Forest Service Collaborates with Indian Tribal Governments During 13th Annual “To Bridge A Gap” Conference


Mike Dockry (left), research natural resource specialist, Forest Service Northern Research Station, and Serra Hoagland (right), biological scientist, Forest Service Southern Research Station, at the recent To Bridge a Gap conference. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

The Ouachita and Ozark-St. Francis National Forests hosted the 13th Annual “To Bridge A Gap” conference with Indian Tribes at the Fayetteville Town Center, April 7-10 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  

The annual conference helps strengthen government-to-government relationships between the U.S. Forest Service and federally recognized tribal governments on a variety of cultural and natural resource management issues. Other federal and state agencies also participated in the conference. 

This year, 167 people attended the conference representing 13 Tribes, 9 State and 14 Federal agencies and 5 private companies and contractors. 

“The purpose of the conference is to develop bonds of trusts, to get to know our partners in a face-to-face environment,” said David Jurney, archeologist for the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests.

The first of the annual conferences was held in 2000 shortly after President Clinton issued Executive Order 13175, which recognized tribal rights of self-government and tribal sovereignty, and affirmed and committed the federal government to a work with Native American tribal governments on a government-to-government basis.

According to Jurney, the Ouachita and Ozark-St. Francis National Forests began meeting with Tribes annually with the objective of collaboration rather than just consultation.

“We didn’t say we just wanted to invite these particular tribes we want to talk to,” he said. “The tribes said let’s look for case studies, let’s look for what other people are doing successfully, let’s bring in the Northern Tribes and the Western Tribes, too.”

Jurney said that as more people learned about the conference, the number of attendees and agencies participating grew to the point where at least 150 individuals participate every year.

“What began as two national forests meeting with four to five tribes based in Oklahoma has expanded to a regional conference for Forest Service Region 8 and an increasingly important one for Region 9,” Jurney said.

This year’s conference included Forest Service attendees and presenters from Ouachita and Ozark-St Francis National Forests, Mississippi National Forests, Alabama National Forests, Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, Kisatchie National Forest, the Forest Service’s Southern and Northern Research Stations, Region 8 and Region 9 Headquarters.  The Secretary of Agriculture was also represented by Leslie Wheelock, director of the Office of Tribal Relations.

Tribal governments involved were the Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Osage Nation, Absentee Tribe of Oklahoma, Choushatta Tribe of Louisiana, Delaware Tribe of Indians, Eastern Shawnee Tribe, Miami Tribe of Oklahoma; Muscogee Creek Nation, Quapaw Tribe, Shawnee Tribe and Thlopthlocco Tribal Town.

Government agencies and partners presenting at the conference included the Federal Emergency Management Agency, South Central Climate Science Center, Arkansas Archeological Survey and University of Arkansas.

Presenters covered subjects that included climate change, successful and meaningful Tribal consultation, indigenous stewardship methods, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service conservation practices, and using spatial technologies in archaeology and archaeogeography.

For Serra Hoagland, Southern Research Station tribal relations co-point of contact and biological scientist, the conference format allowed attendees to engage on a more personal level.

“I’m used to going to scientific conferences where you present your research and it’s all very formal,” she said. “But this is nice, because it is much less formal in a good way. It allows people to just build some relationships, talk and have side conversations. It sets the tone that people can just be open and start to chat and discuss things.”

For more information, email Terence Peck at

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