Native Peoples and the Management of Natural Resources in the Pacific Northwest: A Comparative Assessment

By Wilson, Patrick Impero | American Review of Canadian Studies, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Native Peoples and the Management of Natural Resources in the Pacific Northwest: A Comparative Assessment


Wilson, Patrick Impero, American Review of Canadian Studies


A cornerstone of the Pacific Northwest's economy has been the development of natural resources. At the same time, the management of the region's resources is shrouded in endless controversy. As such controversy rages, the position of native peoples on both sides of the Canada-United States border is often overlooked. As one native government official observed emphatically, "Absolutely, there is a much bigger, growing role for tribal governments in managing natural resources."' Such is evident in a number of ways. In British Columbia, the Nisga'a land claims settlement and the recognition of native ownership have established a provincewide precedent for native peoples as active participants in resource management policymaking. In the U.S., tribal governments have become primary actors in attempts to restore the region's troubled salmon fishery and have assumed greater responsibility for management of forest and water resources.

This article explores native management of natural resources in a comparative Canada-U.S. context. Its first section focuses on the Pacific Northwest and examines the role of native peoples in four areas--forestry, watershed management, fisheries, and endangered species protection. The second part assesses the evolving relationship between native and subnational government actors and provides a partial answer to several important questions: What values and goals do native peoples add to the mix of issues, ideas, and interests currently shaping natural resource policy in the Pacific Northwest? What are the implications for provincial, state, and federal policymakers? Will it add complexity to an already fractious process, or help move the current debate in new directions?

Although native peoples have a long history of managing the natural environment, they have been marginalized by a natural resource policy process guided by utilitarian values and controlled by governments and extractive industries. They have, therefore, often been spectators in the development of the natural resources central to their subsistence and cultural heritage. Beginning in the 1960s, the Canadian and U.S. governments, acknowledging that native peoples were often the poorest of their citizens, sought to promote economic independence and encouraged tribal governments to seek political and legal confirmation of claims to historic lands and resources. (2) In pursuit of these claims, native peoples in both countries have had their greatest success in the court systems, where numerous decisions have confirmed ownership of historic lands, awarded a share of natural resources, and established the need to consult native peoples when determining natural resource management priorities. For example, federal cour ts in the U.S. have determined native tribes in the Pacific Northwest are entitled to a fair share (50 percent) of fisheries resources and that states have only a limited power to regulate treaty Indian fisheries. (3) Further, U.S. courts have ruled tribes in Idaho (Lake Coeur d' Alene) and Montana (Flathead Lake) hold title to significant portions of major lakes. (4) In Canada, the Supreme Court has established the existence of aboriginal title in British Columbia and determined that such title extended to traditional tribal lands. (5)

The Supreme Court of Canada and the U.S. Supreme Court have also recognized the right of native peoples to be consulted on actions and policies that affect the use and management of natural resources. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled in Delgamuukw that the federal and provincial governments have a legal duty to consult with First Nations on development decisions affecting the land, resources, and environment of native peoples. (6) In the U.S., the Supreme Court established that native tribes can exercise regulatory authority when conduct threatens or has some direct affect on the tribe's political integrity and health and welfare.

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