Restore forests to slow climate change

Gov. Jerry Brown, center, flanked by ministers from Baden-Württemberg in Germany and Baja California, signs a nonbinding climate change agreement on Tuesday.
Gov. Jerry Brown, center, flanked by ministers from Baden-Württemberg in Germany and Baja California, signs a nonbinding climate change agreement on Tuesday. The Associated Press

This week, leaders from the United States and around the world gathered in Sacramento to sign an agreement to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. While it may seem far removed from the rainforests of California’s Klamath River basin, where I live, global warming hits very close to home.

The new partnership includes tropical rainforest states such as Jalisco in Mexico and Acre in Brazil. Much like Northern California’s redwood region was prior to the post-World War II logging boom, the Amazon rainforest is rich in resources coveted by industries seeking to exploit them.

As much of our lands were clear-cut by non-Indians, the Yurok tribe knows all too well that the cost of restoring forests is much higher than the quick profits from cutting them down. The decimation of our lands affects every aspect of our existence, including our livelihoods and our cultural traditions, and it has dangerous implications that reach beyond our borders.

The Yurok tribe is greatly concerned that if we don’t change course, the future of our environment will be in peril. The impact of deforestation on accelerating climate change is enormous, accounting for 12 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

The role that healthy forests play in sequestering carbon is equally immense. When managed for maximum biodiversity, as many indigenous peoples have done since time immemorial, forests remove more carbon from the atmosphere and stabilize the climate of Earth.

The Yurok tribe, a leader in forest restoration, has dedicated more than 30,000 acres under California’s cap-and-trade system. We initiated these projects to protect our fish and wildlife, to generate funds for regaining our sacred lands and also to do our part in reducing the impacts of global warming. Through this program, we are able to remove carbon from the atmosphere, safeguard cultural resources, sustain modest timber production and support for watershed restoration to help struggling salmon populations.

This model can be replicated in forests around the world. At the same time, it is the right of each tribe to decide if such a project aligns with its cultural values and long-term goals.

California is a leader in addressing climate change through strategies that include using forests to store carbon. But we can’t do it alone. Climate change is a global problem, and enlisting other states and countries to manage their lands in accordance with traditional tribal stewardship principles is critical for real change.

The new agreement is one pathway to conserve the climate and our forests. We hope it becomes a platform from which other tribes can create forest restoration programs, preserve biodiversity and protect their way of life.

California’s commitment will encourage other states and provinces to join the effort. We encourage members to collectively reach out and build momentum toward meaningful action at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris in December.

Thomas O’Rourke is chairman of the Yurok Tribal Council.