Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson works with villages, tribes, businesses, and government to protect the Tongass and advance Indigenous management of natural resources. (Courtesy Photo / Brian Wallace for Juneau Climate Change Solutionists)

Juneau Climate Change Solutionists: Protecting Forests through Indigenous land management with Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson

Our greatest role in the global fight against climate change is to protect our land.

By Anjuli Grantham

Twenty-six percent of human-created carbon emissions return to the earth through natural processes. Yet ecosystem degradation threatens the natural systems that move carbon from the atmosphere into living plants and soils. Those lands—all lands—are Indigenous lands. Devastated ecosystems are also devastated homelands.

For residents of Southeast Alaska, our greatest role in the global fight against climate change is to protect our land, including the Tongass National Forest, and the Indigenous tribes who have served as ecosystem stewards since time immemorial. We must preserve the carbon sinks that naturally perform carbon sequestration in order to preserve a habitable planet. We also must elevate those who have been the fiercest advocates for these essential ecosystems, Alaska Native tribes.

Project Drawdown lists forest protection as the 38th of 80 most effective solutions to averting climate change. Right on its heels is Indigenous land management, coming in as the 39th solution. Indigenous peoples’ land management is an effective means to prevent climate chaos because Indigenous practices are based on the millennia-long stewardship of specific, functioning ecosystems. When Indigenous people lose land rights and are separated from land management, deforestation and land degradation follows.

[Preserving wetlands with Koren Bosworth]

“When we talk about the Tongass, we are people of the Tongass,” Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson says. “From seed to canoe, we have watched these forests grow.”

From seed, to sapling, to mature cedar, until that tree is harvested and carved into a sleek watercraft: generations of Tlingit people have taken part in this cycle. After 10,000 years, “we still have that lifestyle, that diet, we still fish in our traditional areas.”

The 16.8 million-acre Tongass National Forest sequesters more carbon than any other national forest. As one of the world’s last remaining temperate rain forests, its very existence provides critical climate-related services to the planet.

Yet unsustainable logging practices promulgated by businesses, the state, and federal forestry managers have harmed the health of the Tongass and the health of Alaska Natives.

Take, for instance, what occurred in Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island during Richard’s tenure as mayor of the village. Loggers clear cut areas of the Tongass surrounding the village. The loggers followed the law and left the required buffer of standing trees surrounding streams. But a windstorm devastated the exposed trees, causing the destruction of the watershed and Kasaan’s municipal water source.

“We were on a boiled-water notice for a year,” related Richard, now President of the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

Accepted Western forestry practices did not protect the forest, the watershed or the people of Kasaan.

“To respect your resources, you must respect yourself. When you have a toxic view of yourself and everything else, that is how we manage the resources. A healthy forest means healthy people,” says Richard.

A new partnership between CCTHIA and the U.S. Forest Service embraces Indigenous forest management practices with the intention of creating healthy forests and health communities. The new Indigenous Guardians program is modeled after First Nations and federal government co-management paradigms instituted decades ago in Canada. The program assures partner entities will have a recognized role in the management of the Tongass National Forest.

“We will be working hand in hand on forest management at all levels,” explains Richard. “Taking our traditional and ecological knowledge and integrating that in the management system will create a forest that will produce for generations.”

The new Indigenous Guardians program includes watershed restoration, monitoring of cultural sites, and subsistence planning. It provides funding for tribal science, aspires towards ground-up policy making, and will enhance the health and economies of tribal communities.

Moreover, the climate-related implications of this program are also promising. Studies show that community-managed forests increase carbon storage by 2 tons per acre per year.

A healthy Tongass supports the very ability of our planet to sustain human life as we know it. With Indigenous people leading forest use and forest protection efforts, there’s hope the Tongass can sustain us for the next 10,000 years, as well.

Posters from the Juneau’s Climate Change Solutionists project will be featured at Coppa during the month of March.

• Anjuli Grantham is a public historian and museum curator who serves on the board of Renewable Juneau and is Vice Chair of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. Juneau’s Climate Change Solutionists is a series that features 10 local solutions to climate change and 10 people who exemplify the solutions. The solutions are based on Project Drawdown, a global project that quantifies the most effective methods for halting global warming. The series was produced with support from a Juneau ArtWorks grant. It appears weekly in the Juneau Empire.

More in News

This photo shows the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine sits on a table at a pop up vaccinations site the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center, in the Staten Island borough of New York. The U.S. is recommending a “pause” in administration of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots. (AP Photo / Mary Altaffer)
CDC freeze on Johnson and Johnson vaccine sets clinics scrambling

The odds of being affected are vanishingly rare, but CDC says better safe than sorry.

This photo shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident. On Wednesday, March 24, 2021, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the state of Ohio that tried to get the U.S. Census Bureau to provide data used for drawing congressional and legislative districts ahead of its planned release. (AP Photo / Matt Rourke)
Alaska joins 15 other states in backing Alabama’s challenge to Census privacy tool

The case could go directly to the Supreme Court if appealed.

Has it always been a police car? (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Tuesday, April 13, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

After over 30 years at 3100 Channel Drive, the Juneau Empire offices are on the move. (Ben Hohenstatt /Juneau Empire File)
The Juneau Empire is on the move

Advertising and editorial staff are moving to Jordan Creek Center.

This photo shows the National Archives in the Sand Point neighborhood of Seattle that has about a million boxes of generally unique, original source documents and public records. In an announcement made Thursday, April 8, 2021, the Biden administration has halted the sale of the federal archives building in Seattle, following months of opposition from people across the Pacific Northwest and a lawsuit by the Washington Attorney General's Office. Among the records at the center are tribal, military, land, court, tax and census documents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Biden halts sale of National Archives center in Seattle

Tribes and members of Congress pushed for the halt.

This photo shows Unangax̂ Gravesite at Funter Bay, the site where Aleut villagers forcibly relocated to the area during World War II are buried. A bill recently passed by the Alaska House of Representatives would make the area part of a neighboring state park. (Courtesy photo / Niko Sanguinetti, Juneau-Douglas City Museum) 
Bill to preserve Unangax̂ Gravesite passes House

Bill now heads to the state Senate.

The state announced this week that studded tires will be allowed for longer than usual. In Southeast Alaska, studded tires will be allowed until May 1 instead of April 15. (Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire)
State extends studded tire deadline

Prolonged wintry weather triggers the change.

COVID at a glance for Monday, April 12

The most recent state and local numbers.

Has it always been a police car. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Sunday, April 11, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read