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Colville Tribes sue U.S. government, seeking damages for failure to manage forests that burned in massive 2015 wildfires

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 4, 2021

Colville Tribal Chairman Andrew "Badger" Joseph pauses as he surveys the damage of the Chuweah Creek Fire on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, from the Colville Tribal Government building in Nespelem, Wash. Fire crews stopped the fire before it reached the building. The tribe is now suing the federal government over devastating wildfires from 2015.   (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Colville Tribal Chairman Andrew "Badger" Joseph pauses as he surveys the damage of the Chuweah Creek Fire on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, from the Colville Tribal Government building in Nespelem, Wash. Fire crews stopped the fire before it reached the building. The tribe is now suing the federal government over devastating wildfires from 2015.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government on Wednesday, alleging federal agencies failed to fulfill their legally required duties before, during and after the 2015 wildfires that burned more than 240,000 acres and turned parts of the reservation into a “moonscape.”

The Colville Tribes, whose approximately 9,500 members rely heavily on timber revenue and other natural resources, are seeking compensation from the federal government after the 2015 fires destroyed roughly 20% of the commercial timber on the reservation. But Andrew Joseph, Jr., chairman of the Colville Business Council, said the damage extended far beyond the lost revenue.

“Tribal members hunt, fish, and gather food and medicine throughout the Colville Reservation,” Joseph said in a statement. “In many areas the fires burned so hot that they sterilized the soil and created a moonscape. It will take decades for our resources to completely recover in those areas.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, comes as wildfires continue to devastate the Colville Reservation and much of the West. As of Wednesday, the Chuweah Creek and Summit Trail fires had burned roughly 65,000 acres and destroyed multiple homes on the reservation.

Under federal law, the U.S. government is responsible for managing forest health and providing adequate firefighting resources on land it holds in trust on behalf of Native American tribes. The Colville Tribes’ suit alleges the government knew it needed to make forests on their reservation less susceptible to severe fire by thinning trees and conducting controlled burns, and that its failure to do so “led to tinderbox conditions in which catastrophic fire was inevitable.”

After the North Star fire started burning in August 2015, it took more than three days for a federal incident management team to arrive, leaving local firefighters to battle the blaze alone, and the suit alleges the federal government diverted fire suppression resources to protect vacation homes and other areas off the reservation. The Tunk Block fire started a day later and crossed onto the reservation from state and federal land.

Both fires spread rapidly through dense forest, dry grass and logging slash – fuels the tribes had warned the federal government it needed to clear to prevent catastrophic fire. While the Colville tribal government employs its own foresters, their authority to conduct prescribed burns and other forest management work that can limit the severity of fires is restricted by federal law.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA – part of the Interior Department – is the primary agency responsible for managing forests on tribal lands. After Congress passed a 1990 law requiring periodic assessments of tribal forest lands, a team of independent forestry experts concluded in 1993 the federal government was generally failing to meet its trust obligations to tribes.

A decade later, a 2003 report found that “little progress (had) been made in overcoming the major shortcoming of trust oversight of Indian forests by the federal government.” In 2013, the next assessment team visited the Colville Reservation and reported that the health of tribal forests was threatened by inadequate forest management.

“The fire management program has many shortfalls and disparities in funding including planning, wildland fire suppression, protection of the wildland urban interface and hazardous fuels reduction needs,” the group wrote in its site report, “that if not addressed in the next 12 to 18 months is expected to have significant impacts on the Colville management of their lands.”

Two years later, those warnings proved prescient. Between August and October 2015, the North Star Fire burned for 57 days and the Tunk Block Fire for 64. As they tore through dense forest, flames rose up to 100 feet high, generating extreme heat that caused long-term damage to the ground, posed high risk to firefighters and created their own weather systems.

But a 2015 assessment of the North Star Fire by the BIA found that in the areas of forest that had been treated by thinning trees and controlled burning four years earlier, the more limited fuel reduced the 100-foot flames to a surface fire that let firefighters safely use suppression tactics to help contain the blaze.

“Wildfire is a regular natural phenomenon,” the complaint states. “However, the United States’ breaches of trust relating to the Tribes’ forests greatly increased the opportunity for, and the size and severity of, the North Star, Tunk Block, and other fires on the Reservation.”

The roughly 650,000 acres of commercial forest on the Colville Reservation are the tribes’ single biggest asset, according to the court filing, and the loss of 800 million board-feet of timber in the 2015 fires represented “the largest loss of board feet of timber of any fire event on any Indian reservation in recorded history.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the department’s top lawyer, former University of Washington law professor Robert Anderson, are both Native Americans who have emphasized the importance of the federal government meeting its legal obligations to tribes, but it’s unclear what impact either of them may have on the outcome of the lawsuit.

President Joe Biden named Haaland as a co-chair of a new “Wildfire Resilience Interagency Working Group,” tasked with managing prescribed fires and other forest management efforts. In a January memorandum, Biden also said fulfilling federal trust and treaty responsibilities to tribal nations would be a priority of his administration.

“The United States has made solemn promises to Tribal Nations for more than two centuries,” Biden wrote. “Honoring those commitments is particularly vital now, as our Nation faces crises related to health, the economy, racial justice, and climate change – all of which disproportionately harm Native Americans.”

The legal process is likely to take years to reach trial or a settlement. In 2012, the Colville Tribes accepted a $193 million settlement offer after they sued the federal government in 2005 for mismanaging payments from timber sales and other natural resources that were supposed to be invested on behalf of the tribes.

But with fires currently burning across the reservation and months left in what could be a historic fire season, the legal action may also help draw attention and resources to help avoid a repeat of the devastating 2015 fires.

“We hope this lawsuit will result in the Department of the Interior finally living up to its trust responsibilities to the Colville Tribes,” Joseph said in a statement.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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