Land Back: How Two Tribes are Re-Acquiring and Leveraging Community Forests

There is an ongoing movement to get land back into the hands of Native communities. This movement can not only right the historical injustices that led to their land dispossession in the first place, but also further acknowledge that Tribes have the knowledge and value systems to steward their lands exceptionally well. Recognizing the importance of returning lands to their rightful places, First Nations works with Native communities to access land-back opportunities and make the most of re-acquired land. This year, two First Nations Community Partners, Kalispel Tribe of Indians and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, were able to do both through support of First Nations and grants from the USDA’s Community Forest Program.

Taking Advantage of Land Re-Acquisition Opportunities

The USDA Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, known as the Community Forest Program or CFP, is a competitive grant that provides financial resources to Tribal entities, local governments, and qualified conservation non-profits to re-acquire land.

There are reasons the program is important to Tribes. One, the CFP is among the many strategies that help support Tribal land re-acquisition efforts, which are proving to be imperative in the fight against climate change. It is no coincidence that 85% of the most biodiverse and untouched lands on earth are protected and stewarded by Indigenous communities.

Fortunately, many Tribes across the United States have taken it into their own hands to acquire lands, to ensure that it can be protected and stewarded for the good of the entire world. But, as real estate prices soar, one of the major barriers for Tribes is getting the funding needed to purchase land at such high prices. This is the second reason the Community Forest Program is an important resource for Native communities.

The CFP can help Tribes and Native nonprofit organizations re-acquire lost lands to establish community forests. These community forests are designated spaces that not only are stewarded to protect environment, but also provide additional benefits to the land re-acquirer, such as clean water, a habitat for wildlife, and educational and recreational opportunities for visitors. Through the CFP, eligible Tribes and Native nonprofit organizations can access CFP funding to purchase lands that are at least five acres in size, have at least 75% of forested acreage, and are threatened by conversion to non-forest uses.

Since its inception in 2012, the program has conserved over 24,000 acres of forest through 88 projects, including two projects in Tribal communities. As a result, the two Tribes — Kalispel Tribe of Indians and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — successfully re-acquired land to form community forests that have, in turn, provided a multitude of environmental, social, economic, and cultural benefits for their communities. These Tribes are now Community Partners of First Nations and are using grant support to further optimize their newly re-acquired forests.

Kalispel Tribe of Indians’ Indian Creek Community Forest

Arial view of the Indian Creek Community Forest

The Kalispel Indian Reservation sits in a verdant valley along the Pend Oreille River in Usk, Washington, just 55 miles north of Spokane. Prior to European settlement, the Tribe’s traditional homelands spanned some 200 miles from Lake Pend Oreille in North Idaho to the mouth of the Salmo River in what is now British Columbia. Today, the Tribe owns approximately 16 square miles of reservation and off-reservation land, but it is actively reacquiring lost lands to protect the river and the surrounding forests that are integral to preserving the Tribe’s culture and traditions.

In 2012, with its own funding, along with support from the Bonneville Power Administration and a grant through the CFP, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians was able to acquire 350 acres of forested land to establish the Indian Creek Community Forest, which now features a native plant nursery, a fishing pond, an archery range, an interpretive trail, and other outdoor spaces.

The Kalispel Tribe of Indians’ Indian Creek Community Forest features a variety of educational and recreational resources for both tribal and non-tribal community members.

This year, with support from First Nations Development Institute, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians has been able to derive more benefits from their forest by using it as a vehicle to teach both tribal and non-tribal community members about the benefits of good forest stewardship and the ways in which the Tribe has historically managed and sustained the landscape.

The need for this is great. Wildfire suppression, urban sprawl, and climate change have made the Tribe’s lands susceptible to catastrophic wildfires. But through the Tribe’s new demonstration plots, they are able to provide a friendly and accessible environment to teach the public about the different types of fuel reduction techniques, such as hand thinning, lop and scatter, masticator thinning, and prescribed fire. The Tribe is now working with a local graphic designer and Kalispel Metal Products, a tribal enterprise, to create interpretive signage along a hiking trail, adding educational value to a recreational space.

Interpretive trail signage is used to share educational information with the public.

During the pandemic, the Indian Creek Community Forest offered a place for people to recreate in the outdoors, including for a local group to stargaze via access to land above the often-low-lying fog in the river valley. The Tribe has also used the space for harvest festivals in which local vendors sell handcrafted wares, performers provide live music, and visitors support the local economy.

“It’s not a panacea, but the little events add up and bring money into the community,” said Mike Lithgow, the Information and Outreach Coordinator for the Tribe. He said the demonstration plots have also led to positive environmental impacts by making the Community Forest more resilient to fire after two of the driest years on record.

The Indian Creek Community Forest offers environmental education opportunities for youth.

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Hall Mountain Community Forest

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ traditional homelands once stretched across Kentucky, Tennessee, and portions of Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The Tribe currently resides in the Qualla Boundary, a 57,000-acre property that the Tribe purchased in the 1800s, comprised of untouched forests, mountains, and rivers located next to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in what is now North Carolina.

In 2012, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians received $302,305 in funding through the CFP to purchase Hall Mountain, a 108-acre parcel of forested land on the Little Tennessee River, some 5.7 miles north of Franklin, North Carolina, which holds significant cultural and historical value for the Tribe.

The land now offers a scenic hiking trail system that will feature exhibits on the traditional uses of native plant species and double as an education center for regional public schools and youth development programs. The Tribe is also actively managing the forest through traditional and western practices like prescribed burning, invasive species removal and tree planting, which helps preserve waterways, soil, and habitats for threatened wildlife species.

View from the top of Hall Mountain down to Cowee Mound, Little Tennessee River, and surrounding Cowee Mountains and Nantahala National Forest. Photo credit: Ralph Preston

In 2020, the Tribe received a second CFP grant of $119,022 to purchase an additional 21.31 acres of forested land adjacent to Hall Mountain to protect it from residential development. This newly acquired parcel includes a diverse mix of habitats and a potentially culturally significant hill site, along with mature oak forests and rivercane stands. These natural resources supply local Native artisans with source materials for basket making and for creating items such as traditional hunting tools and musical instruments.

Rivercane harvesting is an important cultural practice and is used to create baskets and other artisanal crafts.

With support from First Nations, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is now updating their Hall Mountain Forest Management Plan to encompass the parcel re-acquired in 2020. The plan will be used to assess the condition of the land; evaluate site usage, including educational and recreational opportunities; and outline forest management strategies like controlled rivercane burning, management for significant species and nonnative invasive species, and the release of oak seedlings.


Looking Ahead

Both the Kalispel Tribe of Indians and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians see their Community Forests as just the beginning. The Kalispel Tribe has purchased 60 extra acres with plans to continue to expand to save precious habitat for bears, wolves, turkey, deer and other wildlife; share sustainable stewardship practices; and build relationships between tribal and non-tribal community members. This expansion will also provide greater access for hunting, gathering, and other traditional Kalipel activities that are hard to do on other lands, while making the Community Forest more user friendly through better trails and more areas for public gathering, fishing, and other recreation.

Panoramic view of the completed information kiosk across the Little Tennessee River from Cowee Mound. This kiosk is one collaborative project of the Nikwasi Initiative Cultural Corridor.

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is further developing its Hall Mountain Community Forest to include an Eagle Aviary, where wounded eagles can remain permanently to receive care and medical treatment. The aviary will also provide feathers to tribal members to be used in Cherokee dances, celebrations, and other cultural activities. The aviary is part of a larger ecotourism effort to promote sustainable economic development along the Cherokee cultural corridor. As part of this, the Tribe is also looking at creating a network of interpretive and recreational trails, camping grounds, a botanical garden, arboretum, reflective spaces, and river access for the community and visitors to the area.

Better Stewardship, Beyond Acknowledgements

More and more attention is being turned to the ingenuity of Indigenous stewardship practices, and the importance of acknowledging the land America is built on. “Land Acknowledgements” are a small positive step, but more is needed, including ways to return and restore lands. Once back in the hands of Native peoples, these lands can provide benefits to not only the environment, but also Native economies, recreational spaces, education, and eco-tourism.

There are multiple opportunities through federal, state and private funding for Tribes interested in acquiring lands.  While the USDA Community Forest Program grant may not fit the needs of all Tribes, it is one that has proven helpful to those that are in the market to purchase forested lands that could be used for public benefit.

First Nations continues to offer free technical assistance to tribes and Native-led conservation organizations interested in applying for the CFP and other grant opportunities, as well as resources for optimizing and stewarding the lands once they are re-acquired. To learn more, contact Emilie Ellis at