Lead Author:
Maureen I. McCarthy, University of Nevada, Reno, and Desert Research Institute
Contributing Authors:
Beverly Ramsey, Desert Research Institute and Wa-Hi-La, LLC
John Phillips, First Americans Land-Grant Consortium
Margaret H. Redsteer, University of Washington
Science Lead:
Sasha C. Reed, U.S. Geological Survey
Review Editor:
Rachel Melnick, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Federal Liaisons:
Nancy Cavallaro, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Gyami Shrestha, U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Tribal Lands

Short summaries of Indigenous peoples of North America (United States, Canada, and Mexico) that are relevant to this report are provided in this section. See Appendix 7A: Summary Descriptions of Indigenous Communities in North America for additional details and references.

7.2.1 Governance and Population

Today, federally recognized Native American tribes operate under a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. government. First Nation tribes have similar self-government status within Canada. Mexico has no established system of reservations or formal system of Indigenous community self-government.

According to the 2010 Census, the United States is home to 5.2 million people of American Indian or Alaskan Native heritage. Together, they comprise the 567 federally recognized tribes in 35 U.S. States, 229 of which are in Alaska and the remaining 338 in 34 other states (NCAI 2015; U.S. Census Briefs 2012). About 41 million hectares (ha) are under American Indian or Alaskan Native control, with approximately 5.2 million people identified as American Indian/Alaskan Native (alone or in combination with other races). Approximately 22% of Native Americans live on tribal lands and 78% live in urban or suburban environments, with 19.5% of Native people living in Alaska (Norris et al., 2012).

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, Canada is home to 851,560 First Nation people that collectively comprise more than 600 First Nation and Indian bands. First Nation people make up about one-third of the total population in the Northwest Territories and one-fifth of the population in the Yukon (Statistics Canada 2011). Nearly half of those registered under Canada’s Indian Act (49.3% or 316,000) live on reserves or Indian settlements (Statistics Canada 2011).

Indigenous communities in Mexico number 16.9 million people, the largest such community in North America. Although Mexico does not have a system of reserves or reservations for Indigenous people, the majority (80%) of all people who speak an Indigenous language live in the southern and south-central regions of Mexico (Cultural Survival 1999; Minority Rights Group International 2017).

7.2.2 Land Use: Agriculture and Energy Extraction and Production

United States

Agriculture is an important industry for Native Americans across the United States, providing more than $1.8 billion in raw agricultural products in 2012 from 20.6 million ha of farmland ($700 million from crop sales and $1.1 billion from livestock; USDA 2014). About 80% of tribal agriculture occurs in seven states: Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, Montana, California, and South Dakota (USDA 2014). Coal, natural gas, and oil reserves present opportunities for an estimated $1 trillion in revenue from mining and energy production across U.S. tribal lands (NCAI 2016), and commercial fisheries, forestry, tourism, energy extraction and generation, and other industries offer other opportunities for economic growth (see Figure 7.2). Tribal lands emit a significant amount of carbon today, largely due to a history of federal policies of fossil fuel resource development on Native American reservations. Coal strip mining on Hopi, Navajo, and Crow tribal lands supply coal-fired power plants on and near these reservations, contributing to U.S. carbon emissions (U.S. EIA 2015; Krol 2018).


Figure 7.2: Native American Land Use in North America

Figure 7.2: The size, scale, and location of some Native American reservations in the conterminous United States are shown, along with tribal fossil fuel production, population statistics, dominant industries by region, major socioeconomic drivers, and traditional practices (e.g., agriculture, hunting, and fishing). Coal strip mining on Hopi, Navajo, and Crow tribal lands supply coal-fired power plants on and near these reservations, contributing to U.S. carbon emissions. [Figure source: Ron Oden, University of Nevada, Reno. Data sources: NCAI 2015; Prine Pauls 2017; Sturtevant 1991; U.S. Census Briefs 2012; U.S. EIA 2017a; Natural Resources Canada 2016a.]


The National Indian Carbon Coalition (NICC) is one organization explicitly dedicated to engaging Native American communities in carbon management (NICC 2015). NICC is a greenhouse gas (GHG) management service established to encourage Native American community participation in carbon cycle programs with the goal of furthering both land stewardship and economic development on Native American lands. NICC was created as a partnership between the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and the Intertribal Agriculture Council to assist tribes in developing carbon credit programs. With waning U.S. interest in adopting a carbon credit economy, NICC may be less impactful than originally envisioned. However, NICC-sponsored programs represent focused efforts on carbon sequestration; GHG emission reductions; and the promotion of soil health, ecological diversity, and water and air quality in the context of traditional values and economic development. If the United States chooses to pursue a carbon credit economy in the future, programs such as NICC will be invaluable in positioning Native American communities to participate and benefit socially, culturally, and economically.

Land tenure; federal regulations, policies, and laws; and cultural values have made the extraction of fossil energy, uranium, and other mineral resources on tribal lands a socially and economically complex issue. The history of natural resource development on reservation lands, as well as policies such as the Indian Mineral Leasing Act, have led to a dependence on nonrenewable resources and narrowed the economic focus for revenues supporting many tribal governments (Krakoff and Lavallee 2013). As mentioned, Native American communities are among the nation’s poorest, with nearly 40% of people on reservations living in poverty (four times the national average) and average annual incomes less than half those of other U.S. citizens (Grogan 2011). Such socioeconomic challenges have been attributed with motivating some tribes to allow extraction of their mineral and fossil fuel resources (Regan 2014). The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) documents the energy profiles for each U.S. state and territory and updates them monthly, including descriptions of energy extraction and use on tribal lands (U.S. EIA 2017a).

Fossil fuel and uranium energy resources beneath tribal lands are substantial, comprising 30% of the nation’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi River, 50% of its potential uranium reserves, and 20% of its known oil and gas reserves, together worth nearly $1.5 trillion (Grogan 2011). Most of these resources are concentrated with a few tribes in the western United States (Grogan 2011; Regan 2014; see Table 7.1; see also Ch. 3: Energy Systems for information about non-tribal energy extraction). Conflicts between traditional values and the need for economic development are demonstrated by uranium extraction on Navajo lands, where nearly 30 million tons were removed from over 1,000 mines from 1944 to 1986. Half of these mines are abandoned and awaiting remediation (U.S. EIA 2017b; U.S. EPA 2018; Moore-Nall 2015). Uranium mining provided some short-term benefits from mining income and jobs but resulted in extreme ecological degradation and long-term impacts to water, public health, and soil carbon sequestration (Brugge and Goble 2002; Diep 2010).

Recent discussions have emerged regarding strategies and policy tools that tribal governments could adopt in transitioning to carbon-neutral development and climate action plans (Suagee 2012). These strategies include updating substandard tribal housing and building new homes for the unmet housing need by addressing the lack of inclusion of federally recognized tribes in the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (Public Law 110–140). Although this law requires housing to conform to an Energy Conservation Code, its application to tribal housing is generally lacking in order to limit the cost of such housing, leaving Native American home occupants with higher energy bills. The Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act provides additional frameworks for developing energy infrastructure (Anderson 2005), but the current legal framework does not adequately address tribal needs (Bronin 2012). The financial dependence of some tribes on fossil fuel extraction is a significant barrier to embracing carbon-neutral practices, especially when tribes are excluded from alternative energy tax credit incentives. For example, 85% of Hopi tribal revenues are from strip mining coal (Krol 2018). Moreover, rigorous studies on land-use impacts to ecosystems on tribal lands would help inform and motivate tribal governments to consider energy alternatives. Other challenges include environmental concerns, such as a lack of rigorous studies on land-use impacts to local ecosystems and the exclusion of tribes from incentives such as tax credits that are available to other entities developing alternative energy projects.


Indigenous communities in Canada rely heavily on sustenance and production agriculture (i.e., crops and livestock); fishing and hunting; forestry and timber harvesting; coal, oil, and gas extraction; and some alternative energy production (Canada Energy and Mines Ministers’ Conference 2016; Merrill and Miro 1996; Natural Resources Canada 2016b). These activities, along with tourism, are the major economic drivers for tribal communities. Typically, Indigenous lands are sparsely populated with few (if any) commercial industries except those associated with gaming.

Forests and forest resources offer economic opportunities for the First Nations in Canada (Natural Resources Canada 2016a). The Canadian government’s Aboriginal Forestry Initiative provides information and support for Aboriginal forestry projects, as well as more than $10 million in funding opportunities across Canada for First Nations, which control more than 3,000 ha of forested land. Approximately 70% of Canada’s Indigenous communities are in forested areas, and more than 16,000 Aboriginal people have worked in Canada’s forest sector since 2011 for projects across the country (Natural Resources Canada 2016a).

Mining occurs on many First Nation lands, with over 480 mining agreements for more than 300 projects signed between mineral companies and Indigenous groups since 1974. As of December 2015, 380 projects were active (Canada Energy and Mines Ministers’ Conference 2016). In the oil sands region of northern Alberta, some Indigenous communities are concerned about the environmental impacts of development, but the oil sands industry also provides economic opportunities for Indigenous-owned businesses that provide goods and services to oil sands companies (Natural Resources Canada 2016b). Fisheries are a traditional and modern source of livelihood for many Aboriginal people, especially in western Canada, where food fishing and commercial fishing are highly important (Notzke 1994).


Temperate and tropical forests make up 56.8 million ha or 40.1% of Mexico’s land area. Land reforms following the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s put more than half the country’s forested lands in the hands of “Ejidos” (communally owned farming collectives) and Indigenous communities (Bray et al., 2003). The result created community forest enterprises (CFEs), through which local communities own, manage, and harvest their own forest resources including timber. Although not all CFEs are well managed, they have the potential to provide income for poor, rural communities while delivering ecological services and maintaining forest productivity and biodiversity (Bray et al., 2003). The Mexican government initially owned Ejido lands, but a constitutional amendment in 1992 gave the farming collectives formal titles to their own lands (Merrill and Miro 1996).

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