Tribal Carbon: Turning a Profit While Protecting Forests

Indian Country is a leader in the carbon energy economy.

Tribes coast to coast and across the expanse of Indian Country in between are participating in the forest carbon offset market. The State of California set a price on carbon, and through a cap-and-trade system, allows landowners to earn money through forest conservation and sustainable management.

READ MORE: Selling Carbon Credits Is Earning Tribes Millions While Conserving Forests 

Participating in California’s carbon energy economy entails a 100-year commitment and a limited waiver of sovereign immunity ― which has dissuaded many Tribes from participating in the program. Tribes have voiced concerns over how their needs may change over time, and what that may mean in regards to control over their lands. Other Tribes, however, are seeing the benefit in getting paid to maintain and even increase storage of carbon on their lands by protecting and/or restoring forests. 

The Golden State, which has the fifth largest economy in the world, launched its “cap and trade” program in 2013 with the goal of reducing greenhouse emissions to pre-1990 levels by 80 percent by 2050.

Fundamentally, here’s how it works: California issues a landowner or Tribe carbon credits based on the number of tons of carbon emissions averted. The market-based system is designed to reduce pollution in the atmosphere by “capping” (or limiting) the harmful emissions of fuel companies and other big polluters that emit 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year or more. These companies can then buy carbon off-set credits from Tribes and other entities to help meet their required goals.

A significant percentage of forest conservation offsets come from Tribal lands.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine, for example, used nearly 100,000 acres of their forest lands to generate 3.2 million credits ― which have been valued at between $35 and $45 million that they used to invest in other business projects.

Bryan Van Stippen, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and program director for the National Indian Carbon Coalition, explained to Native Business: “These type of projects focus on preservation of Tribal natural resources while still being able to derive revenue, even if a Tribal entity has a commercial logging operation.”