Carbon Insurance As Heritage Insurance


A carbon-offset project, the first of its kind in the United States, has become the Yurok’s main source of discretionary income, helping the tribe buy back thousands of acres of land. Photograph by Joel Redman

Carbon trading has featured, or at least been mentioned, only rarely on this platform, now that I stop to check. That seems impossible. But the scheme with so much promise has simply not taken off. Indigenous heritage, on the other hand, has featured in dozens of stories here since we started in 2011. Thanks to Carolyn Kormann for bringing this story to my attention, helped by two captivating photos and the fact that it highlights the approach of the Yurok Tribe (a community I had not heard of before):


“I think we did a good thing by saving the trees, but I’m not happy with it,” Jene McCovey, a tribal elder, said. “It’s not viable. It allows polluters to pollute.” Photograph by Joel Redman

How Carbon Trading Became a Way of Life for California’s Yurok Tribe

When Marty Lamebear is not fighting fires, he is starting them. In the past few years, as a member of the Yurok Tribe Forestry Program’s fire department, he has been helping revive the controversial practice of prescribed burns to protect and restore the coastal redwood forests of northern California. Lamebear is also a hunter, fisherman, and dancer. In his free time, he makes tribal regalia for ceremonial dances from parts of elk, deer, minks, and porcupines, which he shoots or finds already dead, and from frozen eagles that he orders from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A prescribed burn, what Lamebear calls a culture burn, creates prairies within the forest, which attract those animals. “At first, we couldn’t really tell its effects,” he said. “But, after about six years now, we can honestly start seeing the landscape open up, animals come around.” They also serve another purpose, he said. “It’s insurance for our carbon.”

According to archaeological records and oral history, Yurok lands originally stretched across some half a million acres. But in 1855 the United States confined the tribe to a reservation that covered less than a fifth of that expanse, or roughly ninety thousand acres. The borders narrowly straddled the Klamath River, which teemed with salmon, running inland about forty-five miles, from the Pacific Coast south, into Humboldt County. In subsequent years, the federal government took away most of that land as well, opening it to white homesteaders, gold miners, and timber companies, and later claiming some of it for itself—for the Forest Service or national parks. By the nineteen-nineties, the tribe was left with only five per cent of its original reservation, an area roughly a third the size of Manhattan. As Yurok leaders wrote in the preamble to their 1993 constitution, “Our social and ecological balance, thousands and thousands of years old, was shattered by the invasion of the non-Indians.”

In those years, Yurok leaders considered filing lawsuits claiming that the surrounding lands were rightfully theirs. But lawyers advised against it. “They said, ‘If you go to court, you might lose, so then you lost all that money, all that time,’ ” Dale Webster, a founding member of the tribal council, told me. The lawyers advised that “it’s cheaper to just buy it back.” Ninety-five per cent of the tribal government’s budget comes from federal grants. The tribe’s salmon fishery—central to its identity and its economy—has been decimated, largely by upstream agriculture and four hydroelectric dams. Jobs are scarce. Eighty per cent of the tribe lives below the poverty line. Opioid and heroin abuse has increased in the community to the point that, as Dawn Baum, the tribe’s deputy general counsel, told me, “It’s not just that you know someone who’s been affected. You probably know someone who’s died.” For years, finding the resources to purchase Yurok land—and restore the forests, watersheds, and salmon fisheries—seemed impossible. “People love to have doom-and-gloom stories about Indians,” Baum said. “And it’s true—our connection to the land means that, when we don’t have fish, it really affects us.”

Lamebear’s job came to exist—the Yurok Fire Department came to exist—because the tribe, the largest in California, finally began to buy back its land through a program that remains both a matter of dispute and a mystery to many of the tribe’s members. Around 2010, Yurok leaders began negotiating a way to participate in California’s cap-and-trade program. For each metric ton of carbon that the tribe can prove its forests have sequestered from the atmosphere, the California Air Resources Board (carb), the state agency that regulates air quality and emissions, issues the tribe one offset credit. Polluting industries can then buy the Yurok’s offsets in order to comply with the state’s greenhouse-gas-emissions cap. “They’re getting paid for carbon,” Webster said. “For all these trees along the river, where the prairie used to be, where all the deer and the elk used to come through.”

The Yurok’s carbon-offset project, among the first of its kind in the United States, has become the tribe’s main source of discretionary income. It has helped the tribe buy back, to date, nearly sixty thousand acres—up from five thousand. “This has been a way for us to revive the economy in a way that aligned with our cultural values,” Amy Cordalis, the tribe’s general counsel, said. The program has been touted by environmental organizations as a possible model for other indigenous groups living in forests around the world to regain their rights, while working with national and provincial governments to combat climate change. Seven other indigenous entities in the U.S. are now also selling carbon offsets…

Read the whole article here.

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