Working With Fire

To counteract climate change and decades of wrongheaded federal policy, Native nations must become active participants in the stewardship of America’s forests, according to a new report.

By Melanie Lenart

Ashley Russell, the interim director of culture and natural resources for the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians (left) and OSU graduate student Tessa Chesonis survey randomly selected areas in the Oregon forest. Photo courtesy of Oregon State University

With hotter and sometimes drier summers upon us thanks to climate change, North Americas forests too often turn to tinder, destroying homes, torching wilderness areas and polluting large swaths of the continent when they burn.

But is climate change the only culprit?

Not at all, according to the authors of a federally mandated report designed to guide agency efforts to tamp down the run-away fires. Removing Indigenous stewards from the landscape and excluding cultural burns from national forests has made the problem far worse than it would have been with climate change alone, agreed an interdisciplinary team of more than 40 scientific researchers, scholars and US Forest Service practitioners who wrote the report.

“The condition that those forests are in right now, combined with climate change—the densification of those forests is a good way to put it—is causing them to burn, and burn with these big high-severity fires that are not so typical,” explained Cristina Eisenberg, one of four authors who co-led the report, Braiding Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science for Climate-Adapted Forests.

North America’s forests have grown unnaturally dense with small trees and underbrush after roughly a century of extinguishing fires, as the authors noted in the report. The authors compiled the document in response to a Biden administration executive order focused on conserving mature and old-growth forests and incorporating Indigenous knowledge alongside western science to do so.

“Western science alone is not going to give us the answers we need,” said Eisenberg, who has Rarámuri and Western Apache roots. “We need Indigenous knowledge as well. They’re two separate ways of knowing, and together they’re incredibly powerful.” 

Eisenberg is a professor, the associate dean for Inclusion Excellence and director of Tribal Initiatives in the Oregon State University College of Forestry. She has expertise in ecological restoration and the cultural burns conducted by Indigenous peoples around the world. She and OSU colleagues Michael Paul Nelson, an environmental philosopher and director of the Center for the Future of Forests and Society, and Tom DeLuca, dean of the OSU College of Forestry, spoke about the report by phone last week.

Modern-day megafires

Having so many trees competing for water, nutrients and sunshine causes forests, especially protected old-growth forests, to face increased risk of drought, heat stress, invasive species, and insect outbreaks as well as more severe large fires.

“The forests have never had the structure they have today,” Eisenberg said. “In these dense forests, there’s a lot of trees that are dying because they don’t have enough resources like moisture or nutrients. Then you get a tiny lightning strike and the whole things goes up in flames and becomes a megafire.”

Wildfires have been eluding control and severely burning larger areas, especially in the non-coastal forests of the US West. In a 2020 Nature Communications Earth Environment article, S.A. Parks and J.T. Abatzoglou reported an eight-fold increase in areas burned at high severity in western forests, with tallies rising from an estimated 64,000 acres in 1985 to about 520,000 acres in 2017. What’s more, the area of high-severity burns could triple again by 2050, based on a 2021 modeling study by Abatzoglou and others published in Geophysical Research Letters.

“When fire season rolls around, it’s like we’ve got to put out every fire that starts, where Indigenous people were working with fire as a natural part of the landscape and also using it as a stewarding tool,” DeLuca said. “There’s a lot of ladder fuels, even in those old-growth remnants, because they haven’t been managed the way they were managed for thousands of years.”

In other words, many of the smaller trees that would have died in the low-to-the-ground surface fires of cultural burns, or used by Indigenous dwellers constructing shelters, instead have grown tall enough to serve as “ladders” carrying flames into the canopy of even the tallest trees.

Similar patterns hold in many other places where forests continue to exist, Eisenberg noted. Residents of many northern states remember the pall of smoke from the summer of 2023, when Canadian fires destroyed air quality from New York to Chicago and beyond—in some cases, in counties that had never before dealt with hazardous air quality conditions. Officials urged residents to avoid going outside for weeks on end

No-burn policy backfires

The US Forest Service’s approach to putting out fires is symbolized by the iconic cartoon “Smokey Bear,” who has been urging Americans to put out forest fires for 80 years. Active fire suppression puts out about 97 percent of fires ignited in the United States by abandoned campfires, stray cigarettes, and the biggest source of ignition: lightning strikes, the report notes. However, the few fires that do escape control account for about 90 percent of the area burned.

In contrast, Indigenous knowledge passed down through generations as well as historical records indicate that Indigenous peoples used fire as a means to keep most forest stands open, allowing for better hunting, improved growth of desired understory species such as beargrass and berries, and easier passage under the tree canopy.

“There’s very strong scientific evidence that shows that these forests were a lot more open than they are today,” Eisenberg said. “They had open canopies.” 

OSU Professor Cristina Eisenberg (right) works with Ashley Russell and Colin Beck of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians to harvest seeds as part of a restoration project. Photo courtesy of Oregon State University

The evidence includes tree-ring research on redwoods and other long-lived trees that give western scientists a way to assess fire frequency. That’s because some fire-adapted trees exude a volatile sap after they burn, making them more susceptible to being scarred by future fires. These “fire scars” can be placed in time using tree-ring science, also known as dendrochronology.

The tree-ring record shows burning took place often in many forests across what is now the United States, including in the moist forests of western Oregon and along the coast. In many of the interior western forests now dealing with abundant megafires, tree-ring records suggest they typically burned once a decade or more. While lightning likely sparked many fires, others fell outside of the lightning season, providing strong evidence for cultural burning.

Conducting frequent burns kept the brush and smaller trees, which firefighters call “fuel,” from building up. As a result, the forests rarely burned as severely as they have in this century.

“That stewardship was being conducted by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. And that’s how they were able to live with fire in a way that was not adversarial the way we are today,” DeLuca said. “If we look back to Indigenous knowledge and to stewardship, they absolutely understood that and lived with fire as a natural driving force in these ecosystems.”

He recalled being at a talk where a researcher compared seasonal fires to spring rains. In other words, they’re just a process that’s part of nature, rather than a malevolent force that needs to be controlled at every moment.

“We as a society need to learn to live with fire by working with fire,” he added.

Forced removal of forest stewards

“You have this forest that since time immemorial, Native people have been stewarding,” Eisenberg said. “And to steward means to take care of a forest the way one takes care of one’s family—with a lot of care and respect and only taking what one needs, and really being mindful of relationships in that forest.”

In addition to benefitting from the braiding together of cultural practices informed by both Indigenous knowledge and western science, the report states forest restoration “requires acknowledging and supporting Indigenous communities to reconcile their removal from landscapes they shaped and maintained for millennia.”

When in the last century the US government created the national forests and national parks systems and other means of protecting public lands, policy called for excluding the Indigenous peoples who had lived in the designated areas and shaped their environment. The government broke treaties to take back land, such as the Black Hills area that now hosts Wind Cave National Park on the location viewed by the Lakota people as their origin.

In other cases, national forests were established directly on top of existing reservations. For instance, in 1902, the US Forest Service confiscated 90 percent of the land reserved for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, located at the headwaters of the Mississippi in modern-day Minnesota. Ironically, the agency used the Americanized version of the tribal nation’s name to create Chippewa National Forest, adding 150 summer home and other amenities for non-tribal members while logging the culturally important old-growth jack pines.

“In the United States, this was Indigenous land. And it was stolen,” Eisenberg said. “The national parks were created to protect landscapes from exploitation, like clear-cutting. The national forest system was created, those lands were taken from Indigenous people, because they were the most valuable timber-producing lands.”

Clashing worldviews

The removal of Indigenous peoples for the creation of wilderness areas and reserves fits in with the western worldview, which views nature as something for humans to either exploit or protect by completely excluding humans from living there, Eisenberg said.

“Either view is that man is in control of nature,” she said. “The Indigenous view is that humans are embedded in nature. And it’s based on humility.” Indigenous knowledge means observing nature as part of it and figuring out how to work with it in a way the involves reciprocity—taking care of the land rather than clear-cutting it, for instance. Similarly, Indigenous knowledge allows for working with fire as a tool rather than viewing it as an enemy.

The report recommends “two-eyed seeing” by braiding together Indigenous knowledge with the western science. Graphic by Cristina Eisenberg, Michael Nelson and Tom DeLuca, 2024

Michael Paul Nelson said he has been working in the old-growth forests of Oregon for many years, and thinking deeply about different worldviews as an environmental philosopher. Yet his thinking took a turn last summer when the Lookout Fire blazed through the high-elevation area where he does research, in the old-growth Douglas fir dominated forest known as HJ Andrews Experimental Forest.

“It never fully occurred to me that what we think of as old growth is also the extension of colonialism. You remove people from the land, you don’t let them burn, then you wait 500 years and voila,“ said Nelson, one of the four leads on the March report. “What really sparked it was last summer, the forests that I worked at, 70 percent of it burned in a massive fire. It puts you in this weird frame of ‘What am I thinking.’”

He compared the modern management of forests to an experiment stemming from a change in worldview that put in place assumptions that humans could control their environment. This occurred around the time of the Renaissance, as people used calculations to develop the concept of a mechanical universe subject to rules that allowed prediction and manipulation.

“You can almost think of it like an experiment,” he said. “And we’ve been running that experiment for four hundred years, and you might say the results are in and it’s an abject failure. We need a different way.”

Hope for future forests

Both Eisenberg and Nelson commended the US Forest Service leadership and the practitioners working on the report for recognizing that a change was needed, as well as the Biden administration for developing the executive order to seek a better way to protect old-growth forests from destructive megafires.

“I was really impressed with the Forest Service and just their acknowledgement that what we’re doing now is not working,” Nelson said. “We face a future where continuing to do what we do now is going to be horrible. And so we have to do something different.”

In recent years, the Biden administration has taken steps to elevate Indigenous knowledge. By the end of 2023, the administration had signed more than 200 co-management agreements with tribes.

The directive that led to the development of the report— Executive order 14072, to conserve and restore old-growth and mature forests—goes a step further by encouraging Indigenous co-stewardship of the 128 national forests with management plans. Amendments to do so are under review.

“The government is trying to fix those problems—the problems that were caused by removing tribes from their lands, eliminating cultural practices such as cultural burning, stewardship practices,” Eisenberg said. “And they are so committed to helping us work together across cultures to heal the damage done in a way that is as respectful as possible to tribal nations. And this is sincere. It’s not them just saying this. So anyway, I have a lot of hope.”

Melanie Lenart is the News and Opinions editor for Native Science Report. 

Story published May 2, 2024

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