Under the Cloak of Science: Settler Colonial and Racist Logics in U.S. Forest Service Fire Suppression Discourse

Authors: Kirsten Vinyeta*, University of Oregon
Topics: Indigenous Peoples, Land Use and Land Cover Change, United States
Keywords: Karuk Tribe, US Forest Service, Fire Suppression, Settler Colonialism, Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Knowledge
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 21
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Over the last century, the United States Forest Service (USFS) has transformed from the utmost authority in forest fire suppression to an active collaborator in prescribed burning. Scholars have examined the history of the agency’s “fire revolution,” yet none have done so through the lens of settler colonialism. This article examines the discursive arc of USFS fire science and policy through a settler colonial lens, with a geographic focus on the Klamath and Six Rivers National Forests that sit upon Karuk Ancestral Territory in Northern California. A content analysis of agency documents reveals that settler constructs clouded the agency’s scientific rigor. By subscribing to— and deploying—settler discourse racializing “Indians” as uncivilized and backwards, the USFS discredited Indigenous burning practices that shaped the very landscapes the agency was now tasked with managing. This erasure has led to significant consequences for once fire-adapted landscapes, species, and Karuk people, as well as settlers dealing with large-scale wildfire risk in their communities. In an interesting turn of events, the Karuk Tribe is now a leading entity in forest fire management. The Tribe spearheads a collaborative with the USFS itself that restores traditional Karuk burning practices in an effort to reverse the impacts of long-term federal fire suppression. This research illustrates the way in which colonial and racist constructs influence and delimit Western science, and highlights settler colonialism not as a bygone, one-time event but as a social structure with ongoing consequences for Indigenous peoples and landscapes.

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