A man stands on a tree stump looking out at a lush forest.
Forward-looking Pergish Carllson, a member of the Yurok tribe, looks out on forests involved in California’s efforts to ratchet down emissions. © Kevin Arnold

Magazine Articles

Carbon Cache

California’s carbon market is helping one American Indian community protect its forests—and its way of life— while fighting climate change.

October/November 2016

Ginger Strand Freelance Writer


Near a bank of windows overlooking the mighty Klamath River, Yurok tribal leader Susan Masten proudly displays photo after photo of intricate Yurok baskets and ceremonial caps, part of a cache of priceless cultural artifacts the California tribe has recently reclaimed. Assembled over decades by a non-Yurok art collector, the collection had a hefty price tag. But thanks to income from the innovative forest carbon offset program that The Nature Conservancy helped develop in California, the Yuroks were able to bring these treasures home in 2014.

“It’s as if you could hear them saying, ‘Take me home, take me home,’” says Masten, the tribe’s vice chair from 2011 to 2015. “We would never have been able to do it without those funds.”

California’s largest tribe is at the vanguard of a forward thinking program—designed to combat climate change—that is also helping them reclaim their past. The Yurok are making money by preserving large swaths of northern California’s forest, and reinvesting that income to conserve salmon habitat, reassemble their ancestral lands and preserve their culture.

Two men in snorkeling gear cross Blue Creek
SALMON PATROL Fisheries technicians Josh Jimenez-McQuillen (right), and Aldaron McCovey survey Blue Creek to count salmon. Using income from selling emissions credits, the Yurok purchased land around the creek. © Kevin Arnold

Early European travelers to Northern California were surprised to note that instead of using terms like north and south, Yurok people described things as being downstream or upstream. It’s still true for today’s Yuroks: Where you are on the Klamath is where you are in the world. The river is highway and provider, yielding up the salmon and eels that anchor the Yurok diet. Along its banks grow the soaring, ancient redwoods that watch over tribal ceremonies and the grasses and ferns used in the famed Yurok basketry. The slopes around it support tanoak trees that provide acorns, another food staple. Even the name “Yurok” means “downstream.”

The Yuroks once inhabited more than 50 villages along the coast and the Klamath, but the California gold rush brought deadly diseases, conflicts and displacement to many tribal communities. In 1855, the tribe’s remaining members were confined to a reservation that hugs the Klamath for 44 miles upriver from its mouth. After the General Allotment Act of 1887, which aimed to promote landownership and farming among Indians, the federal government deemed much of the reservation unsuitable for farming and sold it off for logging. By the late 20th century, timber companies owned at least half of the land on the reservation.

“At one point, we only had 3,000 acres in ownership on our 58,000-acre reservation,” Masten says. “Reacquiring our lands is imperative to us, and it’s mandated by our constitution.”

That was no easy task. The tribe’s main economic asset was the Klamath salmon fishery. The 20th-century dams constructed upstream for irrigation and hydroelectricity not only blocked the passage of spawning salmon but also reduced river flows and raised water temperatures in ways that were unhealthy for fish. The fishery went into free fall, leaving the tribe with few economic resources besides timber harvesting.

In 2006, California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, a bill designed to ratchet down carbon emissions through a multifaceted approach that includes a market-based cap-and-trade system. And though the soaring redwoods and majestic Klamath might seem to have little connection with the world of industrial smokestacks, the Yuroks saw an opportunity in one of the carbon bill’s provisions: the sale of forest carbon offsets. Not only could they manage the land to restore the watershed and help bring back the salmon, they could also make money doing so. And they could use that money to reassemble more of their ancestral territory.

A Yurok tribal elder demonstrates basket weaving
KLAMATH CULTURE Tribal elder Bertha Peters demonstrates basket weaving. The Yurok people traditionally resided along the Klamath River, living off what the water and forest could provide. © Kevin Arnold

The concept of cap-and-trade is fairly simple: Limit the supply of emissions permits in a market-based system, then slowly decrease that supply to drive up the price of the remaining permits and encourage emissions reductions. California’s bill, the product of years of research and negotiation, mandates that polluters buy a permit for each metric ton of carbon they emit. Those permits will become costlier as the total emissions allowed statewide decrease by approximately 3 percent annually, part of the state’s ambitious goal of dialing back total greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Carbon emission permits can be bought and sold on an open market, so if one company is able to cut emissions, it can sell its leftover permits to another company that emits too much. But in an innovative move led by The Nature Conservancy, California’s law also created a new way for companies to meet a portion of their emissions standards: by purchasing carbon offsets from sustainably managed forest projects. The California Air Resources Board issues such offsets to landowners who have committed to conserving or increasing their forests’ carbon storage capacity for 100 years.

“California’s carbon market became the first in the world with a comprehensive role for forests,” says Louis Blumberg, the Conservancy’s California climate change program director. “It’s something The Nature Conservancy has been working on since at least 1994, and it was ultimately put into law by the state because we provided the scientific proof of concept.”

Under the new law, a California company can effectively cancel out as much as 8 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions by buying carbon offsets. In practical terms, this means that a factory based in Los Angeles can help plant trees and fund conservation easements in forests as far away as Maine or Alaska.

Blumberg and others from the Conservancy’s California chapter worked closely with the state for more than a decade to design and launch the forest carbon offset program. Along with its partner The Conservation Fund, the Conservancy led one of the first two experimental projects that showed how carbon capture potential could be quantified in a meaningful way. The Garcia River Forest, a former timberland on which the Conservancy holds a conservation easement, became one of the first carbon offset projects in the nation to provide verified emissions reductions through improved forest management. The state used the data from this project to produce protocols for developing, monitoring and verifying forest carbon offset projects.

“It’s a very rigorous process, in order to move from the voluntary to the legal realm with offsets,” says Blumberg. “It’s the holy grail of forest carbon. People have been skeptical for many years that it’s possible to ensure climate benefits from forest protection: How do you track and quantify and verify it? That’s why forests were left out of the Kyoto Protocol. So what California and The Nature Conservancy did was to say, Let’s figure out how to answer those questions.”

Today, dozens of forestry projects nationwide are selling offsets on the California market, and the Conservancy is now working with the state to integrate international tropical forestry projects into the program. The Yuroks were among the first to get involved. With the assistance of Western Rivers Conservancy, an Oregon-based nonprofit, the tribe acquired some 22,000 acres from Green Diamond Resource Company in 2011. (Since then, the groups have purchased an additional 16,500 acres with the goal of protecting a total of 47,000 acres.) Working with an investment group called Forest Carbon Partners, the tribe then applied for offset credits on 7,660 acres of these lands, committing to sustainable forest management for the next century. They were issued more than 800,000 offsets—worth an estimated $6 million to $8 million—by the California Air Resources Board.

“The Yuroks are a great success story,” Blumberg says. “They validate the importance of the work we’ve done in creating this platform, with their own unique contribution.”

A Yurok tribe member plays an elk hide drum
KLAMATH CULTURE Neil McKinnon plays an elk hide drum. © Kevin Arnold

Sean O'Neill, a boisterous young man with a kingfisher tattooed on one arm and “Downstream” inked on the other, hits the brakes and jumps out of his truck.

“This is like Easter for me!” he says, digging around in the brush by the side of the old logging road. Before long, he is brandishing a tanoak acorn about an inch long. “Nowhere else are they this big,” he says triumphantly. “It’s this one tree.”

His coworker, Jeannette Robbins, smiles in assent. As members of the Yurok Tribe and employees of its food security program, gathering acorns is part of their job. The acorns are dried, ground and made into a powder that can be reconstituted into a porridgelike soup that is a staple of the Yurok traditional diet.

“If you want to live to be 100, eat that—and fish,” O’Neill says. “It’s all healthy food, organic to the max.” Then he charges across the road to point out a Woodwardia fern, used for Yurok basketmaking.

“Everything I learned was from paying attention,” he says. “I stuck around a lot of old-timers.”

The tribe employs O’Neill and Robbins to do a variety of things to keep tribal cultural practices alive and ensure that elders have access to the traditional foods they love. They gather acorns, huckleberries and mushrooms to eat, and collect ferns, bear grass and hazel sticks for basket-weaving. They make teas and traditional medicines from foraged plants, and tend a community vegetable garden. They also fish for the elders when the salmon are running.

“When fish come in, we have to drop everything,” Robbins says.

“We smoke a lot of fish,” O’Neill adds. “We can it and give it to the elders. Some of them want fresh fish, some want jerky, so we jerky it up.”

Now, with new lands being added to tribal ownership through income from carbon offset sales, O’Neill and Robbins have new foraging sites to explore. The logging road they are on, for instance, once had gates preventing them from using it. O’Neill leads the way to a plot of former timberland grown over with scrubby plants, many of them invasive.

“This crap grows when you log,” he says. “That’s why we burn.”

Another chunk of the carbon offset money will be used to train Yurok wildland fire crews in traditional fire management. A cultural practice dating back millennia, burning regenerates fire-adapted plants, protects trees from invasive pests, maintains open areas for wildlife and reduces the forest’s fuel load, decreasing the chances of catastrophic wildfires—which would release more carbon than small periodic fires. Frowned on and even outlawed for decades, prescribed burning is now acknowledged by the U.S. Forest Service as a necessary component of fire management.

Fire training, like food security work, has another positive benefit for the tribe: It’s an employment opportunity for educated young people who previously had to leave the reservation reservation to find employment. O’Neill himself used to work as a bartender in a town more than an hour away. But in 2011, he got a job with the tribe conducting initial surveys for the forest carbon offset projects. With a small group, he hiked up the mountains to measure trees and take core samples to determine their age. Surveying for carbon offsets requires much more work than surveying for a timber harvest.

“You have to hike up there and walk through the thickest brush,” he says, pointing to old-growth forest on the slopes across the Klamath. “It was a cool experience, though.”

Tribal leaders are planning more carbon offset projects, and each one will require similar surveys to establish that through their management plan, the forest is capturing more carbon. The Yuroks hope to use the revenue to acquire even more of their ancestral lands. They are exploring not only forest restoration but also re-introduction of Roosevelt elk—a species important to the tribe for subsistence and cultural uses that has suffered from habitat loss—and the California condor.
“It will be phenomenal and it won’t take that long,” says Masten, the former vice chair of the tribe who oversaw the recovery of cultural artifacts. “Hopefully my great grandkids will be able to see some of the benefits from this.”

An archeological field coordinator for the Yurok surveys a recently burned site
REGENERATION NATION Bob McConnell, an archeological field coordinator for the Yurok, surveys a site recently burned to help restore the forest. © Kevin Arnold

Standing at the edge of the Klamath, Bob McConnell cracks open a jar of smoked salmon and passes it around. A tribal heritage preservation officer, he has been working hard for decades to keep Yurok cultural practices alive. One of his first jobs was to interview 100 elders about the tribe’s history. Now an elder himself, with sparkling brown eyes and a deeply thoughtful air, he explains how the tribe’s culture depends on its stewardship of the landscape.

“If you have land and you ignore it,” he says, “it won’t thrive, because it won’t know what you want it to do. I know a lot of people don’t believe there’s a connection, but the Yurok do.”

There’s certainly a clear connection between land management and water quality, and thus the health of salmon. One of the tribe’s most significant acquisitions to date is a block of land in the Blue Creek watershed. A Klamath tributary, the Blue Creek and its valley provide habitat vital to many species, including Chinook salmon.

“Blue Creek is the crown jewel of the land purchase,” McConnell explains. “It’s just a special, special place. It gets its name from the color of the water.”

Blue Creek’s invisible features are even more critical. Salmon need cold water to thrive, and during migration season a pool of cold water known as the Blue Hole forms at the creek’s confluence with the Klamath. Fifteen degrees cooler than the Klamath, this cold-water refuge is essential to salmon stressed by warmer water. Without it, the river’s entire salmon population might collapse.

Working with Western Rivers Conservancy, the tribe plans to preserve this refuge by turning the Blue Creek watershed into a salmon sanctuary. It will eliminate herbicide use, recontour roads and replant native species, transitioning former clear-cuts and tree plantations to natural forest. The project is expected to improve watershed quality, wildlife resilience and the abundance of Yurok cultural resources—the time-honored foods, basket materials and traditional medicines that the land has always provided. The carbon offset program makes it all financially feasible while also fighting climate change for the sake of future generations.

“It’s amazing how resilient this land is,” McConnell says. “It’s been mistreated and mistreated, and it’s still producing and trying to heal itself. We’ve got to step up our part in that equation.”

Ginger Strand is a writer who has written for The Iowa Review, The New England Review and The New York Times, and is a contributing editor for Orion. She lives in the Catskill Mountains.