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

Due to many of the factors previously cited, especially the lack of explicit measurements and data for carbon cycle processes, a quantitative assessment of the carbon stocks and fluxes for Indigenous lands does not presently exist. However, comparisons can be made about carbon cycling between tribal lands and similar, non-tribally managed land types (e.g., rangelands, agricultural lands, and forests). Comparing and contrasting carbon cycling impacts resulting from traditional practices on tribal lands with Eurocentric-based land-use practices on (and off) tribal lands could prove beneficial in developing more effective carbon management programs for both tribal and non-tribal lands. As in all systems, integrating scientific, social, and economic perspectives into strategies to use and protect natural resources and sustain healthy landscapes will be valuable to communities closely tied to the land.

Several case studies are presented throughout the rest of this section to illustrate 1) the role of Indigenous agricultural practices in maintaining or enhancing carbon sequestration on tribal lands, 2) the impacts of European settlement on traditional agriculture, 3) the role of Indigenous forest management approaches for sustaining forest health, and 4) the impact of fossil fuel and uranium extraction on tribal land carbon emissions, as well as the potential for renewable energy production.

7.3.1 Role of Indigenous Agricultural Practices in Maintaining or Enhancing Carbon Sequestration

Carbon can be stored above and below ground in vegetation (live or dead) and in soils on tribal lands such as agricultural lands, rangelands, aquacultural systems, and forests (Zomer et al., 2017; Baker et al., 2007). Compared to surrounding non-Indigenous lands, agricultural (crop and livestock) practices on tribal lands tend to be significantly less intensive, with extensive reliance on free-range grazing, dryland farming, and no-till cropping especially in arid regions (Ingram 2015; Teasdale et al., 2007; Wall and Masayesva 2004; Kimmerer 2003). Because these traditional practices are less disruptive to native ecosystems, they tend to conserve carbon stocks on the landscape (Baker et al., 2007; West and Post 2002). However, compared to agriculture on non-tribal lands, traditional practices also may reduce economic output from crop production, cattle-carrying capacity on rangelands, and timber harvests (Drinkwater et al., 1998; Gabriel et al., 2006). Therefore, carbon inventories on native lands reflect a balance between sustaining traditional practices and the adoption of more intensive Eurocentric agricultural practices to increase trade and income.

The colonial-driven transformation of human and natural systems that pushed Native American communities to marginal areas and forced tribes onto restrictive reservations with limited options for food and safety (Lynn et al., 2013; Reo and Parker 2013), coupled with the introduction and adoption of Eurocentric agriculture, crops, and land-use practices, has (in many cases) led to desertification, soil degradation, erosion, and deforestation on tribal lands. These impacts, in turn, may have reduced the carbon-carrying capacity of the soils and vegetation (Redsteer et al., 2010; Baker et al., 2007; Kane 2015; Schahzenski 2009). Alfalfa, an introduced perennial crop with a deep root structure, is a dominant production crop and economic driver for many tribes in the arid southwestern United States (USDA 2014; U.S. Census Briefs 2012). Continuous alfalfa planting has been shown to contribute to the accumulation of soil organic carbon and total nitrogen under certain temperature and precipitation conditions (Chang et al., 2012). Overall, tribal and non-tribal carbon fluxes for multiple types of agriculture are probably close to net neutral in areas where both traditional and introduced agricultural practices are in use (see Ch. 5: Agriculture). An exception is the continued use of slash-and-burn practices by some communities in Mexico (Bray et al., 2003; Deininger and Minten 1999).

Case Studies Utilizing Traditional Farming Practices for Carbon Sequestration

“For millennia, from Mexico to Montana, women have mounded up the earth and laid these three seeds (corn, beans, and squash) in the ground, all in the same square foot of soil. When the colonists on the Massachusetts shore first saw Indigenous gardens, they inferred that the savages did not know how to farm. To their minds, a garden meant straight rows of single species, not a three-dimensional sprawl of abundance. And yet they ate their fill and asked for more, and more again” (Kimmerer 2003).

Carbon sequestration projects on agricultural lands can be realized through improved management of fertilizer applications, erosion mitigation, return to no-till or reduced-tillage farming methods (depending on location), restoration of riparian areas, grazing management plans, good livestock waste management, and other measures (Zomer et al., 2017; West and Post 2002; Baker et al., 2007; see Ch. 5: Agriculture and Ch. 12: Soils for more information on no-till agricultural impacts on carbon sequestration). In southwestern Oklahoma, NICC worked with the Comanche Nation to establish a new agriculture leasing management system across 40,000 ha of allotments and tribal-owned land. Actions that could prove to be carbon sequestration measures on this reservation include a return to no-till farming, establishment of shelterbelts to prevent wind erosion, and rotational grazing management plans (NICC 2015).

On rangelands, overgrazing, soil erosion, wildfires, offroad driving, and conversion of rangeland to farmland can release carbon into the atmosphere, but carbon also can be sequestered through sustainable land management practices. On the Santa Ana Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, NICC worked with tribal members to improve land management for carbon sequestration across 4,000 ha. Provisions included increasing vegetation cover to prevent soil erosion, decreasing the density of woody species to prevent wildfires, minimizing offroad driving, and developing and implementing livestock grazing plans (NICC 2015). On prairie lands, the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council is a collaborative among 58 tribes in 19 states dedicated to restoring bison to Indigenous communities to promote Native American culture and spiritual practices, ecological restoration, and economic development. Bison have a smaller ecological impact on prairie lands than cattle, and their reintroduction by Indigenous communities in the Great Plains (albeit on a small scale compared to cattle ranching) is contributing to prairie restoration (Kohl et al., 2013).

There are data from across all of North America on traditional (Indigenous) agricultural practices going back several thousand years. Both oral tradition and written accounts dating from the 1500s show evidence of agricultural practices that are now being examined as a meaningful contribution to “carbon farming” or carbon sequestration via agricultural practices. These practices include no-till seeding, use of organic mulches (wood wastes and straw), use of composts (nonconsumed plant parts and animal wastes), moving domestic animals among areas based on season and forage availability, use of legumes (nitrogen-fixing plants), and complex cropping such as planting corn in perennial fields of clover or vetch (Baker et al., 2007; Drinkwater et al., 1998; Gabriel et al., 2006).

It has long been known that soil organic matter contains one of the planet’s largest carbon sinks (see Ch. 12: Soils; Zomer et al., 2017; Kane 2015; Marriott and Wander 2006; Teasdale et al., 2007). Various organizations, including Nourishing Systems in Oregon, are working to refine traditional methods of composting and soil carbon enrichment (Goode 2017). This approach, inspired by the Buffalo Dance tradition of the Northern Plains Tribes, is designed to mimic the soil nutrient cycling resulting from buffalo roaming on tallgrass prairie lands. Sunflower stalks, which are porous and recalcitrant (rich in lignin and therefore slowly degrading), are used as the base layer in the trenches between row crops and perennials (see Figure 7.3). Less recalcitrant cellulosic wastes such as straw are placed on top of the sunflower stalks. As the final layers, wastes or the nonedible portions from crops are added as compost. These filled trenches are covered and used as walkways as the soils are enriched slowly by the decay of the organic matter, and the soil ecological assemblage of microorganisms, insects, and worms cycle the carbon and nutrients within the soil subecosystem (Goode 2017; Schahzenski and Hill 2009; West and Post 2002). A key to soil carbon sequestration may be a switch of the mechanisms that move soils away from bacterial dominance toward fungal dominance (Johnson 2017). At least in some systems, this change in soil community can result in increased soil fertility and water storage capacity, plant water-use efficiency, and soil nutrient availability to plants. The process also reduces plowing and tillage costs, fertilizer and pesticide applications, and water (both surface and groundwater) pollution (Johnson 2017).


Figure 7.3: Traditional Composting and Soil Carbon Enrichment

Figure 7.3: (a) Trenched complex compost for soil carbon accumulation in soil organic matter (SOM). (b) SOM development using trench composting. Key: H2O, water; NH4+, ammonium; CO2, carbon dioxide. [Figure source: Scott Goode, Desert Research Institute.]


“In Indigenous agriculture, the practice is to modify the plants to fit the land. As a result, there are many varieties of corn domesticated by our ancestors, all adapted to grow in many different places. Modern agriculture, with its big engines and fossil fuels, took the opposite approach: modify the land to fit the plants, which are frighteningly similar clones” (Kimmerer 2003).

The Pueblo Farming Project (Bocinsky and Varien 2017; Ermigiotti et al., 2018) has documented the drought resiliency of traditional Hopi farming practices, including the development of drought-tolerant Hopi corn varieties and dryland (non-irrigated) farming. An ongoing collaboration between the Hopi tribe and the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado, the Pueblo Farming Project has planted, tended, and harvested experimental gardens in southwestern Colorado every summer since 2008 to investigate the viability of growing Hopi maize outside of the Hopi mesas in northern Arizona. Traditional Hopi farmers grow their corn using entirely manual cultivation practices: a digging stick, a gourd of water, and seed corn selected to meet the subsistence and ritual needs of the Hopi community (Wall and Masayesva 2004). With no tilling or tractors and minimal water inputs, Hopi corn farming maximizes moisture, nutrient, and carbon storage in the sandy soils of the Hopi mesas. As Hopi oral history attests and archaeologists have documented, traditional Hopi corn farming has sustained the Hopi community and their ancestors for millennia (Bocinsky and Varien 2017; Coltrain and Janetski 2013; Cooper et al., 2016; Matson 2016).

7.3.2 Impacts of European Settlement on Traditional Agriculture

For tribal communities that have adopted Eurocentric crop and livestock agricultural practices, carbon fluxes likely are comparable to fluxes from adjacent, non-tribal lands, including carbon losses due to soil erosion and desiccation. Before the 1860s, Navajo Nation families lived on a subsistence mix of farming, hunting and gathering, and herding livestock. This subsistence mix required families to range widely over a vast area of traditional Navajo lands (Fanale 1982). Families moved their livestock around core grazing areas shared by networks of interrelated, extended families; during droughts they used other kinship ties to gain access to more distant locations where conditions were better. This land-use regime helped families distribute their livestock over the range as conditions warranted (Redsteer et al., 2010). After the reservation was established in 1868, land-use pressure from non-Native American settlers cut them off from the wettest areas that were best for hunting, gathering, and summer grazing. Navajo families were forced to depend more heavily on farming and especially stock raising within the more arid to semi-arid sections of their homeland (Redsteer et al., 2010). By the early 20th century, both tribal and federal government officials along with other observers were warning about desertification of Navajo ranges (Kelley and Whiteley 1989; White 1983). Stock-reduction programs of the 1930s created further restrictions by establishing grazing districts and requiring each Navajo family to have a permit for raising livestock within a particular district, not to exceed a certain number (White 1983; Young 1961). Erosion has continued to be a problem, though range managers now recognize that climate, landscape conditions, and other hydrological processes also cause regional soil erosion even without additional grazing pressures (Redsteer et al., 2010; White 1983). Currently, the early 20th century grazing policies remain in place, and further revisions to grazing are being proposed as prolonged drought conditions from 1994 to 2018 and increasing aridity continue to degrade rangeland viability, water supplies, and general living conditions (Redsteer et al., 2018).

7.3.3 Role of Indigenous Forest Management Approaches for Sustaining Forest Health

Carbon fluxes between the biosphere and atmosphere may result in net carbon sinks (via carbon sequestration) in areas engaged in sustainable forest management and timber harvesting (see Ch. 9: Forests). Numerous Indigenous communities throughout North America have sustainably managed forestlands, which may serve as carbon sinks in both tribal and non-tribal areas. Indigenous forestry practices in some cases have resulted in large and diverse stands of timber (Trosper 2007) that could be evaluated for their carbon storage impacts.

Case Studies of Sustainable Forest Management in the United States, Canada, and Mexico

United States. A renewed focus on traditional values, environmental stewardship, public health, and food sovereignty has led many Native American communities to adopt (or re-adopt) sustainable forest management practices rooted in their traditions and cultures. Exemplifying this renewed focus are the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of the Flathead Reservation in Montana, who have implemented an ecosystem-based forest management plan (Chaney 2013; CSKT 2000) that uses ecological, cultural, social, and economic principles to maintain and restore the ecological diversity and integrity of forests on the Flathead Reservation. Fire was integral to how the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribes managed the forests that provided them with sustenance and livelihood. The CSKT have reintroduced traditional practices including the use of fire to manage their forests. These practices are enhancing forest ecosystem health and diversity and have reduced the impact of catastrophic wildfires that occurred on neighboring non-tribal federal lands (CSKT 2000). Carbon stocks are affected by the distribution and health of both trees and culturally important understory plants. Although fire can release large amounts of carbon and carbon stocks and fluxes have not been explicitly measured on the Flathead Reservation, the reintroduction of these traditional practices is resulting in more sustainable and healthy forests that are more diverse and fire-resistant.

Prior to European contact, the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribes of northwestern Montana (who were subsequently relocated to the Flathead Reservation) derived most of their sustenance from the surrounding forested lands, including culturally significant tree species (e.g., whitebark pine) and understory vegetation (e.g., huckleberries and medicinal plants; CSKT 2000). They used fire to actively manage forests for at least 7,000 years, according to oral tradition. These “Indian-lit fires” were usually set in the cooler days of spring, early summer, and fall when burning conditions were less hazardous; the fires were typically lower in intensity than lightening fires, which usually ignite in the hotter summer season. Using both fire and active harvesting, the tribes managed the forests holistically to balance stand density, understory vegetation health, and animal habitats to support hunting. The fire-exclusion policy introduced by the U.S. government in 1910, as well as the introduction of clearcut logging and cattle grazing, changed the biodiversity and health of these forests. During the last century, many tree stands have grown denser with many trees stressed from lack of water and insect and disease outbreaks. Although carbon stocks may have increased in these forests during this time, the forests are much more susceptible to catastrophic wildfires, as was evident in the summer of 2017 when over 405,000 ha were burned by wildfires in Montana (USDA 2017). Such burns, of course, result in large losses of carbon to the atmosphere.

Carbon sequestration projects involving forested land can also take the form of afforestation projects (i.e., planting trees on land that was previously unforested) or reforestation projects (i.e., planting trees in places where trees were removed). The Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho began an afforestation and reforestation project for carbon sequestration during the 1990s, planting trees on a 160-ha plot of previously unforested land. The tribe has since expanded its efforts to include 33 different afforestation and reforestation projects (including fire rehabilitation projects) covering approximately 1,379 ha (NICC 2015).

Canada. Canadian forest management programs include initiatives to build capacity and allocate revenues from resources shared among First Nations (AANDC 2012). With the emergence of carbon markets as an option for addressing climate change, First Nations formed the First Nations Carbon Collaborative, which is dedicated to building capacity among Indigenous communities to access and benefit from emerging carbon markets (IISD 2010, 2011). A goal of these programs is to address the economic challenges facing these communities by developing revenue-generating activities associated with carbon sequestration through sustainable forest management, restoration, and protection; biomass tree farming; and protection of boreal forest peatlands or “muskegs.” The challenges identified by First Nations to engaging effectively in carbon markets are not unlike those faced by Indigenous communities in the United States and Mexico.

Mexico. Ejidos in Mexico are based on traditional Native American land-tenure systems that allow individuals to farm communally owned lands (Bray et al., 2003). An in-depth study analyzing the role of poverty, Ejido land tenure, and governmental policies in stimulating deforestation in Mexico revealed that poverty and government policies to hold maize prices above the world average increased deforestation (Deininger and Minten 1999). In contrast, Ejido communal land-tenure arrangements did not directly affect deforestation rates, and, within the Ejidos, Indigenous communities were associated with lower deforestation rates. Although several factors likely contribute to this finding, evidence indicates that the sociocultural safety net provided by this traditional system of land use promotes natural resource management practices that overcome the “tragedy of the commons,” which leads to land deforestation to increase cash crop production. In recognition of the benefits of dramatically reducing deforestation in Mexico and other developing countries, the World Bank and United Nations initiated two projects: the Forests and Climate Change Project (World Bank 2018) and REDD+, or the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation project (United Nations 2016). In May 2016, the World Bank reported that through job creation and other support to Ejidos and Indigenous communities, these programs have led to the conversion of 1.8 million ha of forestland to sustainable management, thus reducing Mexico’s deforestation rates (World Bank 2018; United Nations 2016).

7.3.4 Impact of Energy Extraction and Production on Tribal Land Carbon Emissions

Within tribal lands, net carbon fluxes are estimated to be positive, with more carbon released to the atmosphere than is taken up in areas dominated by land leased for coal, oil, and gas extraction (primarily in the northern central United States and Canada). This is due to the carbon dioxide and methane (CH4) released during extraction processes and the accompanying tree removal on forested lands. Fossil fuel extraction and uranium mining on tribal lands (described in the subsequent case studies) have resulted in significant ecosystem degradation and carbon emissions (Brugge et al., 2006). For tribal lands heavily vested in fossil fuel exploitation and use, carbon fluxes to the atmosphere may equal or even exceed those on similar non-tribal lands. Renewable energy generation on tribal lands primarily results from leasing lands or community-owned hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, wind, and biomass production facilities (U.S. DOE 2015).

Case Studies in Fossil Fuel and Uranium Extraction

The United States is a significant carbon emitter, and many of its fossil fuel resources are on tribal lands, where energy development is big business (Indigenous Environmental Network 2016; Mills 2016; Regan 2016). Fossil fuel and uranium extraction have provided economic gain for some tribes, but at the cost of significant environmental degradation, loss of cultural resources, and adverse health effects (Brugge 2006). Most of the low-sulfur coal mined in the United States is on tribal lands in the Southwest and Great Plains (Pendley and Kolstad 1980; NCAI 2015; U.S. EIA 2017a). The Osage tribe in Oklahoma and Crow Nation in Montana are pursuing coalbed CH4 projects, while the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota are entering the oil refinery business. The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain tribes in Colorado have developed their own oil business exploration and development companies and also have embraced coalbed CH4 development. The Fort Mojave tribe along the lower Colorado River in Arizona and California is leasing its land to a California-based energy company, Calpine Corporation, to build a natural gas electrical generating plant. Easements allowing the building of electrical transmission lines throughout Indigenous lands are being negotiated, often without adequate input from grassroots tribal members.

Although nuclear energy production is carbon neutral, the human cost of nuclear fuels extraction has been high. The legacy of uranium mining and milling has resulted in considerable environmental and human health issues in Indigenous populations in the western United States, including the Navajo, Hopi, Southern Ute, Ute Mountain, Zuni, Laguna, Acoma, Eastern Shoshone, Northern Arapaho, and Spokane tribes. These legacy impacts are integral to the life cycle costs of nuclear energy production and should be included in assessments of nuclear energy’s role in the carbon cycle. The largest open-pit uranium mine was located at Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico. Thousands of abandoned mining sites are as yet unreclaimed, with 75% of unreclaimed mining sites occurring on tribal land (Moore-Nall 2015). Additional uranium milling locations are now “Superfund sites” (sites outlined in the U.S. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980) on Navajo and Spokane tribal lands. Ecological destruction due to uranium mining and milling on tribal lands reduces the carbon-carrying capacity of these lands and impacts the ability of Indigenous communities to maintain traditional and sustainable land-use practices. The lack of compensation for human health impacts and continuing environmental problems resulting from uranium production led to the uranium mining ban on Navajo lands in the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005 (LaDuke 2005).

Case Studies in Renewable Energy Production

Renewable energy development on tribal lands is increasing (Jones 2014; Royster 2012) but is still limited by federal regulations, tribal land tenure, lack of energy transmission infrastructure on reservations, and economic challenges. Recent examples include a proposed solar facility on Hopi land near Flagstaff, Arizona, that would supply the town with electricity; two adjacent Navajo Nation solar projects near Kayenta, Arizona; and a Jemez Pueblo solar project in New Mexico (U.S. EIA 2017a). If these projects prove to be economically viable, increased interest and development of renewable energy resources on tribal lands may offset fossil fuel energy exploitation and consumption. One novel approach is the Tulalip Tribe’s involvement in the Qualco anaerobic digester, which has been in operation since 2008. It utilizes animal waste, trap grease, and other pollutants (thus keeping them out of landfills and drains and preventing illegal dumping) and burns CH4 to create renewable energy. This process helps clean the air and water, helps farmers keep their dairies operating, protects salmon streams, and provides environmentally friendly compost (Qualco Energy 2018).

See Full Chapter & References