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Karuk Tribe: Learning from the First Californians for the Next California

Tribes like the Karuk are among the hardest hit by the effects of climate change, despite their traditionally low-carbon lifestyles.

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The Plan provides over twenty “Cultural Environmental Management Practices” that are based on traditional ecological knowledge and the “World Renewal” philosophy, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of humans and the environment. Tripp says the Plan was created in the hopes that knowledge passed down from previous generations will help strengthen Karuk culture and teach the broader community to live in a more ecologically sound way.

“It is designed to be a living document…We are building a process of comparative learning, based on the principals and practices of traditional ecological knowledge to revitalize culturally relevant information as passed through oral transmission and intergenerational observations,” says Tripp.

One of the highlights of the plan is to re-establish traditional burning practices in order to decrease fuel loads and the risk for more severe wildfires when they do happen. Traditional burning was used by the Karuk to burn off specific types of vegetation and promote continued diversity in the landscape. Tripp notes that these practices are an example of how humans can play a positive role in maintaining a sound ecological cycle in the forests.

“The practice of utilizing fire to manage resources in a traditional way not only improves the use quality of forest resources, it also builds and maintains resiliency in the ecological process of entire landscapes” explains Tripp.

Another crucial aspect of the Plan is the life cycle of fish, like salmon, that are central to Karuk food traditions and ecosystem health. Traditionally, the Karuk regulated fishing schedules to allow the first salmon to pass, ensuring that those most likely to survive made it to prime spawning grounds. There were also designated fishing periods and locations to promote successful reproduction. Tripp says regulatory agencies have established practices that are harmful this cycle.

“Today, regulatory agencies permit the harvest of fish that would otherwise be protected under traditional harvest management principles and close the harvest season when the fish least likely to reach the very upper river reaches are passing through,” says Tripp.

The Karuk tribe is now working closely with researchers from universities such as University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Davis as well as public agencies so that this traditional knowledge can one day be accepted by mainstream and academic circles dealing with climate change mitigation and adaptation practices.

According to the Plan, these land management practices are more cost effective than those currently practiced by public agencies; and, if implemented, they will greatly reduce taxpayer cost burdens and create employment. The Karuk hope to create a workforce development program that will hire tribal members to implement the plan’s goals, such as multi-site cultural burning practices.

The Plan has a long way to full realization and Federal recognition. According to the National Indian Forest Resources Management Act and the National Environmental Protection Act, it must go through a formal review process. Besides that, the Karuk Tribe is still solidifying funding to pursue its goals.

The work of California’s environmental stewards will always be in demand, and the Karuk are taking the lead in showing how community wisdom can be used to generate an integrated approach to climate change.  Such integrated and community engaged policy approaches are rare throughout the state but are emerging in other areas. In Oakland, for example, the Oakland Climate Action Coalition engaged community members and a diverse group of social justice, labor, environmental, and business organizations to develop an Energy and Climate Action Plan that outlines specific ways for the City to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a sustainable economy.

In the end, Tripp hopes the Karuk Plan will not only inspire others and address the global environmental plight, but also help to maintain the very core of his people. In his words: “Being adaptable to climate change is part of that, but primarily it is about enabling us to maintain our identity and the people in this place in perpetuity.”