introduce them to different tribal forestry programs and careers, and [build relationships] with other tribal youth but that won’t happen until 2021 or 2022.”

What was able to move forward was a modified intergenerational mentorship program at Heritage University. Indigenous undergraduate students studying environmental science were paired with Yakama National Tribal School (YNTS) students to conduct a research study on the demonstration forest on the YNTS high school grounds. Through this program, students learned forestry skills, both online and through land-based learning activities. “The students really liked it,” explains Cowherd. “We got great feedback and had four students complete research posters on their given topic, and we’re going to do it again next year.” She also credits the Yakama Nation Natural Resources staff whose support made the program possible.

Screenshots_Student_Presentations_Page_1 top photo.jpg
Building a tribal forestry workforce means connecting the next generation to
the careers available in natural resources. Through the intergenerational
mentorship program at Heritage University, Yakama National Tribal School
students learned forestry skills and completed research posters as a
capstone to their research project.

Screenshots_Student_Presentations_Page_2 cropped.jpg

The value of partnerships and connectivity

This fall, one of the project’s first deliverables, the Growing the Tribal Forestry Workforce in the Pacific Northwest and Beyond report, will be published. However, there is one key finding that Cowherd can share early.

“Tribes that have bigger tribal forestry programs and produce more timber volume have relationships with extension foresters,” she says. “Through these partnerships with extension foresters, the tribes also had learning opportunities and technical trainings for their staff. They also reported having student programming as a result of these partnerships. What we’re realizing is that tribes who partner externally have more available resources to their tribal forestry program for learning opportunities.”

What wasn’t mentioned in the survey responses but has been identified as a barrier to increasing the tribal forestry workforce capacity is the lack of reliable internet connectivity in rural areas so tribal members can pursue higher education opportunities. “A common theme that keeps coming up is the access to distance learning or the access to higher education,” explains Cowherd. “A lot of people would be great candidates for open positions, but these positions require a bachelor’s degree or professional certificate and these potential candidates maybe don’t have those credentials.”

Although covid-19 has resulted in adjusting the project time, Cowherd does see a silver lining in how educators are experimenting with online learning, which would benefit rural tribal members seeking higher education. “Covid-19 is pushing forestry programs to think about how they can adapt their curriculum into a hybrid format because everything’s online now,” she says. “[We need to] think about how we can tailor these lessons specifically for tribal forestry programs and for potential future tribal forestry staff.”

Another key point that came out of the workforce development discussions is the need to engage middle school and elementary children about forestry and emphasize the careers available in forestry and natural resources.

As for how Cowherd anticipates how the report will be used, “hopefully the outcome is connecting tribal forestry programs to resources and engaging in knowledge sharing around workforce development,” she says. “Now more than ever, it’s important to connect tribes with each other to address the need of why the report is needed, which is that a lot of tribal forestry staff will be retiring in the next decade. Tribes ideally would like to fill those positions with tribal members, so we need support learning opportunities and trainings for tribal members in forestry so that they can support their tribe.”

For questions about the project, contact Stephanie Cowherd at For more information about the Tribal Forestry Workforce project, visit

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