Coquille Tribal enterprise partners with Forest Service

Matthew Parrish wields a hand saw to remove an encroaching Douglas fir sapling. On this early fall day, fire restrictions ruled out the convenience of a chain saw. (Courtesy Coquille Indian Tribe)

POWERS, Ore. – In the forested hills of their ancestral homelands, young men of the Coquille Indian Tribe fanned out recently to defend a meadow.

At the forest’s edge, William Hargis wielded garden loppers to thwart encroaching Douglas fir seedlings. Matthew Parrish worked nearby, felling stouter invaders with exuberant strokes of a bow saw.

“This saw is hungry,” he declared as steel teeth chewed through green wood.

Surrounded by forest, this boggy prairie east of Powers is prime wildlife habitat. The men have found evidence of frequent visits by deer, elk and bears – and even the remains of an old cougar kill.

Hargis explained the men’s mission: “If you let the Douglas fir grow up, they’ll throw off more seeds and more seeds, and pretty soon you won’t have a prairie anymore.”

Parrish added, “You really don’t realize how important these are until you get out here and see how much sign there is.”

The four-man crew of the tribe’s Sek-wet-se Corp. has been working for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest as part of the U.S. Forest Service’s regional Youth Engagement Strategy (YES!). Targeting rural and urban residents age 25 and younger, it’s one of several regional initiatives promoting youth development and connections to the natural environment.

“These are the future stewards of our public lands,” explained Kim Hunter, partnership coordinator for the Rogue-Siskiyou.

For the Forest Service, YES! is a tool to improve ecosystems while fostering youth and community engagement. For the tribal crew, it’s an opportunity to gain work experience and exposure to Forest Service management practices.

“It’s always good to work with a different agency and get a different perspective on how someone else does things,” said Colin Beck, the Tribe’s forest manager.

“They definitely do it a different way,” Hargis said.

The crew has been exposed to a variety of Forest Service activities this fall. Over a seven-week contract period, the men worked on such varied tasks as trail maintenance, fish habitat restoration and timber sale layout.

When they worked on fish habitat, they joined other contract crews to temporarily divert a stream, to rescue displaced aquatic wildlife, and to armor the streambed with rock. Meadow restoration was a special challenge because fire restrictions had banned power tools.

“It’d be so much easier if we just had a chain saw,” Parrish observed during a breather between trees. As he turned his attention to a fir nearly six inches thick, supervisor Rob Laskey razzed him for griping.

“You’ll have it down in two minutes,” Laskey predicted. Parrish rose to the challenge, dispatching the tree in 80 seconds.

The Sek-wet-se crew – Parrish, Hargis, Laskey and Lyman Meade Jr. – has earned praise from Forest Service personnel.

“They’re ambitious, they’re reliable, they’re conscientious,” Hunter said.

“They show up, they’re ready to work, they have their gear,” echoed Karla Cottom, a Forest Service fisheries biologist who has worked with the crew. “They can give their expertise, and we can give ours, and we can get the job done.”

The Sek-wet-se crew’s involvement in YES! reflects a March 2017 “memorandum of understanding” between the Tribe and the Forest Service. The agreement calls for cooperation on resource management activities, training, employment, resource enhancement, cultural sites and other shared interests.

Though the YES! contract extended just seven weeks, leaders on both sides hope it will strengthen the relationship between the tribe and the Forest Service. Budgets permitting, that could include more work for the young tribal members.

“I hope that we will both be looking for opportunities for additional funding to carry the partnership forward,” Hunter said. “We’re enthusiastic and excited about the partnership.”

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