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

As previously discussed, carbon inventories on native lands across North America are affected by the balance between the use of traditional practices and the economic drivers for more intensive agriculture and natural and energy resource exploitation. The extent to which traditional practices have been maintained or reintroduced serves as a guide for estimating carbon cycle impacts on tribal lands through comparisons to carbon cycle impacts on similar non-tribal land types.

Quantitative understanding of carbon stocks and fluxes on tribal lands is notably poor, with limited direct monitoring or modeling of carbon cycling. Nevertheless, carbon cycle issues are increasingly integral to natural resource and land management decision making, and they may be informed by further research involving partnerships to understand how traditional land-use practices alter the carbon cycle. Traditional Indigenous peoples’ practices may offer new opportunities for carbon management. Further, because of the spatial extent of tribal lands and their potential to affect carbon cycling at large scales, an improved understanding of the carbon cycle on tribal lands would advance quantification of the continental carbon cycle. Many North American Indigenous communities maintain traditional practices that inherently affect carbon stocks and fluxes. These practices include sustainable management of forests, agriculture, and natural resources. High levels of poverty and unemployment have encouraged some tribes with fossil fuel and mineral resources to engage in ecologically destructive extraction practices as a means to improve livelihoods. However, further development of renewable energy programs on tribal lands is providing new opportunities to improve reservation economies, community health, and carbon cycle sustainability.

7.6.1 Seven Generations Youth Education

Understanding the importance placed on youth education by Indigenous communities is critical to fostering and sustaining traditional practices of community and ecological sustainability that affect carbon management on tribal lands now and in the future. Tribal education is closely aligned with tribal core values and traditional concepts of sustainability and thus carbon cycle management (Tippeconnic III and Tippeconnic Fox 2012; Kimmerer 2002). In particular, youth are widely revered as representing the future vitality of tribal nations and tribal lands. This thinking is consistent with the core tribal value of sustainability, which often is articulated as planning for Seven Generations, that is, that the tribe’s human, social, and natural capital must be sustained with a time horizon comparable to seven human life spans (Brookshire and Kaza 2013). Therefore, youth education, development, and leadership are near-universal tribal priorities, with tribal education being framed by traditional and cultural values and by deep connections to ancestral homelands (Cajete 1999). Tribal education is considered a journey and life pathway that is neither defined nor constrained by western notions of a segmented and stepwise educational pipeline. This approach has several practical implications. Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) were created, in large part, to provide a culturally relevant educational pathway that is congruent with core tribal values, traditions, and commitments to sustainability (Benham and Stein 2003). TCUs often serve as the research and science centers for tribal nations, conducting primary research on tribal issues, maintaining repositories of cultural and natural assets, and facilitating long-term tribal planning on issues such as climate change and sustainability, economic development, and health and wellness. TCUs exemplify the Seven Generations approach by providing youth with the foundation, support, and pathway to become productive members of their tribal nation, thereby ensuring that the tribe and tribal lands will thrive into the future.

7.6.2 Knowledge Gaps and Ways Forward

Significant knowledge gaps remain in assessing the unique impacts of tribal land and resource management on carbon stocks and fluxes. Closing these gaps would benefit from the combined insight of native wisdom and western science about forest health, crop cultivation, livestock grazing, water management, ecosystem protection, and community health and well-being. These knowledge gaps should be discussed within the larger context and with a focus on ways to empower Indigenous communities and support their engagement in matters within their decision domains and spheres of influence that affect the carbon cycle. Research could usefully be directed at the unique circumstances and needs of Indigenous communities. Particular research needs include:

  • Quantifying the impacts of traditional practices on carbon stocks and fluxes, including the use of fire on the landscape, co-cropping of synergistic plants, and cultivation of plants with high moisture retention and temperature tolerance.

  • Evaluating potential changes in carbon fluxes from site-specific applications of carbon capture and sequestration efforts and developing quantification methods for projects involving soil enrichment and renewable energy.

  • Evaluating opportunities for deploying innovative technologies and practices that potentially can affect carbon fluxes at the community level (e.g., renewable energy, energy-efficient substitutions, local sourcing, carbon-based purchasing policies, and carbon markets).

Actions that may contribute to future carbon storage and reduce carbon emissions on tribal lands include:

  • Developing community-based programs that address carbon sequestration in the context of enhanced access to nutritional foods.

  • Promoting intergovernmental coordination and cooperation among partners to preserve and protect the public trust, as well as the use of special relationships such as fiduciary obligations and consultation requirements and principles of free, prior, and informed consent (United Nations 2008).

  • Advancing collaborative efforts to increase awareness and combine western science and traditional knowledge, including facilitation of access to and sharing of data, information, and expertise.

  • Implementing place-based monitoring and systems for recording and reporting environmental observations to establish baselines and provide a history of changes in temperature, humidity, precipitation, phenology, and species compositions.

  • Increasing knowledge sharing about traditional agricultural practices that minimize carbon emissions and enhance carbon storage.

  • Engaging in outreach education about alternative, efficient, and economical energy production on tribal lands.

  • Implementing programs that enable tribes to quantify and realize the economic benefits associated with sustainable forest management, reforestation, boreal forest protection, and sustainable agriculture.

  • Building capacity among tribal youth to support and inform the next generation of decision makers.

Indigenous communities are continuing to create opportunities to locally develop more diverse, distributed, and sustainable sources of energy, food, and income, which is strengthening ecological and community resilience and enhancing sustainable carbon management.

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