Climate change is exacerbating existing vulnerabilities in communities across the nation — and it’s putting Tribal economies at risk. Various industries are privy to the effects of climate change, including agriculture, fisheries, tourism, forestry, energy, and recreation.
The Yurok Tribe knows this first-hand, as Yurok Chairman Joseph L. James testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies in Washington D.C. yesterday. On his second visit within weeks, Chairman James delivered testimony on how the Yurok Tribe can work with Congress to address climate change threats to the Yurok people and the Klamath River Basin.
While addressing climate change will require global commitments, Chairman James’ testimony focused on how the Yurok Tribe is building its capacity to address current and future impacts on Tribal lands. The Tribal leader emphasized that implementing projects to prepare and adapt to climate change effects is more cost-effective than responding after catastrophes strike.
“For us, climate change is no longer discussed as something that will happen in the future, it is happening now. Many of the predicted effects of climate change including floods, droughts, extreme fire behavior, and increased stress to aquatic life, are already happening,” according to Chairman James’ oral testimony.
The Klamath River’s Chinook salmon, the Yurok Tribe’s most valued resource, are already struggling because of the effects of climate change. In the past three years, the Tribe has cancelled its annual commercial fishery and even closed its subsistence fishery for the first time in history in 2017 because of record low salmon runs. Climate change is only expected to increase the stress on this and other species important not only to the Tribe, but to the regional economy.
“When fish runs are too low to support fishing, impacts to our community and associated way of life are substantial,” Chairman James said. “Fishing remains an important part of our sustenance and economy. The Yurok Tribe supports large-scale water quality and habitat improvement projects throughout the Klamath Basin.”
The Yurok Tribe is seeking to expand efforts already underway to minimize the effects of climate change, including regional water quality improvement projects, fisheries restoration and forest revitalization. To build resiliency, the Tribe is restoring old-growth forest systems in the Lower Klamath watershed, which also benefits of salmon and native wildlife. Additionally, the Tribe’s approach to managing the lands of the Lower Klamath aims reduce the risk of devastating forest fires, as well as improve water quality and fish habitat.
Chairman James informed the House Subcommittee about an urgent need for funding to bolster the Tribe’s ability to perform fisheries and water quality restoration work throughout the basin.
In addition to the risks to the Klamath Basin’s natural resources, emergency response was another primary element of the Chairman’s testimony. More frequent weather extremes are already becoming apparent — whether they are floods, such as recently occurred, or fire, which has increased in frequency and severity in the past two decades. Because of this, the region’s transportation and emergency response infrastructure is coming under increasing strain. For instance, last week, the Tribe issued a state of emergency declaration after a particularly powerful rain event caused landslides, the failure of multiple Tribal community water systems and extensive road damage on the reservation.
“The role of the Yurok Tribal Government is to protect our people and resources, which means we must be prepared to respond to all of these crises. We seek funding to proactively prepare for climate change instead of reacting after catastrophe strikes. In the event of disaster, we need the resources and infrastructure in place to protect our members,” Chairman James said. “It’s a wise investment to prepare instead of react to these challenges.”
This is the second time in two weeks that Chairman James has testified before members of Congress and the third time a Tribal representative has been invited to speak before federal lawmakers this year. On February 27, Chairman James spoke educated the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs about the Tribe’s effort to reintroduce the imperiled California condor in the Pacific Northwest. In September Yurok Chief Judge Abby Abinanti accepted a request to brief the committee on how the federal government can aid tribes in improving outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.