The Wisdom of Light Burning: Revitalizing Paiute Forestry for the Repair of Post-Industrial Landscapes in the US Great Basin

Authors: Paul Burow*, Yale University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Human-Environment Geography, Indigenous Peoples
Keywords: Socioecological systems, settler colonialism, environmental repair
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2020
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Spruce, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Majestic Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 1920, leading US conservationist Aldo Leopold derided the supposed “fallacy” of light burning, or what he called “Piute forestry” as destructive to the productivity of the future forest. Southwestern forests were being revalued by settlers for their long-term ability to supply timber and fuelwood. This paper examines an experimental and still-developing collaboration to revitalize Paiute burning and other traditional practices for the Great Basin’s post-industrial forestscapes. A century of intensive resource extraction under the management of settler state forest bureaucracies has dramatically remade the forest landscape, reframing lands with trees as “invaded” rangeland in need of removal in favor of preferred cattle forage plants. The increasing frequency of wildfire and displacement of native plants is a common concern among land managers, Indigenous nations, and scientists. Yet the Paiute valuation of these pine nut forests as a “desert garden” was never lost and is needed more today than ever to help repair the postindustrial ruin of mining, grazing, and single-species conservation. This experimental collaboration among Paiute communities, US federal land managers, ecological scientists and social scientists represents a novel attempt at reintroducing traditional practices to a landscape that largely excluded them for the past century of US federal control. Recognizing the settler colonial history of these landscapes, and its ongoing forms, this paper poses the questions: What are the possibilities for a decolonial approach to socioecological research? What are some lessons and pitfalls from this emergent experimental project to repair damaged landscapes?

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