In January, the Yurok Tribe in California bought a 40-acre farm. Located next to an elementary school and the tribe’s Head Start program, the farm will serve as an outdoor classroom for children as well as a source of organic produce for the tribe. This will not only help address the food insecurity exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is also part of the tribe’s bid to reclaim its ancestral territory.
Land is important to Native nations for myriad reasons. Land enables the Yurok to maintain cultural traditions such as gathering traditional foods and practicing place-specific religious ceremonies. Like all sovereign entities, land defines the Yurok as a nation, both culturally and politically. Land offers economic development opportunities. It also bolsters climate resilience as the tribe restores wetlands, coastal prairies, and old-growth forests using traditional land management techniques.
In the past three and a half decades, the tribal land base has grown twentyfold, to a total of 100,000 acres, funded in large part by sequestering carbon. For this work, the United Nations Development Programme awarded the Yurok Tribe its Equator Prize, which recognizes efforts that reduce poverty through environmental justice work. It’s an exciting example of a small community—about 5,000 members are enrolled—building climate resiliency in a way that best fits their needs.
“When I was a young man growing up on the reservation, all of our land laid behind locked gates,” says tribal Vice Chairman Frankie Myers. “We’d have to break into our land in order to get into our prayer sites. In order to get to our gathering sites, we had to be outlaws. My kids growing up will never have that feeling. My wife can gather without worrying about being harassed by law enforcement or a logging company.”
The Tribe’s Quest for its Traditional Territory
The Yurok Tribe has long faced state and federal policies meant to eliminate its land base. Before American colonization and conquest, the tribal territory stretched along what is now the Northern California coast and inland within the Klamath River watershed.
The gold rush in the 1840s drew white settlers West, where they killed tens of thousands of Native people through forced displacement, enslavement, and disease. In the 20th century, the Yurok continued to be denied access to their land and water, leading to decades of legal battles over fishing rights. By 1986, when they finally gained federal recognition, the tribe was returned just 5,000 acres of trust land—about 1% of its traditional territory.
For these reasons, “our number one priority is to get our land back,” Myers says. In 2011, the tribe used loans from California’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund to buy about 32,000 acres in the Pecwan and Blue Creek watersheds, which had been owned by a timber company. The watersheds were selected both because of their biodiversity and old growth forests, according to Myers, and because the areas were used in Yurok religious ceremonies.
This purchase more than quadrupled their land base, but also meant the tribe owed the state government millions of dollars. They originally planned to pay back their loans by sustainably logging the land, but that would have taken a long time. “We needed to be creative about how we were going to attack this problem,” Myers says. “We needed to be courageous in leaning into what we had.”
They soon found a creative solution. In 2010 and 2011, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) was conducting a formal rule-making process to create a cap-and-trade program. Cap-and-trade programs allow industries that cannot otherwise reach their emission compliance requirements to purchase credits, called offsets, from sellers that sequester greenhouse gases. (In California, industries can use credits to offset up to 8% of their emissions.)
The ARB did not initially engage with tribes because they were focusing on land where the state had enforcement jurisdiction. At that time, Jason Gray, now head of the state’s cap-and-trade program, had just joined ARB as an attorney to advise on offset protocol design. “The Yurok, rightly so, came to us and said, ‘Shame on you guys. Why aren’t you including us?’” he recalls. The state listened, and the Yurok and several other tribes provided feedback to ensure the program worked within the structures of tribal law while fulfilling the state’s need to enforce regulatory standards. In 2013, when the cap-and-trade program formally launched, the Yurok became the first entity in the state to register a forest offset project.
Participation in the program has been a huge success for the Yurok. With income from the offset program, the Yurok have paid off loans from their previous watershed purchases; supported youth programming, housing, and road improvement; and helped develop off-reservation businesses such as Mad River Brewery in Humboldt County, California. They have also been able to buy back tens of thousands of acres of their traditional territory, which has had a powerful impact on the tribal nation.
“It’s quite amazing what the Yurok have accomplished,” Gray says.
A Holistic View of Forest Management
The Yurok’s small land base was once heavily logged by private timber companies and co-managed by agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, who viewed land management from a fundamentally different perspective than the Yurok.
For example, the Yurok view fire as a tool and partner. They historically used prescribed burning, also called cultural burning, to prevent the coastal prairies from becoming overgrown with conifers and bolster the growth of hazelnut shrubs, the stems of which the Yurok use for basket weaving. Yet for much of the 20th century, Forest Service policy treated fire as a threat. “They considered fire arson,” says Joe Hostler, who works in the Yurok Environmental Program’s community and ecosystems division. The Forest Service’s suppression of prescribed burning is “one of the reasons we have such overgrowth in our forests today,” Hostler says.
Myers says this management approach is part of a colonial, Western perspective that views humans as separate from the natural world, rather than part of it. In contrast, he says that “one of the core tenets of our traditional ecological knowledge is [the idea that] nature is not natural without human interaction.”
Land reclamation with income from the cap-and-trade program has enabled the tribe to take control of its land management again and revitalize once-banned techniques like cultural burning. It has also allowed them to sustainably harvest timber for economic development and forest management, restore salmon habitats in the Klamath River watershed, and create farms to increase food sovereignty.
This is all part of the tribe’s climate change adaptation strategy. “The climate change we are seeing now is unprecedented,” Myers says. “But we still hold true to those same teachings that we [have held] since time immemorial.”
To establish the tribe’s vision of a more resilient future in a changing climate, Hostler interviewed elders about historical environmental conditions. They described a cool, clear, and clean Klamath River, healthy salmon runs, and vast forests of old-growth redwoods. These memories became the baseline of what the tribe now says a healthy environment should look like, and what they are working toward with their climate change adaptation plan.
“We are connected to our land,” Hostler says. “We have intimate knowledge of the landscape and intergenerational knowledge.”
Following in the Yurok’s footsteps, 13 other tribes and Alaska Native corporations from across the U.S. now participate in California’s cap-and-trade program, from the White Mountain Apache in Arizona to the Passamaquoddy in Maine. As of September 2020, 78.9 million carbon offset credits were issued to tribes or Alaska Native Corporations for forest projects through California’s program; about half of all forest offset credits issued.
What is most important to Myers, though, is that the Yurok’s participation in California’s cap-and-trade program has strengthened tribal members’ relationship to their traditional territory. “The most beneficial thing we’re doing with our land is giving members access to it,” he says. “That is the greatest benefit we’ve done with our land.”
Abaki Beck is a public health graduate student and freelance writer. She writes about Indigenous feminism, Indigenous science and knowledge, and gender-based violence in Native communities.