Indigenous burning in Northwest California: Transforming forests and livelihoods

Authors: Tony Marks-Block*, Stanford University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Coupled Human and Natural Systems, Indigenous Peoples
Keywords: Fire, Pyrogeography, Indigenous Livelihoods, Critical Physical Geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Diplomat Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


After more than a century of fire suppression policies and timber extraction, Northwest California Indians are promoting the resurgence of prescribed fire in forests to enhance ecocultural resources and reduce wildfire risks. Preceding colonialism, Northwest California Indians employed landscape burning to either alter or facilitate conditions to increase the abundance of species for subsistence foods, fibers, and ceremonies as well as to inhibit the severity of wildfires. With the prohibition of these practices, fire-sensitive timber species like Douglas fir have come to predominate the landscape at the expense of hardwood forests and savannas valued by California Indians for productive acorns, nuts, berries and associated wildlife. Communities along the Klamath River began to pilot small-scale “cultural burns” (1 – 50 ha) in the last decade through collaborative efforts with public land agencies, fire regulators, environmental non-governmental organizations, and Tribal governments. These cultural burns have supported the growth of plant stems and leaves gathered by California Indians for basketry materials and have improved acorn and berry harvesting. The positive outcomes of these fires and collaborations has led to recent approvals of larger-scale (2254 ha) thinning and burning treatments in forests that were once managed as tree plantations. Leadership by California Indians to integrate fire-enhanced ecocultural resources into management objectives along with broader shifts toward ecological and collaborative management has created opportunities to reimagine the forests of Northwest California while revitalizing Indigenous livelihoods.

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