Returning Indigenous land could be our best conservation initiative yet

Eight years ago, the Australian government bought 19 farm properties throughout the Lower Murrumbidgee Valley in New South Wales with the intention of restoring the wetland region to its former glory. After reviewing proposals, the land was granted to the tribal council of the Nari Nari, who collaborated with the Nature Conservancy to bring life back to the region they inhabited for 50,000 years. The Nari Nari have rewilded the valley, removed old irrigation infrastructure, and encouraged the return of native species like golden perch, southern bell frogs, and spoonbills.

This example of conservation and restoration is one of many in a growing environmental strategy called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). The concept is rooted in the idea that the most efficient and ethical way to conserve and revitalize land is by returning it to its original Indigenous stewards.

In Montana, where the US government seized 18,000 acres from the Salish and Kootenai Tribes, federal and state agencies have worked to preserve native bison populations, but herds are often mismanaged. Now, the land is being returned to the tribes with the understanding that Native American communities have the necessary Indigenous wisdom to cultivate not only a healthy bison population but a healthier ecosystem as a whole.

So far, Salish and Kootenai’s management has been highly effective. They have created the nation’s first tribal wilderness area, the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area, and close off large portions of it throughout the year to allow grizzly bear populations to live and feed in peace.

A recent study published in PNAS found that using an Indigenous fire regime is the most effective way to prevent devastating wildfires in New Mexico, while another from the University of British Columbia found that Indigenous-managed lands in Australia, Brazil, and Canada were richer in vertebrate species.

In Canada, the government has partnered with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association to manage the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area & Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area in the Nunavut Territory for improved biodiversity protection of critical arctic species.

In California, the Esselen Tribe is bringing back the California Condor in Big Sur, and the Yurok Tribe is protecting miles of vital salmon spawning sites along the Klamath River.

In addition to environmental conservation, granting land back to Indigenous communities would serve as a small form of reparations for communities who have been oppressed, marginalized, and killed at the hands of colonists.

“The total acreage would not quite make up for the General Allotment Act, which robbed us of 90 million acres, but it would ensure that we have unfettered access to our tribal homelands,” David Treuer writes in an article for The Atlantic. “And it would restore the dignity that was rightfully ours. To be entrusted with the stewardship of America’s most precious landscape would be a deeply meaningful form of restitution.”

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