Following the Smoke by Tom Leskiw (U.S. Forest Service Technician)
“Can plant communities that evolved during six thousand or more years of cultural burning be considered “natural”? Can and should a distinction be made between pristine and natural?
Since the cessation of cultural burning in northwestern California around 1910, local vegetation communities have undergone drastic changes. Conifer encroachment into historical oak woodlands is one example, and the trend is significant, because acorns — full of fats, complex carbohydrates, and proteins — are an ideal and important food for wildlife: deer and birds (and, of course, humans).
Do contemporary land managers have a responsibility to perpetuate this critical food resource? Shouldn’t the plant communities here at the time of European contact — the result of the Karuk’s long tenure and active management of this place — qualify as the most-appropriate benchmark available?
We are now seeing the consequences of disregarding traditional ecological knowledge. There is near-universal agreement that a century of fire suppression has abysmally failed to safeguard “natural” landscapes. Communities — both urban and rural — struggle with the adverse impacts of purposely excluding fire from nature’s equation. In response to these concerns, a plethora of local, grassroots fire-safe councils have formed — partnerships between private citizens and public agencies whose efforts include fuels reduction projects. Scientists now better understand that low-intensity periodic fires are vital for minimizing fuel concentrations. A number of factors, such as the urban-wild interface, accumulated fuel loads, and budget constraints, preclude quick, boilerplate solutions, but there is ample opportunity to move forward. We take the necessary first step by regarding fire as an ally, rather than a demon.
Above Art Work by Courtney Martin
Fish, Forests, Fire, and Freedom:
As unconditional members of the living systems around them, indigenous peoples masterfully sculpted these landscapes through (active) environmental management. As Margolin (1993) explains of California Indians, “By doing so they created an environment very much to their liking – one that provided the best habitat for game, one that encouraged the growth of favored food and basketry plants. The landscape of old California, in other words… was not a ‘natural’ landscape. It was created by people, in many ways as ‘artificial’ as the farmlands of Europe. Thus, when [Europeans] arrived in California… they did not find (as they fondly imagined) a ‘pristine wilderness.’ They found what was in many ways a garden, a land very much shaped by thousands of years of human history and adapted to human needs. (Margolin 1993, p. 54)”
Photos: Alyssa Alexandria