Washington state wildfires pose added threat for tribes

Firefighters from Oregon who are helping battle the Okanogan Complex fire rest at a camp. The Okanogan is Washington’s largest blaze, followed by the North Star fire, which threatens Colville Reservation timber.
Firefighters from Oregon who are helping battle the Okanogan Complex fire rest at a camp. The Okanogan is Washington’s largest blaze, followed by the North Star fire, which threatens Colville Reservation timber.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

The worst wildfire season in Washington state history could be particularly devastating to the people who have lived here between the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains since long before the region became part of the United States.

Like other communities in the rural hills and valleys here, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation — 12 tribes forced onto a reservation in 1872 — are fighting to protect their lives, homes and businesses. Yet while most are battling to confine the blaze to the wildlands outside their communities, for the tribes, the vast, drought-stricken forests are almost equally precious — and not just because they regard the natural world as sacred.

While reservation forests provide habitat for wildlife and canopies beneath which traditional foods like huckleberries grow, trees here also mean money. For decades, Colville has managed nearly half of its 1.4-million-acre reservation for commercial timber harvest, paying for almost a fourth of its $45-million annual budget.


This year, another timber revenue stream emerged: carbon credits, sold to oil giant BP to allow it to qualify under California’s expanding cap-and-trade climate program, which lets companies make up for some of their greenhouse gas emissions by paying to help maintain healthy forests.

This year, the tribes were expecting to sell credits on about 480,000 acres of timber, allowing their forest to act as a remote carbon storage bank for California. They were completing an inventory of how much carbon forests would store. Then the reservation began burning.

“Obviously, this will have a big impact on what that footprint is now,” said Cody Disautel, the land and property director for the tribes.

Disautel and many others say the kind of wildfires blazing across Washington in recent weeks are bigger, hotter and last longer than those in the past — scorching the soil so deeply in some cases that regeneration may take longer than usual. Not only will this year’s fire cut into timber harvests, its ferocity raises questions about how reliable Western forests may be as natural carbon storage banks.

“Given the state of the last few years and the trend of global warming and climate change, the California market, the carbon credit market, is probably going to have to reassess what they’re doing,” said Pat Tonasket, who helps oversee tribal finances and technology. “This might become the norm, if not next year, then within the next few years — these huge fires.”

California’s program allows for unpredictable events, creating a kind of insurance pool of credits in case of storms, disease, wildfires or other calamities. Now, the size of that insurance pool may have to increase, said Gary Gero, president of Climate Action Reserve, which helped create the formulas behind California’s cap-and-trade-program. “You’re probably safe to assume that over time, as the effects of climate change increase, that insurance contribution is likely to go up. It’s not likely to be adjusted down.”

Carbon credits are controversial, with some environmental groups saying they allow polluters to essentially pay their way to respectability instead of being required to develop more environmentally friendly practices.

Even Pope Francis has taken issue with the idea, saying in his recent encyclical on the environment that “this system seems to provide a quick solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require.”

Others say credits, however imperfect, can be part of the solution — providing some good for the environment while also helping some of the poorest people in a region, such as the Colville tribes.

“That’s kind of what the carbon credits do — they pay you to continue managing the way you’re managing,” Disautel said. “The tribe has the option to go out and cut as much of this timber as they want, but they will pay us to keep it at the current levels.”

The more immediate question for the tribes in recent weeks has been how to respond to the current fire. Most of the risk to reservation timber came from the North Star fire, the second largest of the fires burning in the state. As of Wednesday, it had burned 170,000 acres. Last week, as few as 65 firefighters were at work here, even as the blaze neared 100,000 acres.

“It was kind of a useless effort,” one member of the firefighting team said, “like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket.”

Now, the number of personnel is nearing 700. Tribal leaders have asked firefighters first to protect lives and property, then to try to preserve valuable timber stands. Disautel said doing so may require fighting the fire more slowly in places deeper in the forests, instead of relying on quicker techniques like allowing it to burn to the edges of major roadways, which can provide convenient fire breaks.

Once everything stops burning, the tribes will assess the damage and see what survived and how many of the burned trees they can still harvest. The tribes may even see a brief increase in profits. Testifying before Congress last year on tribal forestry practices, Disautel said that after fires in past years, the tribes have “been able to complete salvage log sales so efficiently that some of the logs were still smoking when they were salvaged.”

Those logs will not be able to earn carbon credits, however. Nor will trees in other forests burning across the West.

“What we assume is that as soon as a tree dies,” Gero said, “all of its carbon is released into the atmosphere.”