November 4, 2021

The Tribe that's Moving Earth (and Water) to Solve the Climate Crisis

by How to Save a Planet

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The Yurok tribe is reversing centuries of ecological damage to their land and making it more resilient to climate change by marrying two systems that might seem contradictory: indigenous land management practices and modern Western economics.

In this episode we talk to Yurok Tribe Vice-Chairman Frankie Myers about how the Tribe recovered stolen land with the help of a carbon offset program, the creative ways they're bringing the salmon back, and the role beavers play in the ecosystem. This episode originally aired in February of 2021.

Guest: Frankie Myers

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This episode of How to Save a Planet was produced by Felix Poon. The rest of our reporting and producing team includes Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz and Anna Ladd. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard with original music from Emma Munger.

Where to Listen


Alex Blumberg: Hey, How to Save a Planet listeners, this week we’re bringing you an encore episode that we first aired in February of 2021. Which means, for those of you who have been listening from the start to this podcast, and have fond memories of hearing the smart takes and funny jokes of my former co-host Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, you're going to get to hear her voice. This is one we did together.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: This is How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Alex: And I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the podcast about what we need to do to address the climate crisis and how we make those things happen.

Alex: In September of 2019, a group of men and women stood on a stage in The Town Hall theater in midtown Manhattan to accept a prize.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Presenter: Our winners in new economy: The Yurok tribe from the Klamath River.]

Alex: Do you remember getting that award?

Frankie Myers: Yeah, absolutely I remember getting that award, and it was, you know, a lot of hard work.

Alex: This is Frankie Myers, the vice chairman of The Yurok tribe. And the award in question was the Equator Prize, which is this prize given out by the UN Development Program to recognize sustainable development solutions.

Ayana: The tribe received the award in 2019 for their use of innovative solutions to tackle climate change, and their work to undo some of the ecological damage that had been done to the land over the last two centuries. They did this using every resource at their disposal.

Frankie Myers: This kind of destruction that was done to our landscape was done at such a rate and with these vast tools that really, the only way to unravel that or to fix that was to use those same tools. And so we began to lean into the tools of destruction to use them for good and for restoration. And now we have, you know, one of the largest restoration programs in California.

Alex: Today on the show we're gonna tell the pretty incredible story behind that restoration program. It's the story of a climate solution that emerged from a partnership between two systems that don't have a great history of partnership—Native American traditional practices and modern western economics.

Ayana: And it's also a story that we'd love to be more common, the story of a Native American tribe getting a big chunk of its stolen land back.

Alex: The story of Frankie Meyers and the Yurok people, and what their story can tell us about addressing climate change. That's coming up after the break.


Ayana: Alex, you and I spent a good couple of hours speaking with Frankie about what the Yurok did to restore their land and to help address climate change. And that conversation started simply by asking Frankie about the land itself.

Alex: The Yurok tribe is the largest federally-recognized tribe in California, population of over 6,300 members. And their land runs along a 40-mile stretch of the Klamath River in Northwestern California, terminating where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. This is where Frankie grew up.

Frankie Myers: I grew up with my parents, right next to my grandparents, very, very traditionally. Hunting and fishing on the river and going to school. I graduated eighth grade with three other students, one of which was my best friend and is still my best friend to this day. So there was, you know, a lot of close bonds, were built growing up that have stayed along.

Ayana: I had 41 other people in my graduating class, and I thought that was small. Pretty small for New York City, anyway.

Frankie Myers: Yeah, yeah.

Alex: And, you know as, like, a sort of, someone who grew up in the city and had, like, hundreds of people in my eighth grade graduating class, that sounds sort of idyllic. Was it?

Frankie Myers: I think at the time, I didn't really feel like it was. But looking back, I thought it was pretty amazing.

Alex: What would you have said at the time? Why ...

Ayana: What were you missing?

Alex: Yeah, how did you see it as, like, a kid?

Frankie Myers: Yeah, I was just telling a story to my wife the other day. We had a basketball team, and at one point we were playing another school, and they wouldn't play us unless I also played for their team. They only had two eighth graders, and we were the big school with four eighth graders. And so they thought that was unfair. So we had a swap out. And so it was this weird kind of thing where I played for the other team for half of it, and then played back on my team for the other half. It's all kinds of like these very unique stories that kind of happened.

Ayana: By the 1980s, when Frankie was growing up and playing basketball for both teams, the Yurok were living on just a fraction of their original territory. In the early 1800s, the tribe had controlled half a million acres. But the Gold Rush brought lots of settlers onto Yurok land. And by 1851, you had the first governor of California promising that quote, "A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct."

Alex: It's crazy.

Ayana: Which is obviously a deliberate act of genocide.

Alex: Yeah.

Ayana: And over the next century, more and more land was taken from tribes through federal Indian reservation and allotment policies. So by 1986, when the Yurok tribe became federally recognized, their land had shrunk to just under 5,000 acres.

Alex: From 500,000, to 5,000.

Ayana: So, about one percent of their original territory.

Alex: And in some ways, it was a quest to get some of that territory back that kicked off the story we're telling today. So there were these big chunks of land near the Yurok lands that were these watersheds. And Ayana, do you want to help me out here? Watershed?

Ayana: It's basically like the area of land that all drains into the same bodies of water. So you could think of it like a valley, but sort of often much bigger than a single valley.

Alex: Right. And watersheds are important because they contain something like an ecosystem. Like, if you get the entire watershed, you're not necessarily breaking up the ecosystem as much as you might otherwise do if you just get a piece of it.

Ayana: Yeah, and you're also able to then protect the water quality in that area too.

Alex: Right. So there were these two watersheds that were owned by this timber company, and the Yurok wanted to buy this land. So they got the tribe together, and they decided okay we're gonna do it, and they decided to take out these huge loans. And in 2011, they bought the land.

Frankie Myers: We bought two separate watersheds wholly. So we now own the whole of the Pecwan watershed, and we own wholly of the Blue Creek watershed.

Ayana: Was this part of the tribes, like, you know, ancestral lands, or is this a new spot?

Frankie: The Pecwan watershed is where we hold the Woneek'we-legoo, the world renewal ceremony. And the Blue Creek watershed, which we now call the Blue Creek salmon sanctuary, is where the prayers for the world renewal ceremony come from. And so they were purchased specifically because they had an abundance of biodiversity and old growth, but were also really at the core of our ceremonies and our spiritual belief.

Alex: The plan was to pay back this loan mostly by sustainably logging the land, but this was gonna be really slow since the tribe had much more strict regulations about logging than the typical state or federal requirements. They were not gonna do any clear cutting, they weren't gonna cut anywhere near streams, they even leave dead trees in place because they're habitat for different creatures. So it was gonna be slow going. But then, in 2013, just a few years after the tribe purchased the land, the state of California launched a program that would allow the Yurok to pay back the loan without needing to cut any trees down. The state of California launched its carbon offset program.

Ayana: Basically, the way that works is if you can prove to the state of California that the thing you are doing is helping to sequester carbon or carbon equivalents, then they give you these carbon credits you can then sell to companies or individuals who want to offset their carbon emissions.

Alex: Right. And we've talked about this California program on our podcast before. Listeners may remember these two guys that we profiled, Tim and Gabe, who drive around downstate Illinois and other parts of the country collecting refrigerants from old garages and warehouses. They got paid through this same California carbon offset program.

Ayana: Yeah. And the Yurok tribe, they learned that they could also get paid through this program by protecting their old-growth forests.

Alex: The forest that they had just recently bought. So joining this offset program was great, because originally they thought, like, okay, to pay back the loan we'll have to cut down some of these trees in some sort of sustainable way. But now, through the offset program, it was the opposite. They were gonna get paid for keeping them standing, for not cutting them down. And what they had to do instead was just verify that the trees were still there, growing, absorbing carbon, helping fight climate change.

Frankie Myers: Our carbon offset team here in the tribe that goes out and we measure trees. And then every two, three years they go back out, they measure the trees again and see how large they've grown. And then you get kind of these numbers that say your trees have grown this much, they take this much carbon out of the atmosphere, you're allowed to sell this many carbon offsets. And it's a full-time job, which is fantastic for us because we like being in the forest, we like being in the river. It's a place that we want to be anyway. And if you tell us we can get paid to measure some trees, we'll measure some trees and hang out in the forest and do our thing, right? Like it's kind of a win-win.

Ayana: I'm in!

Frankie Myers: It's a good idea, right? Worth an award.

Ayana: Why would we not do this? [laughs]

Frankie Myers: It's a good program. I'd give myself an award. That's not a bad idea.

Alex: [laughs]

Ayana: If I had an award, I would also give it to you.

Frankie Myers: You know, one of the things that we have to say and I want to say though, is we did have a lot of really good discussions within our community about who we sold the offsets to, right? Because that's the other part of it. And at first, when we did the carbon offset, we sold to some individual corporations that are pretty terrible people, right? They do some pretty terrible stuff. And we learned a very hard lesson.

Ayana: Like who and what? Like, what were they doing that was out of line with your values?

Frankie Myers: You know, a lot of oil companies, drilling companies, high kind of pollution companies, right? And the lesson that we learned from it is it's not just enough to do the ecology side, we have to do the economic side too. Because if we're really gonna make this a good thing, we have to control the market across the board. So now we negotiate our own sales with individuals and companies, and we're really proud of the partners we work with now.

Ayana: And this carbon offset business is going really well. Not only does the money coming in allow them to pay back the loan, but there are also funds left over that they can use for other needs.

Frankie Myers: so we put a few hundred thousand dollars away for our youth, for youth activities. We do housing with it. We improve roads with it, our road system. We pay for governance. We also invest in future economic growth as well, to help bring more revenue back to the tribe to help support those programs.

Ayana: Where are you investing?

Frankie Myers: We're looking at off-reservation businesses. For instance, one of the purchases we just did, we bought a brewery. So if you know ...

Ayana: That's pretty hip!

Frankie Myers: So we own Mad River Brewing Company, makes fantastic ...

Ayana: I've heard of this!

Frankie Myers: Yeah, Steelhead. Yeah, yeah. It's a Yurok tribe business.

Alex: That's amazing.

Ayana: Very cool.

Alex: Mad River.

Frankie Myers: And they're a real cool company. They're—they, you know, have been around for a long time. They believe in restoration, they believe in giving back to the community. Our values, you know, really, really were there. And when, you know, they were up for sale, they said, "Hey, we have this really good business. What do you guys think?" And it was a huge leap for the tribe because it's alcohol, and there's issues there. But we looked to the future and looked to moving forward and move the business. And now it's a profitable business of ours.

Alex: That's amazing.

Ayana: And how much of the land have you been able to sort of re-gather?

Frankie Myers: You know, our ancestral territory was, you know, half a million acres, and it was dwindled down to less than 5,000 acres.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Frankie Myers: And I think we're right around a hundred thousand acres now.

Alex: Wow!

Ayana: Wow.

Alex: From 5,000 to 100,000. Paid for by capturing carbon.

Frankie Myers: Yup.

Ayana: You know Alex, every time someone has something fancy or, you know, it goes really well for them, part of me wants to ask, like, "Okay, but what part of your soul did you sell?" [laughs] You know? I'm a little bit jaded. And it's pretty amazing that their answer is "We're protecting trees, we're, you know, essentially hugging them to measure their girth, and then reporting the data.

Alex: And we should say that, like, there have been some criticisms about these carbon offset programs, especially ones having to do with trees and forests.

Ayana: Yeah.

Alex: And it's probably worth discussing those criticisms for a second. One of the problems with a carbon offset awarded to a tract of forest land is that it's not always clear that that forest was saved because of the offset program. Like, people who own a forest could just be cashing in on these forests that they were never intending to cut down in the first place. And so all you have to do is be like, "I'm gonna cut it down unless you pay me." And then you're just sort of holding the forest hostage for a carbon offset.

Ayana: Yeah. And this obviously isn't what the Yurok tribe were doing, right? They bought it from people who were literally planning to log it.

Alex: Yes. And then they were gonna log some of it themselves too, as the way to pay back the loan until they found this other solution. Yeah.

Ayana: And then this better option came up.

Alex: Yeah.

Ayana: And then another issue is forest fires. So obviously, when we have forest fires, trees burn down, and that means they are emitting carbon and not absorbing it. And sometimes that isn't accounted for when these offsets are allocated, right? They're assuming that the trees are gonna, you know, keep living and growing, not that they're gonna be burned down and you'll be paying for trees that don't exist anymore.

Alex: Right. But when it comes to what the Yurok tribe is doing, it feels good.

Ayana: Yeah. And a big part of what I think is so exciting about what they're doing is that it's not just the forest protection, it's all of the funds that they're raising through these carbon credits, they're using for really important projects that are helping to restore the land and make it more resilient to climate change.

Alex: Right. And in the second half of this episode, we're gonna talk about those projects, what the Yurok are doing to restore the land and make it more resilient in the face of climate change. Plus, we're gonna hear what all of this has to do with a bigger question: whether or not there's actually evil in the world.

Ayana: [laughs] Yes. We get deep into some pretty existential questions. That's all coming up after the break.


Ayana: Welcome back. We're talking with Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok tribe, about the ways they were using the money they got from carbon offsets to restore their land and make it more resilient to climate change.

Alex: And one of the most important projects they took on, it had to do with salmon. The Klamath River, which remember, runs through Yurok land, is a major spawning ground for Pacific salmon.

Ayana: I love a fish story.

Alex: Yeah. [laughs] I know you do.

Ayana: I mean, obviously.

Alex: I know you do. And as fish stories go, it is really hard to overstate how important salmon are—and were—to the Yurok people. To illustrate, Frankie told us this story that his family used to tell him.

Frankie Myers: So they say Numi Noohl-heekon—a long, long time ago, they say Noohl-heekon, Re-way, who is a spirit that lives in the river. Re-way had come to old Great Aunt Queen, and he woke her up and she recognized him instantly and said, "Oh, Ayuuekwee!" And he said, "I have something to show you." And so he walked her down to the rock. There's a prayer rock here, and sat her on top. And he said, "Look, Wasiin, look." And she looked and she could see the entire river from the mouth all the way to the headwaters, to Crater Lake. And she could see into the water all the way down to the bedrock. And she saw all the salmon swimming up and down, and she saw the steelhead and she saw the sturgeon and the lamprey. And she was overfilled with joy, because it was such a beautiful thing to see. And she said, "Thank you for letting me see this. This is amazing. This is incredible. Thank you." And he said, "No. Keep watching."

Frankie Myers: And she would look back again, and she continued to watch. And slowly she said she could see the salmon not return as much, and the sturgeon not return as much. And soon there was no more eels. And before she knew it, there was nothing in the river, and it was all gone. And she was weeping in tears, and her heart was broken to see this, and she was crying. She asked him, you know, "What have I done to have you show me such a terrible thing?" And he said, "I showed this so that you can understand that if there ever comes a time when there's no more salmon in the river, there'll be no more need for Yurok people here on Earth." That's what it means to us as a people.

Ayana: Wow!

Frankie Myers: It is our existence, this connection with salmon and the river. It is a part and has always been a part of our community, our economy, our social structure. Family fishing holes are handed down for millennia. You know, and we hear, you know, non-Native folks talk about fishing holes all the time and, you know, I laugh because my fishing hole has been in my family since time immemorial, right? Since the very beginning of when Earth was here. And we all have them, right? They're sacred places to us that we go and we fish and we feed our family.

Frankie Myers: And one of the great debates I have with my father is how to set our net and where to fish.

Ayana: [laughs]

Frankie Myers: And I have to remind him that when he was a young boy, growing up and fishing, when he was my age, there was more fish. It was a matter of going down and putting your net in the river and watching it, and you'd pull out the salmon you needed. Nowadays it's not like that. You know, we have two or three weeks a year now where the salmon are there in the numbers that we can go and fish. And, you know, the sad part is the tribe has closed our fisheries for many years now. You know, three out of the last five years, the tribe has closed our fishery because the stocks are too low. It brings me almost to tears. I have a six and seven year old, and they've never seen good fishing years.

Alex: Right.

Frankie Myers: Right? Their whole life to this day, they've never seen good fishing years.

Ayana: Frankie was telling us there are a lot of reasons why the salmon are disappearing. Some of it goes all the way back to the Gold Rush, when mining companies brought in heavy equipment to dredge and channelize the river, or straighten it out to make it easier to extract gold. But the problem is, when you channelize the river, you're wiping out these spawning and rearing habitats, these little pools along the edges of the river where the water slows down, and it's a safe place for little baby salmon.

Alex: Also over the years, there was a bunch of dams that were built along the river, which also make it harder for salmon to swim upriver to their spawning grounds. And then, of course, global warming also is having an effect, right? The water is getting warmer, which also impacts, you know, sort of spawning behavior.

Ayana: So climate change, dams, channelization of the river. I feel like channelization sounds, like, way too nice for what it is. They're just like destroying the natural meandering of the river and making it into a straight channel.

Alex: I know!

Ayana: Like, why would that be a good idea?

Alex: This river is too bendy. [laughs] Just got to straighten it out.

Ayana: So all of this combined, led to a severe decline in salmon populations.

Alex: And that brings us to this first big project that the Yurok are working on, the project that the money from their carbon offsets is helping to support: restoring the salmon to Yurok waters. And Frankie says that the way they're going about it has its roots deep in the Yurok belief system.

Frankie Myers: I think one of the things about our Yurok government and how we look at land-based management, is really this kind of fundamental philosophy, Yurok philosophy or belief that there's no inherent evil in the world. And things are either good or bad depending on what you use them for. And the other part that I think is extremely important to understand about Yurok, is we believe that the world itself when it was created, it's a world that was created out of balance. And that it is the responsibility or the part that humans play in this world to bring balance back, to bring the world back towards a system of balance. So I think those two principles drive our management.

Alex: So, Ayana, I remember in the interview when Frankie said this to us, I was a little taken by surprise. Like, I didn't think this was what he was gonna say.

Ayana: Yeah, it was a little bit surprising to hear him put it exactly this way because, even as a scientist who thinks of humans as one of eight million species on the planet, so obviously we are a part of nature, I have to continually remind myself of that because we have this sort of Western notion that, like, there's nature and then there's us. And, you know, and then often the third part is like, and we're ruining it. [laughs]

Alex: Right. Right. There's this, like, really romantic—I don't know where it comes from, but it's like this idea that there's, like, this sort of like, pre-human pristine, natural world, that we're despoiling.

Ayana: Yeah. And so it's not just that he's saying that we're part of nature, it's that he's saying we actively should be playing a role in balancing nature. And that's something that I'd never heard put quite this way before.

Alex: Yeah. But it makes sense, you know, because we know that before America was colonized by Western settlers, most of the Americas were managed quite extensively by the human societies that lived here, right? Like, Indigenous people did these controlled burns, for example, to manage grazing lands and keep prairies open for hunting.

Frankie Myers: The natural world that was first seen by settler colonialism and settlers when they first came here was a world that was wholly balanced and managed, right? This landscape-level management that was so large you couldn't see where it started or where it ended. And this vast amount of resources that was here in the Americas was because of that holistic landscape-level management.

Alex: Right. Yeah. Just hearing you say that, just the enormity of, like, the misunderstanding is really hitting home. Just literally like, how flawed this sort of like very Western post-industrial sort of notion of, like, the natural world as this, like, pristine thing. It really brings that home.

Ayana: It's something that I think about a lot as an ecologist, right? When people talk about conservation or restoration, it's important to ask the question, well, what are we restoring it to? To what stage of sort of like the cycles of how ecosystems shift and change? What stage of grassland or prairie or coral reef or forest? Because these things are not unchanging. It's tricky because you don't want to sort of like subvert nature to only producing things for humans, but we also sort of have to acknowledge that, as one of eight million or so species on the planet, that of course we need things from nature.

Alex: Right.

Frankie Myers: No, I think that the thing that really sets people on a path that doesn't work, is viewing ourselves more important than another piece, right? And that's where I think you—some folks lose the concept. Humans are here, we're here to work to bring balance back to the earth, to manage the land in a way that supports us, but also with the thought that we are not more important than every other piece.

Alex: The other part of what you said, Frankie, that struck me is that there is no evil. That—I don't know, maybe it's just sort of like the current broader political moment that we're in, but that's a very, very, like, sort of revolutionary and unpopular thing to sort of say right now. I think a lot of people believe, hang on to the idea that there are things that are, like, inherently bad, and they must be stamped out. Can you say more about that, what that means?

Frankie Myers: Yeah. And this is a hard one to kind of wrap your heads around, but it really does center around this idea that there's—you know, the things in this world, whether it's fire or capitalism, it is what you do with it, right? And there's anger and fear, and those aren't evil emotions, right? You know, feelings of anger to protect your child, that's an incredibly powerful tool, right? Or to protect your family, or to protect your village, or protect your community. Those can be very powerful, but those can also be used to be very negative as well, right?

Frankie Myers: Sustainable logging practices, right? If you have the mindset that nothing is inherently evil, then you also can see that in how you could use logging to really restore our forest systems that are overcrowded with this kind of plantation view of forestry that has come in here. And logging can be a benefit to open prairies back up, to create habitat. The use of heavy equipment. You know, 20 years ago, when the tribe was really getting formed and we were looking at restoration, there was this struggle between the thought of using heavy equipment, diesel Cats and excavators to do this thing. But we saw them as tools, and we started implementing and started becoming really good heavy equipment operators.

Alex: And so, Frankie says, this is the philosophy that's guiding the tribe's salmon restoration efforts. Whereas non-Native people decimated salmon populations using this same heavy equipment, the Yurok are using it to reverse that damage.

Frankie Myers: Our tribe actually goes in and creates river channels in the stream and removes sediment and cobble from, you know, these streams that have been inundated with sediment from mining, as well as removing old roads. And so a lot of the work that we got recognized from, really was the hands-on approach that Yurok took. We really dug in and, you know, put our hands in the dirt and moved earth to—back to how it used to be traditionally.

Ayana: They're also working to get rid of the dams. In November of 2020, they signed a memorandum of agreement—or an MOA—between a coalition of the Yurok and other tribes, other organizations, and PacificCorp, the company that owns the dams.

Frankie Myers: We've now signed our final MOA for the removal of the four dams on the Klamath River.

Ayana: That's a very big deal.

Frankie Myers: Yeah, a huge move forward, a huge move forward for us. And so there's absolutely hope, and there's—you know, we've been pushing this as a tribe for 20-plus years, and we're finally starting to see some really positive movement forward that we're hoping in the next 20 years, we'll see a huge resurgence.

Alex: And Frankie says there's one more thing the tribe is doing to bring back the salmon. This thing though, doesn't involve utilizing heavy machinery and advanced technology. In fact, it involves going back to a traditional practice the tribe employed for centuries, but which non-Native governments outlawed: prescribed burns. And, you know, Ayana, we've talked about prescribed burns in our episode about wildfires as a way to manage forests. But the Yurok and other Indigenous tribes have used prescribed burns for another reason as well.

Frankie Myers: Fire traditionally was used as a tool to lower the river temperature, and to call the migration of the salmon back. And we haven't been able to do that for a hundred years.

Ayana: How does that work? How does the burning lower the river temperature?

Frankie Myers: Yeah. No, that's a great question. Listen, we've been getting this one a lot lately, because it doesn't necessarily make sense.

Ayana: So curious.

Frankie Myers: But what you have traditionally in a traditional managed forest is low-intensity burns that create smoke, right? The smoke creates an inversion layer that prevents the sun from hitting the river.

Ayana: You're shading the river.

Frankie Myers: And if you have enough of these low-intensity burns, you create shade over the river, and that lowers the temperature.

Ayana: And now these efforts are all underway. Though it's too early to tell what kind of effects they're having, Frankie is hopeful.

Frankie Myers: We know in our history, there have been other times like we're living in now. We know from our oral history that there's been years of starvation. We know that there's been at least three years since the time of Yurok being here on Earth, that the salmon numbers have gone low. And so we know they can also rebound, because we have those stories too. There's that hope of knowing that these are cycles, and that these cycles can return again, help drive us every single day.

Ayana: So this salmon restoration project is a huge undertaking. But salmon also aren't the only species the Yurok are hoping to restore. There is another animal they want to bring back: the beaver.

Alex: The beaver!

Ayana: Shout out to beavers.

Alex: Shout out to beavers.

Ayana: This is a pro-beaver podcast. Alex, I didn't clear that with you first, so is this?

Alex: It is pro beaver, yes.

Ayana: Okay, cool. Sorted.

Alex: So Yurok territory, it used to be teeming with beavers, but they were hunted and trapped until basically they were completely gone from the area. Which is a problem, especially in a warming world more prone to wildfire.

Frankie Myers: Beavers do this phenomenal job, and they really embody kind of our Yurok philosophy on land management. But they really create these large beaver ponds that, you know, create area for a lot of other species to thrive in. And what we know now and what we've known before, they're even more important during fire season or when fires are there. They create these large swaths of green vegetation, that are cold, wet spaces, which can help in fires. Obviously, water doesn't burn, but they also allow the water to sit in place long enough for it to be absorbed back down into the water table, which is also a huge benefit during the end of the dry season, summer season where a lot of water gets pulled from that water table to maintain the river. So the beavers really do this twofold thing in their life cycle. And the Yurok tribe has been working for about 10 years, really, really aggressively in the last six years to start bringing the beavers back because of the importance that they play within our ecosystem.

Ayana: So Alex, this beaver project, this was one of the reasons we had wanted to talk to Frankie in the first place.

Alex: Right.

Ayana: And we're not exactly sure why, but we get a bizarrely large number of emails and voice memos from people who are like, "Hey, have you heard about this beaver thing?" People are super into this.

Anthony Damiano: My name's Anthony Damiano. I live in South-Central Pennsylvania. I consider myself an outdoorsman, as I enjoy hiking, camping, kayaking, canoeing, and caving. I do a very little bit of hunting as well. I would love to hear you guys talk more about the role of beavers in returning an ecological balance to the United States. Thanks again.

Alex: That was a voice memo from our listener Anthony. We also got emails. For example, from this guy, Adam Fain, who wrote, quote, "How about beavers? In my home state of California, I have watched as climate change begins to take its toll through worsening wildfires, drought, loss of salmon and loss of biodiversity. Beavers can help with all these issues and more."

Ayana: And then there are the emails we get from listeners sending us links to the latest new scientific research about the benefits of beavers.

Alex: And so we asked Frankie what he made of all this.

Ayana: What does it feel like to have all these people suddenly be like, oh, apparently they were onto something. Like, let's get on board with this whole ecosystem restoration beaver thing. So this is part of what you've always known, and other folks are now waking up to this. Tell us, like, a little bit about how that part is going.

Frankie Myers: You know, that's a fantastic question. And I feel two ways when people really start to open their eyes on, you know, really the benefits of Indigenous land management. We need more of it, right? We need more people buying into this. This has to be at a global scale. It has to be at a national scale. We're seeing the benefits. We need more of it. And we need more money to do it. We need more support to do it.

Ayana: Mm-hmm. So that's one way. You said you feel two ways about it.

Frankie Myers: The other way is a bit like, you know, it's the, you know, we told you, right? Like, we told you this is the way it was. We've been saying this for a long, long time, right?

Ayana: Finally. Thanks for waking up!

Frankie Myers: And some of this is generational, right? Like, my father worked on this stuff and, you know, my grandmother talked about this stuff. So a part of me is like, goddamn it, really? Like, I feel like you guys should have caught on much, much sooner. But okay, we're here now.

Ayana: Yeah. Better late than never. We'll take it. Yeah.

Alex: Right. Yeah.

Ayana: I would feel the same way.

Alex: I certainly don't speak for all white people, but thank you for your patience.

Ayana: [laughs]

Frankie Myers: Apology accepted?

Ayana: I wish you spoke for all white people when you said that.

Alex: Yes, and we're sorry. Yes.

Ayana: This is a question we ask to most folks who we have the opportunity to interview, and that is sort of given everything you know, through your oral history, through your understanding of climate science, through your understanding of society and the world, when it comes to climate change, Frankie, how screwed are we?

Frankie Myers: [sighs] There is a story of a great starvation when there was hard times for Yurok people and there wasn't enough food. There wasn't enough food for people to eat, to live, to survive. There wasn't enough acorns or salmon or deer. And our elders gathered together and decided the only way for our tribe to move forward is for them to sacrifice themselves. And they did it. They buried themselves to allow future generations to survive, to allow enough food for our kids to move forward. The sacrifice of our elders is why we respect them now, because they gave their lives during the great starvation. We will make it, no matter how bad off we are. I believe it because we've seen it before.

Ayana: So Alex, one of the reasons I was so excited to cover this topic today is because Indigenous land management practices are a really big deal globally. Even though Indigenous peoples right now are only five percent of the world population, their territories encompass 22 percent of the world's land surface. And on that land lives 80 percent of the planet's biodiversity.

Alex: Which is crazy and astounding.

Ayana: It's just massive. And the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are, of course, intertwined.

Alex: Right. And the takeaway is that, like, projects like what is happening on the Yurok territory are essential if we are to actually address the climate crisis that's before us.

Ayana: Absolutely.

Alex: Like, Indigenous people are a huge, huge, huge part of the solution, and sort of like following Indigenous practices and following Indigenous people's lead on this is vitally important. And it's something that's actually, I think, slowly more and more non-Indigenous people and institutions are waking up to. Like, learning from and working with Indigenous people to address climate change doesn't mean abandoning Western science, it simply means sharing in the leadership and accepting other people's expertise as well.

Ayana: Exactly. And that brings us to our calls to action for this week. So if you want to learn more about the renewal efforts on the Klamath River or support those efforts, you can go to That's And we'll put the link in our show notes and in our newsletter.

Alex: Also, check out the website to learn about the work that Save California Salmon is doing for Northern California's salmon population and the area's fish-dependent people. And Frankie had some suggestions for how to support the local tribes in your area. He said, first of all, just, you know, do your research, find out which Native land are you currently living on. And you can do this by going to this website, that's It's this interactive map where you can search your home address and see what tribe originally lived on that land.

Ayana: And Alex, we're on Lenape land here in Brooklyn.

Alex: Yeah, my kids—second grade, both of my kids have done Lenape units.

Ayana: Oh, that's cool!

Alex: Yeah. Yeah. And once you figure that out, you can find out what tribal organizations are around you, what kind of work they're doing and support that work.

Ayana: And Frankie brought up one really significant way you can offer your support.

Frankie Myers: If you own land, give your land back. You can actually donate your land to a tribe as a tax write-off. It's not extremely hard to do. Much easier than you think.

Ayana: And Frankie says that if you want to get involved in this way, if you want to be part of what's now being called the LandBack Movement, you can get in touch with your local tribe directly, and ask them about the best way to start the process.

Alex: And if you don't own land that you can donate, you can check out and support Indigenous organizations like NDN Collective, the Native American Land Conservancy, and Indigenous Environmental Network for ways to get involved. We'll put links to all those organizations in our show notes and in the newsletter.

Ayana: Speaking of the newsletter, you can sign up to get that every week as a little treat in your inbox at That's our website:

Alex: And if you take any of our suggested actions, let us know about it. Send us an email, or better yet, record yourself on a voice memo and send us that.

Ayana: Please.

Alex: We're at You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram, we're @how2saveaplanet. That's how, the number 2, save a planet.

Ayana: All right. Let's do the credits.

Alex: Take it away.

Ayana: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and a Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Alex: And me, Alex Blumberg.

Ayana: Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.

Alex: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard, Emma Munger and Billy Libby. Our fact checker this week is Angely Mercado. Special thanks to Matt Mais, Nikki Cooley and Karen Cozzetto.

Ayana: And credit to you for listening. We'll see you next week.

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