Basic Information

Forests cover roughly one third of Earth's surface. Half of all known plant and animal species, and 20 to 25% of all arthropod species, inhabit forests — specifically forests in warm tropical regions. Forests are the source of some of the world's most important renewable resources, including timber, paper goods; and non-wood products such as fruit, cocoa, coconut, rubber, and medicines. Forest ecosystems help clean the air, provide drinking water, prevent erosion, and preserve biodiversity. For some Native peoples, forests are the embodiment of harmony and balance—a complex system working together seamlessly to create a balanced web of life. Their value lies beyond the price of timber, and thus their destruction is more catastrophic for Native people. From time immemorial, indigenous cultures have relied on forests for food, shelter, and medicines, as well as spiritual and mental health.

Carbon Sequestration
Forests also reduce the impacts of climate change by providing some of the world's largest carbon sinks, or storehouses. During photosynthesis, trees absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and release oxygen. The carbon is then stored, or sequestered, in roots, trunks, branches, and leaves. Carbon uptake slows as trees mature, but many old-growth forests continue to sequester carbon in the soil for hundreds of years. Worldwide, forests sequester the largest fraction of terrestrial ecosystem carbon stocks — equivalent to about 30% of carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels.1

Preserving forests is essential for continued carbon sequestration efforts, and has also proven as lucrative, sustainable business models for Tribes and Tribal organizations. For example, the National Indian Carbon Coalition preserves and restores forests across Indian Country to sequester carbon. These projects not only sequester tons of carbon, they also earn tribes millions of dollars over 40-year timespans. A recent forest-based carbon sequestration project in Minnesota is expected to sequester 77 metric tons of CO2e, and will earn the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of Lake Superior Chippewa $6 million over the next 40 years.2 Preservation of forests maintains biodiversity and combats climate change through ecosystem resilience and carbon sequestration.

Unfortunately, forests are being rapidly destroyed in many parts of the world. They are cleared for agriculture or pasture, logged, mined, and degraded by human land-use practices, such as fire suppression. When forests are cleared, the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere, and the cut trees are no longer able to sequester carbon. This submits the Earth to more warming, as less emitted CO2 can be sequestered in the future.3 Additionally, even when managed forestlands are impacted by natural disasters, such as wildfires, their ability to sequester carbon can be nullified depending on the damage. Should an entity, such as a Tribe, rely on selling carbon credits up to the limit that their forests can sequester, this could be a devastating loss not only to their ecosystem, but also financially.

Forests, indispensable for their role in the carbon cycle, will not themselves endure climate change without adjusting. As the climate warms, ecosystem compositions will likely shift. Trees will die and species will adapt and change. Such shifts can decrease or even reverse the carbon uptake of a forest, causing a "carbon flux." Additional carbon in the atmosphere will then further catalyze climate change, creating a positive feedback loop of intensification.

Shifting Ecosystems
While warming temperatures can impact forest ecosystems, trees must also contend with more frequent and severe disturbance events such as droughts, insects, and fires. Trees stressed by drought are most susceptible to other disturbances or dying out. Massive tree die-offs result from bark beetle infestations, drought, and warmer temperatures. This is already evident in the piñon-juniper woodlands of the American West and Canada's boreal forests. Boreal forestsconiferous forests covering parts of Alaska, Canada, northern Europe, and Russia-are most vulnerable to disturbance events as the species is expected to decline under warmer conditions.4

Whitebark pine is an endangered tree species, threatened by blister rust infections, mountain pine beetle infestations, and disturbances in timberland fire ecology largely resulting from climate change. Whitebark pine only grows at elevations above 6,000 feet often marking the tree line. At its high elevations, the tree prevents soil erosion and slows runoff from snowmelt. Many birds and small mammals rely on whitebark pine for food, shelter, and nesting, and it is a keystone species in high elevation forests.5 Whitebark pine is culturally significant to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and their traditional diet was once rich in whitebark pine seeds. Although many federal agencies—such as the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service—are also working to restore whitebark pine populations, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes hope that the tree will once again flourish, and the tribes will return to their strong cultural reliance on the tree. Restoring whitebark pine populations involves locating trees resilient to blister rust infections and harvesting their cones to be planted elsewhere. The first planting of these cones occurred in 2019, and the tribe hopes to continue these plantings into the future.6

As temperatures warm, mountain and other high-altitude habitats will be increasingly encroached upon by adjacent lowland biomes. In the American Southwest, Piñon Juniper Woodlands will begin invading Ponderosa Pine Forests. In Florida, mangrove forests are displacing salt marshes.7 Boreal forests will likely migrate northward and invade arctic tundra. It is projected that by 2059, tundra in Alaska and northern Canada will be reduced and replaced by forests.8 It is possible that tundra will be completely replaced by forests, and the unique ecosystem will be lost.

One of the most significant elements of climate change impacts associated with changing land composition is the loss of biodiversity and other ecosystem services, such as water and air filtration. Such risks are especially virulent in biodiversity "hotspots," such as equatorial and temperate rainforests. Climate change will only exacerbate the worldwide extinction crisis caused by other anthropogenic factors, most notably tropical deforestation. 30% to 50% of all species may be extinct by 2050.9 Loss of species and biodiversity will negatively impact agricultural yields, air and water quality, and resilience to climate change. Pandemics will become more likely, medicines will be harder to produce, and human life overall will decrease in quality.

Wildfires and Cultural Burning
Indigenous peoples have utilized cultural burning as a land management strategy for centuries, and the physical evidence of these practices remain as fire scars on trees, soil health, and present vegetation. Cultural burning, adopted by federal and state land management agencies and renamed “prescribed burning,” is the practice of intentionally setting smaller, controlled fires to not only improve the health of the land, but to ensure that the land can continue to provide materials for subsistence and ceremonial purposes. Cultural burning was not permitted as a practice during the fire suppression era of land management in the US and is just recently being allowed again in certain regions. In the absence of cultural burning practices, organic matter builds up, providing more fuel for wildfires, resulting in hotter, larger wildfires.10 These wildfires can be more detrimental to the landscape than controlled fires set during cultural burning practices.

The Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin has managed their forestlands for over a century.11 Their sustainable forestry practices include cultural burning and satellite imagery, which alone are enough to display the difference in forest health between Traditional Land Management Practices and more modern practices used on the surrounding forestland.

Global warming may disrupt the ability of forests to provide subsistence for those who rely on them—plants, animals, and humans alike. For example, climate change is impacting Native Basket Weavers of the American Northeast who rely on brown ash. Drought and insect infestations have predisposed the tree species to high mortality rates, which will intensify as climate change progresses. Other tribes are finding medicines and other traditional plants difficult or impossible to collect as forest composition changes. For example, the Wabanaki Tribe in Southeast Canada is seeing berry resources become increasingly difficult to harvest as climate change affects the range, quantity, and quality of these berries.12 These berries are medicinally and culturally significant, and the loss of this species would be devastating to Wabanaki Nations. As climate change disrupts the forest system, traditional life ways may likewise be thrown into turmoil until Earth once again finds her balance.

  1. Colarossi, Jessica. (February 2022). City Trees and Soil Are Sucking More Carbon Out of the Atmosphere Than Previously Thought. Boston University. Available online from: [accessed January 31, 2023].


  3. Rosa, I., Smith, M., Wearn, O., Purves, D., Ewers, R. (August 2016). The Environmental Legacy of Modern Tropical Deforestation. Current Biology. Available online from: [accessed January 31, 2023].

  4. Swanston, C., Brandt, L., Janowiak, M., Handler, S., Butler-Leopold, P., Iverson, L., Thompson, F., Ontl, T., Shannon, P. (2018). Vulnerability of forests of the Midwest and Northeast United States to climate change. Forest Service, US Department of Agriculture. Available online from: [accessed January 31, 2023].

  5. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. (October 2017). Whitebark pine restoration and conservation through a cultural lens: Incorporating tribal values into spatial ecological assessments of whitebark pine forests across the Crown of the Continent. CSKT Climate Resiliency. Available online from: [accessed April 24, 2023].

  6. Michael, Kate. (June 2019). Earthkeepers: Revering, Recovering the Whitebark Pine. American Forests. Available online from: [accessed February 7, 2023].

  7. Osland, M., Stevens, P., Lamont, M., Brusca, R., Hart, K., Waddle, J., Langtimm, C., Williams, C., Keim, B., Terando, A., Reyier, E., Marshall. K., Loik, M., Boucek, R., Lewis, A., & Seminoff, J. (March 2021). Tropical Plant Species to Move Northward as Winters Warm Due to Climate Change. Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center. Available online from: [accessed April 24, 2023].

  8. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (March 2011). Shrinking tundra, advancing forests: how the Arctic will look by century’s end. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Available online from: [accessed January 31, 2023].

  9. Ferguson, Laura. (May 2019). The Extinction Crisis. Tufts University. Available online from: [accessed January 31, 2023].

  10. NASA. (September 2021). What’s Behind California’s Surge of Large Fires? NASA Earth Observatory. Available online from: [accessed June 5, 2023].

  11. Menominee Tribal Enterprises. Forest Management Plan. Menominee Tribal Enterprises. Available online from: [accessed June 5, 2023].

  12. Lynn, K., Daigle, J., Hoffman, J., Lake, F., Michelle, N., Ranco, D., Viles, C., Voggesser, G., & Williams, P. (March 2013). The Impacts of Climate Change on Traditional Foods. Climatic Change. Available online from: [accessed February 7, 2023].