WIND RIVER RESERVATION, Wyo. ? Any day now, as soon as enough snow melts, a helicopter will fly over the high mountain meadows of the Owl Creek Mountains in western Wyoming, releasing 16,000 pounds of native grass seed onto scorched soil. Twenty-two tribal tree planters will follow a few weeks later, planting up to 70,000 saplings and a half million more this fall.
The seeding and planting are important parts of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes' plan to help heal 137,000 acres of the Wind River Indian Reservation that was devastated by wildfire in August 2000.
The tribes contracted last year to administer the $2.3 million rehabilitation plan. It's an important step in the tribes' efforts to become more independent of the federal government.
"The more control we have of our projects, the better,'' said Ben Ridgly, co-chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council.
The Kate's Basin Fire burned range land, sage brush, and lodgepole pine forest. Accelerated by heavy fuels, the fire burned so hot that it destroyed even the seed of the heat-loving lodgepole pines.
"It was like God's charcoal grill up there,'' said Chuck Reher, long-time tribal archaeologist for the Northern Arapaho.
The fire charred cultural and spiritual sites important to the Northern Arapaho and devastated winter grazing for a tribal cattle ranch. Fencing was destroyed, and erosion in the wake of the fire has silted in ponds dug for water storage. The burned area is vulnerable to more erosion problems and to noxious weeds ? perhaps from seeds transported by the fire-fighting equipment.
"We have people seeing weeds in the burn that they've never seen before,'' said Preston Smith, BIA range management specialist for the Wind River.
The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone joint economic development commission has hired a natural resource contractor, Northwest Management of Moscow, Idaho, to oversee the seeding, planting and other rehabilitation work. The work will conclude in 2003, with more reseeding and tree planting. Streams will be monitored, fences rebuilt and culverts cleaned.
The rehabilitation plan is one way to help restore a natural resource, but it's also a tool for economic development on the Wind River. Unemployment for the Northern Arapaho tribe runs as high as 85 percent, and up to 70 percent for the Eastern Shoshone. Even temporary planting jobs are valuable, particularly as an opportunity for bigger things.
"I would think a young tribal member having a few weeks' experience would maybe decide to go into forestry and go get the education to do that,'' said Ivan Posey, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council. "There is a lack of Indian-owned businesses that do natural resource work."
Posey also emphasized the desire of the tribes to take over management of all their natural resource programs. The reservation is rich in natural resources, from oil and natural gas, to coal and timber, bentonite and travertine, a stone used as decorative facing for buildings.
Per capita payments from the oil and gas wells are the major source of revenue. But some of the oil fields have been pumped for nearly a century; returns are dwindling. Last winter, as gasoline prices fell around the nation, per cap payments were cut in half.
Gambling, a lifeline for many tribes, has limited potential here. In Hot Springs County, where the northern part of the reservation lies, cows outnumber people by three to one. The population in the two counties surrounding the reservation is 40,000, including 7,200 Northern Arapaho and about 3,200 Eastern Shoshone.
"Economic development on this reservation is non-existent, except for oil and gas and those are leases,'' said Perry Baker, BIA superintendent on the Wind River. "They are pursuing other avenues, to look at some other sources of income.''
"We need to develop our brain pool on the reservation,'' said Jim Large, tribal employment officer for the Northern Arapaho. "We need more engineers. We have enough teachers and social workers, but we need more people in all the technical areas.''
Even the fire itself, while it destroyed much, brought new possibilities. A salvage logging sale conducted a year after the fire brought in $22,000. House logs, posts and poles are marketable commodities. The Northern Arapaho economic development commission is looking at developing a sawmill that could process those logs. Not only would such a project provide jobs, it could help address another serious need on the Wind River reservation ? housing.
Every political initiative on the reservation takes special care, as the two tribes, Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone, were traditional enemies. The tribes are governed independently, but by a joint business council as well.
The Northern Arapaho took the lead on the fire rehabilitation plan because the eastern end of the reservation is where most of their people live. The eastern end of the Owl Creek Mountains is where they go to hunt, to pray and fast, and to collect traditional plants.
Last fall, 110,000 saplings were planted in the mountains' burned forest. But much of Wyoming, including the Wind River reservation, is in its fourth year of drought. Lack of moisture cut the saplings' survival rate.
The late snow this spring may have delayed the schedule for grass seed planting. But every inch of snow is precious, and the seed sown now will need gentle spring rain to germinate.