By Brad W. Gary -- The Lewiston Tribune
REUBENS, Idaho (AP) - Taking a break at his job site near Reubens, Syrveneas ''Butch'' McConville examined the stand of trees surrounding him.
''There's quite a few Christmas trees in here,'' he said.
Armed with saws, McConville, Nez Perce, looked at the spacing and defects of trees within this forest.
His thin, gray mustache has grown long, but his energy hasn't faltered. At 66, the forestry veteran is closer to retirement than most of the 20-somethings on his crew. But foreman Justin Gould said McConville's continued physical training to do this forestry job has given him more stamina than his younger co-workers.
McConville is one of about 100 employees within the Nez Perce Tribe's natural resources program. Quietly operating as land stewards, their goal is to preserve and increase the environmental quality of the land their ancestors lived on for centuries.
The 1,800-acre Lookout Unit between Reubens and Cottonwood Creek has grown tall since it was decimated by fire in the late 1970s.
McConville knows this forest well, having been on the land before it burned.
''It was something before,'' he said of the once-again green stand. ''But it was just something to see all the new ones come in and see them grow. It's something to come back and see all the grown trees.''
Like McConville, the Nez Perce Tribe pointed to this piece of land as an example of what its natural resources program can do.
The work was performed under former forestry director Rutger ''Roger'' van Houten, who current natural resources director Aaron Miles said saw this as more than just a planting. They put sweat and tears into this land.
Gould said he will someday cut these trees, and again reseed the forest.
''This was the model project back in those days,'' Gould said of Lookout.
The forestry division is one of six under the direction of the tribe's natural resources department, which oversees everything from American Indian cultural preservation to programs that aim to sustain air and water resources on all lands once occupied by the Nez Perce.
Their jobs range from forest firefighter to fisheries biologist, to cultural preservation work. Natural resources employees number as few as 90 in the winter to as many as 120 in the summer.
Miles said temporary employees can increase those numbers threefold at the peak of a busy fire season. About half of the program's employees are tribal members.
The department's budget is close to $11 million, not including funding from Dworshak Dam paid to the tribe to mitigate the impact the dam has had on tribal habitats. The total natural resources budget amounts
to about $20 million annually.
Nez Perce natural resources officials took over management of tribal lands in the mid-1980s from the BIA.
The tribal department gets funding from the BIA and myriad other sources, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The tribe owns considerably less land than when tribal treaties, starting in 1855, created reservation boundaries.
The tribe owns about 13 percent of the land within its reservation borders, approximately 115,000 acres. Natural resources employees work that land every day, and also spend time on lands in Montana, Oregon and Washington - all areas where the Nez Perce once lived.
The nature of tribal practices, and the wisdom and knowledge of being on the land since time began, Gould said, is something that can only be learned from such a connection.
''That isn't reflected in any kind of report, or any budget scenarios,'' Gould said, ''and that's what I think is what has the world going 'round, or keeps it going.''
Gould views his work as another generation coming back, and getting stuck in the mud.
''I was brought up here by my dad, we camped here and hunted up here,'' Gould said. ''I find my security out here every day, but I'm looking forward to the future.''
Miles reinforced Gould's words, noting he sees the work as maintaining his family's land.
''I'm getting paid to clean up my own yard,'' he said with a smile.
And that yard extends off the reservation. Natural resources projects often spill over the reservation borders, on all lands provided to the Nez Perce by the Treaty of 1855.
Prior to doing cuttings at Lookout this day, employees like Sam Ellenwood worked on other projects, including a recent all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile trail job.
This particular morning's examination of spacing and defects of trees, Ellenwood pointed out, came after a November morning stalking a buck.
''What's the major attraction is they like working for their own tribe,'' Miles said. ''They like the camaraderie of what it is being Nez Perce.''
Forestry division employees operate within both the natural resources department and the tribe's enterprises department.
Richard Guzman is manager of the tribe's forest products enterprise, the business side of the tribe's forestry department.
Guzman started as a firefighter in the program more than 20 years ago. He now oversees a department considerably smaller than that of natural resources, and of its enterprise sibling, the Clearwater River Casino.
But Guzman said the tribe's forest products division wants to branch out and employ more tribal members on projects.
Miles and Gould said they have tried to hone their skills on tribal land in order to catch the eye of bigger stewardship projects with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
They are now proposing those kinds of projects on local national forest lands.
''They're going back to the way we saw things,'' Miles said of other agencies. ''It's not new to us; it's the way we've done things.''
But tribal members also didn't have to navigate through a maze of both tribal and federal regulations, including the National Environmental Policy Act.
Those changing requirements have been noticed, particularly in the use of fire, which Miles said the tribe once utilized on a more frequent basis. Since before Lewis and Clark, the Nez Perce would set fires to manage growing underbrush within the forests. The tribe has since become more cognizant of air quality and the effect fires have on people with asthma and other respiratory problems.
But Miles concedes a national era of fire suppression has also seen a paradigm shift by some land managers back to the natural ecosystem argument that requires fire, Miles said.
Protecting tribal treaty rights, however, remains at the top of Miles' list.
The Nez Perce ceded land to the United States under the Treaty of 1863, forming the reservation's current borders. But tribal members kept their right to hunt, fish and gather on all lands provided under the Treaty of 1855.
A diminished land base has made it more difficult for the Nez Perce to preserve their cultural ways, Miles said, compared to other American Indian tribes whose borders have remained intact.
''That's our struggle, is we want to buy more land and effect change in our culture and society,'' Miles said. ''We come from this land, we evolved from this country. No other race can say that. Our involvement is real deep, we've always been here.''
It's a plight some generations-old Idaho farm families may also recognize.
''There's always that fear that farmers and ranchers have of losing their culture,'' Miles said. ''We have that same value in protecting our treaty rights.''
Miles says the goal for all lands once occupied by the Nez Perce, whether still in tribal ownership or not, is that of stewardship.
When asked why he still comes up to saw trees at projects like Lookout, McConville is matter-of-fact.
''Money,'' he said with a laugh.
But McConville talks with affection about the tribal workers of years ago, who created access for tree planters to get into this land. He is the last of a generation who worked to give birth to this forest.
Ultimately, Miles said, they are all working to be connected to their own land, for this generation of foresters, and the many generations who come after.
''There are some things you cannot place a monetary value on. Butch McConville has found his niche in life,'' Miles said. ''That niche is to become a steward of the land.''