Courtesy Comanche Nation
Milton Sovo, Comanche Nation Secretary of Agriculture, on Comanche grazing lands. New access to carbon credits through federal grants will enhance the bottom line as well as preserve culture and help combat climate change.

Carbon Credits Help Tribes Preserve Culture, Climate and Bottom Line

Douglas Thompson

The National Indian Carbon Coalition (NICC), a tribal non-profit, has received a three-year, $300,000 grant to improve access to carbon markets in Indian country, enabling tribes to help mitigate climate change’s effects while improving their bottom line.

“This is exciting for Indian country,” said NICC Program Director Erick Giles, Muscogee (Creek) and member of the Big Cat clan. “Generating and selling carbon credits is a mostly untapped way for tribes to promote economic development on their reservations through resource management.”

Only in recent decades have reservation natural resources been managed directly by tribes for their own benefit. Historically these resources—minerals, timber, forage and croplands, and water—have benefited off-reservation interests at the expense of the environment and reservation communities. This created a dilemma as growing tribal populations had to be increasingly resourceful in maximizing the limited resources available to them on their own lands.

Ironically, the ascension of climate change, though placing even greater pressure on the limited tribal land base, may result in unique economic opportunities through what are termed carbon markets. According to Giles, these markets have the potential to turn the tables on the perverse history of exploitation of tribal natural resources by non-tribal entities.

Carbon Markets and Climate Change

Carbon markets facilitate the buying and selling of carbon credits that are generated by resource management activities known to reduce or sequester the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Examples include improved forest management, re-establishment of forest lands on non-forested areas, and improved rangeland management and agricultural practices such as sustainable grazing management and no-till cultivation.

“The market relies partly on what are called cap and trade compliance regulations, which make allowances for companies that emit greenhouse gases to purchase carbon credits to help meet emission limit goals,” Giles told Indian Country Today Media Network. “There are compliance markets created by the mandates of environmental laws, and there are voluntary markets involving companies that may not be subject to emission limits, but simply want to minimize their carbon footprint for social responsibility reasons.”

According to Giles, the value of these credits can vary between $8 and $15 per credit, which is the equivalent of one metric ton of carbon dioxide.

National Indian Carbon Coalition

NICC was formed in partnership between the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC), both national tribal organizations committed to Native Nation Building through resource-based initiatives.

“We formed the organization because we realized tribes were not engaging in these markets,” said Tenure Foundation President Cris Stainbrook, Oglala Lakota. “Along with the Intertribal Agriculture Council, we saw a lot of potential benefits in this arena that we wanted tribes to realize. However, neither of our organizations had time to undertake this individually, so we formed NICC.”

Entering into the carbon market is a complex and technical endeavor.

“Though existing tribal natural resource management generally aligns with the goals of the carbon market, entry into the market can be complicated, especially for tribes,” said Giles. “The history of land loss and resulting fragmentation of current day tribal ownership makes things complex not just for market regulators, but also for carbon credit purchasers. Non-tribal market participants need help understanding the importance of tribal sovereignty, and the perverse history that has led to the patchwork of land ownership on reservations. At the same time, tribes and tribal members need assistance prioritizing and pooling enough of their eligible lands to make entry into the market feasible.”

These challenges have historically blocked tribes and Indian landowners from participating in these markets, with a few exceptions.

“To date, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes on the Fort Peck Reservation, and the Nez Perce Tribe, registered carbon projects on the now defunct Climate Exchange, and three—Yurok, Round Valley and White Mountain Apache—have registered projects for the California compliance market,” Giles said.

RELATED: Round Valley First Forest Carbon Offset Project on Native Trust Land for California

The benefits to the tribes that have entered the market are not trivial. The Yurok Tribe, for example, has sold millions of dollars’ worth of carbon credits, giving the tribe a new way to make money while it improves wildlife habitat, expands its natural resource program, and acquires land in its ancestral territory, according to a 2014 report in the Los Angeles Times.

Carbon market regulations pose barriers unique to tribes—barriers that NICC intends to address.

“Transactions, whether they occur in the compliance or voluntary marketplaces, are bound by general rules, called standards,” said Giles. “These standards define the basic elements of a transaction such as eligibility and the commitment period for maintaining reduced emissions through certain types of resource management.”

The compliance market is generally more stringent, and it limits tribal involvement in unique ways. On the one hand, for example, the current compliance market mandates a waiver of sovereign immunity, making it a non-starter for many tribes. On the other hand, though the voluntary marketplace is more flexible, purchasers in this market may pay several dollars less per carbon credit purchased, requiring tribes to be more creative in prioritizing and aggregating lands they wish to commit to qualifying land-management activities.

“The return is not as great in the voluntary market; however, this is currently where the broader opportunity for tribal entry in the marketplace lies,” said Giles. “These more socially conscious entities that are driving the voluntary market are attracted to the social justice value of their investments. In essence, they are enabling historically dispossessed peoples to rebuild economic and environmental integrity all at once, doubling their return on investment.”

Regional map of Conservation Innovation Grant Pilot Project areas (Illustration: National Indian Carbon Coalition)

The Conservation Innovation Grant

NICC will use the three-year Conservation Innovation Grant, which comes through a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) program of the same name, to fund on-the-ground conservation management activities in four geographically distinct areas. The projects, focused on the improvement of soil quality on farmlands, rangelands and native prairie, are also designed to inform the development of a policy guidance that will educate tribes, carbon credit buyers and regulators on the nuances of the generation of carbon credits in Indian country.

Sustainable agriculture and rangeland management projects will be implemented on the Comanche Nation Reservation in Southwestern Oklahoma, the Pueblo of Santa Ana in New Mexico, and on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. While on the recently restored Pe’ Sla sacred site in the Black Hills, a blend of wildlife restoration and cultural restoration involving an intertribal partnership of the Rosebud, Shakopee Mdwewakaton, Crow Creek, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux Communities will occur.

RELATED: Final Piece of Pe’ Sla Purchased By Tribes

“We want to build a pilot program for both our Nation’s members and nearby tribes to demonstrate how good land management can lead to both the abatement of climate change and a financial return through the generation of carbon credits,” said Milton Sovo, Comanche Nation member and the tribe's secretary of agriculture. “Specifically, our work under this grant will include no-till cultivation, taking highly erodible areas out of crop production to restore areas around streams, and implementing rotational grazing management practices. All of this can be replicated by the dozen or so tribes in this part of Oklahoma because we share the same weather and soil types.”

However it’s about much more than the bottom line, Sovo emphasized.

“Of course it is important to continue to explore sustainable ways to generate new revenue streams for Native nations. However, this is more than just that,” added Sovo. “This is a spiritual thing because tribes are part of the land and one of our collective goals should be to be good stewards of natural resources to ensure their availability for future generations.”

In addition to working on the ground at these four sites, NICC will be working with the American Carbon Registry, a carbon credit registry in both the voluntary and compliance markets, to develop specific guidelines for facilitating market access for offset projects on Indian lands.

“American Indian tribes share a direct relationship with the land and are excellent stewards of natural resources,” said Mary Grady, director of business development for the American Carbon Registry. “We envision that the development of guidelines addressing the barriers to carbon project implementation on Indian lands will create a pathway that will reward tribes by monetizing this stewardship. This guidance will not just be available to tribes wishing to enter the market, but also to buyers of credits in the carbon market who desire to understand and work with tribes.”

There’s also an educational component, Giles said. As part of the grant, NICC will conduct outreach and training workshops that will reach approximately 90 tribes as well as field staff of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the USDA.

“We need to leverage work conducted under this grant as widely as we can in Indian country,” said Giles. “Our focus in this initiative is on agriculture and rangeland management. However, we want this work to be transferable to other natural resource management activities throughout Indian country, such as forest management.”

Though there appears to be great potential for financial returns to tribes via carbon markets, the cultural values are a central component.

“Millions of acres of reservation forestland, farmland and rangeland are under some form of sustainable tribal management,” said the Tenure Foundation’s Stainbrook. “The real idea behind this project is to connect existing tribal cultural value systems that naturally promote conservation to a tangible economic return that has not yet been fully realized in Indian Country.”

Douglas Thompson is a Duluth-based attorney focused on assisting with natural resource and environmental issues in Indian country.

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