How Carbon Trading Became a Way of Life for California’s Yurok Tribe

The Yurok’s carbon-offset project, among the first of its kind in the United States, has become the tribe’s main source of discretionary income. It has helped the tribe buy back, to date, nearly sixty thousand acres—up from five thousand. “This has been a way for us to revive the economy in a way that aligned with our cultural values,” Amy Cordalis, the tribe’s general counsel, said. The program has been touted by environmental organizations as a possible model for other indigenous groups living in forests around the world to regain their rights, while working with national and provincial governments to combat climate change. Seven other indigenous entities in the U.S. are now also selling carbon offsets.

The move has remained controversial among the Yurok. The decision came with a suite of concessions to the state government, including a nominal loss of sovereignty and greater environmental oversight. Several people I spoke with questioned the ethics of a program that seems to offer a license for industry pollution. “I think we did a good thing by saving the trees, but I’m not happy with it,” Jene McCovey, a tribal elder, told me. “It’s not viable. It allows polluters to pollute.” The Yurok believe in cultivating a symbiotic relationship with nature; given the way things are now, she said, “If you’re an eagle looking down on earth, you can’t find balance at all.”

. . . For the Yurok, the sale of forest offsets “is huge,” Ed Mann, the tribe’s new forestry director, told me. “It’s not chump change. It’s millions of dollars every year.” Currently, a single carbon offset has been valued at approximately twelve dollars. CARB has so far issued the Yurok two million offset credits. (Of about ninety million forestry offsets that CARB has issued, half, worth roughly five hundred million dollars, went to the Alaska Native corporation and other tribal projects, including the Yurok’s.) The Yurok tribe has a package of credits coming on the market this fall expected to bring in upwards of five million dollars.

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