Environment featured

What’s the difference between Indigenous nations co-managing or co-stewarding their land? A lot.

June 12, 2024

“This story was originally published by Grist. Sign up for Grist’s weekly newsletter here.”

For a decade, wind farm companies had been eyeing Molok Luyuk — a mountain ridge of religious importance to tribes in northern California, whose people have worked for years to protect it. It’s also widely biodiverse with elk, mountain lions, and black bears, as well as 40 rare plants such as the pink adobe lily.

Mia Durham is the secretary for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a tribe that has been in a relationship with Molok Luyuk for thousands of years. In response to petitions filed by wind energy companies that wanted to develop the area, the tribe and its allies asked President Biden to protect it in 2019.

“That’s what heightened it for us and put us on track of moving forward as quickly as possible,” Durham said. “We wanted to protect sacred sites that are there. They were going to be severely impacted.”

One way to protect landscapes and waterways such as Molok Luyuk is to have them declared national monuments, a term used to designate that a section of land is federally protected from development and harm. While Congress designates national parks, only a president can designate a national monument.

That’s what happened earlier this month when the Biden administration expanded a national monument to include Molok Luyuk, joining the mountain ridge to the nearby Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, nearly 350,000 acres of coastal range in northern California. Tribes are now working on a co-stewardship agreement for the Molok Luyuk area, but not for the whole national monument.

But the tribes that have a relationship with Molok Luyuk aren’t done with their advocacy. They’ve protected the area from energy development, but they still have little say in how the land is managed. While the federal government has pushed co-stewardship agreements over the years, national monuments are still considered property of the federal government.

Now that Berryessa includes Molok Luyuk, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are in talks to enter into a co-stewardship agreement with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, Kletsel DeHe Wintun Nation, and the Cachil DeHe Band of Wintun Indians of the Colusa Rancheria. The details are still being hashed out, but the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation is excited to bring traditional knowledge to the management of Molok Luyuk.

Melissa Hovey is the manager at Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, and she said that co-management happens between the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. These federal agencies can enter into co-stewardship agreements with tribes, but they can’t delegate management without congressional approval.

“Co-management means decision-making authority,” she said. “Co-stewardship means one entity still has the decision-making authority.”

You would think that “co-stewardship” and “co-management” would be simple terms to define, but there are numerous federal documents that have used the two terms interchangeably over the years. Co-stewardship is a broad term that describes agreements made between federal agencies and tribal nations to hash out shared interests in the management of federal lands. Co-management refers to a stronger tribal presence and decision-making power.

The Biden administration has been pushing co-stewardship as a model for how federal agencies can build relationships with Indigenous nations. Tribes were forcibly removed from much of their ancestral homeland in the U.S., and so many are dispossessed from medicines, food, and ceremonial places that are now under federal management.

In 2015, the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument was created under President Obama using the Antiquities Act — a 1906 law that allows the president to protect places of historic and scientific interest on federal land and make them national monuments. Berryessa was protected because of the area’s biodiversity: 80 different species of butterflies, black bears, California newts, and predatory birds. Molok Luyuk translates from Patwin to English as “Condor Ridge,” in reference to the endangered California condor that used to fly along the ridge.

Congressional action is not the only way to gain co-management powers. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in Utah has one of the most successful stories of tribes gaining co-management status — they were given “true co-management” by an Intergovernmental Cooperative Agreement. In 2022, the federal government agreed to co-manage Bears Ears National Monument with the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni. For the first time ever, tribal nations worked with federal agencies to draft a resource-management plan that would dictate how a national monument should be run.

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is co-managed by the U.S. federal government and an intertribal coalition that includes six Indigenous nations. George Frey / Getty Images. Used with permission.

Patrick Gonzales-Rogers is a professor at the Yale School of Environment where he specializes in tribal sovereignty and natural resources. He is also the former director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

Co-managment allows tribes to exercise sovereignty, according to Gonzales-Rogers. “It allows them to be more assertive,” he added. And when that happens, tribes can bring in religious and spiritual practices to utilize traditional knowledge, wisdom that had been minimized by federal agencies in the past.

Gonzales-Rogers is hopeful that, exponentially, these choices will compound, “and may even have a nexus to say something like landback” a reference to a movement that is not only rooted in a mass return of land to Indigenous nations and peoples, but also tribes having sovereignty to steward the land that was taken from them.

Gonzales-Rogers thinks the two terms have not been very well-defined over the years, but said co-stewardship agreements might be a good way to start building to co-management.

And the more tribes have autonomy over their ancestral lands, the better it is for conservation goals. According to a recent study, equal partnerships between tribes and governments are the best way to protect public lands — the more tribal autonomy, the better the land is taken care of.

Mia Durham with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation is excited to get started in drawing up its own co-stewardship agreement on Molok Luyuk.

“I hope it doesn’t take long, because we’ve been managing these lands already, so it shouldn’t be hard to put it on a piece of paper,” she said.

This article originally appeared in Grist at https://grist.org/indigenous/difference-between-co-management-and-co-stewardship-national-monument/.


Grist is a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Learn more at Grist.org

Taylar Dawn Stagner

Taylar Dawn Stagner (enrolled Cheyenne Arapaho Tribe and Eastern Shoshone decendent) is a writer and journalist from central Wyoming were she focuses on Indigenous Affairs. She's written for National Public Radio, High Country News Magazine, American Indian Magazine, Wyoming Public Media, Colorado Public Radio, and Yellowstone Public Radio. Stagner won an Edward R. Murrow Award in 2021, the Wyoming Arts Councils 2023 Native Art Fellowship, and 2023 Uproot Environmental Journalism Fellowship. She also mentors for NPR's Next Generation Radio: Indigenous. She is also Grist's 2023-2024 Indigenous Affairs reporting fellow.