July 2022 Science Corner | The importance of Indigenous cultural burning in forested regions of the Pacific West, USA

Their paper, The importance of Indigenous cultural burning in forested regions of the Pacific West, USA, focuses on the holistic benefits, unique characteristics, and diverse purposes of cultural burning in Northern California and Southern Oregon and explains its significance to tribal communities and applications for socio-ecological wellbeing.

Authors: Jonathan Long, Frank Lake, Ron Goode

Written by: Annapurna Holtzapple, Project Associate

As the threats and solutions to megafires in western North America become more widely discussed, the historical role of low-intensity fire is recognized as an essential component of western forested ecosystems that is largely missing today. Not only is it now more commonly understood that fire has a vital and beneficial role in the forest, but also that it has been used since time immemorial by indigenous peoples in these regions. However, discussions about the need for safe, intentional fire to return to these landscapes often inaccurately conflate prescribed fire use with cultural burning, mentioning them as interchangeable fire reduction tools and flattening the comprehensive benefits and purposes of cultural burning for diversified goals.

Authors Jonathan Long, Frank Lake, and Ron Goode all came together to address this gap in understanding with a new literature review published in September 2021. Their paper, The importance of Indigenous cultural burning in forested regions of the Pacific West, USA, focuses on the holistic benefits, unique characteristics, and diverse purposes of cultural burning in Northern California and Southern Oregon and explains its significance to tribal communities and applications for socio-ecological wellbeing. This team of authors is particularly well equipped to address cultural burning: Ron Goode is an elder and Chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe; Dr. Frank Lake is a karuk practitioner of cultural burning and researcher with the Forest Service who grew up learning about traditional ecological knowledge from his Yurok and Karuk family and community; and Dr. Jonathan Long is a researcher at the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station described by his fellow authors as “a great translator” of modern science and traditional ecological knowledge.

Cultural burning, as defined in Good Fire: Current Barriers to the Expansion of Cultural Burning and Prescribed Fire in California and Recommended Solutions is “the purposeful use of fire by a cultural group (eg family unit, Tribe, clan/moiety, society) for a variety of purposes and outcomes” and is distinct from prescribed fire use or controlled burning. Dr. Long, the article’s lead author, said, “There has been a strong surge in interest in cultural burning among the tribes who we work with and growing interest from land managers, public, and legislators in coming up with better approaches to managing lands that depend on fire yet are experiencing more damaging wildfires. But we recognized there was a tendency for non-tribal perspectives to focus greatly on wildfire control, while tribes had very rich and complex objectives. There is potential for tribal interests in fire to be overwhelmed by the interest in advancing the pace and scale of fuel reduction efforts.”

While prescribed burning typically focuses on the utility of reducing fuels in the forest, cultural burning has a holistic approach and a diverse range of purposes and goals. “The whole concept of cultural burning is to enhance the culture,” said Chairman Ron Goode. For example, cultural burning promotes certain plants like those used in basket making, can increase the size and quantity of first foods and habitat for food sources like berries, root crops, and mushrooms, and creates access to areas for community tribal use. “All that is what we’re doing now, and we thought, maybe on paper we need to talk about the fact that prescribed burning just doesn’t cover all of it,” said Goode. Additionally, because of the ways cultural burns are carried out, often as intergenerational endeavors with children and elders engaged and relying upon careful preparation rather than fire suppression equipment, they pose very low risk of unintended consequences like escaped flames and loss of desirable resources such as old trees.

“The point of this article was to bring to light the differences between indigenous science and western science, prescribed fire and cultural burnings,” Chairman Goode explained. He discussed the wariness and distrust western academics often bring to Indigenous knowledge. “The moment you say ‘Indigenous science’ you’ve already stepped off the cliff because the reaction is kind of like, ‘Well you’re not scientists, at least not like us western scientists, because we went to prestigious schools and studied for umpteen years to get degrees,’ even though as native people we’ve been here for eight to ten thousand years.” It also highlights the need for cultural burning within current management practices. “Part of the objective was not just to provide a review of historical literature, which you often see interpreted from an western scientist’s perspective, but also to explain the present-day implications, especially for Native people,” said Dr. Long. “While there’s been a surge of interest in fire issues and cultural burning, there’s a need to avoid pigeonholing cultural fire based upon historical accounts, rather than explaining current practices, intentions, and opportunities.”

The paper is structured to intentionally address tensions between Indigenous and western ways of relating to ecosystems. “We chose to apply an ecosystem services framework to organize the findings, while noting that that framework does not necessarily match how Indigenous people tend to frame the importance of cultural burning. We also explained the cultural basis for burning as a stewardship responsibility,” said Dr. Long. Dr. Lake further explained that this piece is a translation of perspectives and approaches, that priorities of agencies like the Forest Service and popular western society emphasize nature’s services to humans are disparate from Indigenous worldviews. “The tribes have always been here since time immemorial and always will be and very much see human agency as a factor that contributes to ecosystem resilience,” said Dr. Lake. “This is a very powerful tool of positionality for Indigenous people to relate that their knowledge and practices of cultural burning benefit not only the tribe, but all of humanity.”

The piece advocates for expanding long-term Tribal collaboratives to work towards ecocultural restoration objectives, which all three authors are engaged with. “There are efforts underway to develop a network of training centers to support fire use in California, and we are encouraging long-term research collaboratives on Indigenous cultural burning. But we recognize that Tribes have a lot of priorities and limited capacity, so such efforts would need investment” said Dr. Long. In recognizing the high volume of requests, Dr. Lake also emphasized the need to have patience and understanding regarding prioritization, “practitioners and researchers need to understand that Tribes will prioritize what and who they work with in their own sovereign way.”

The authors hope to see cultural burning become more known and recognized, and that the tribes have more agency to carry out this work. Already, it has informed and influenced state policy on two bills recently passed in California. Senate Bill 332 influences liability and negligence rules to make it easier and more accessible for cultural fire practitioners and tribes to practice cultural burning, creating a strategic plan for fire use that further defines cultural burning as different from prescribed burning. Assembly Bill 642 changes state law to enhance wildland fire prevention efforts like facilitating cultural burning and prescribed fire, as well as addressing tribal relations and sovereignty. Long says, “To both researchers and practitioners, we want people to understand the wide range of potential rationales and benefits of cultural burning rather than focusing on narrow objectives or assuming that Tribal burning won’t be sufficient to help address the major challenges in California. We also want to encourage Tribal practitioners and researchers to consider the potential for advancing these efforts, because there will be lots of opportunities for them to learn and apply fire knowledge in the future.”