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Native Tribes Are Taking Fire Control Into Their Own Hands

Sometimes Vikki Preston is inching her way through the forest when she comes across a grove of tan oak trees that feels special. The plants are healthy, the trees are old, and their trunks are nicely spaced out on the forest floor. “You can feel that the grove has been taken care of,” she says. “There’s been a lot of love and thoughtfulness.”

Tan oak groves have long been tended by indigenous people who still live along the banks of the forested Klamath and Salmon Rivers near the California-Oregon border. Preston, a cultural resource technician for the Karuk tribe, grew up watching her grandfather tend just such a grove—by burning it. Fire helped cleared away small pines, alders, and willows. It killed pests like weevils that ruin acorns, and allowed for new, straight shoots of hazel to grow that can be used for basket-weaving. It left a forest sentineled with sugar pine and oaks, scattered with meadows full of wildflowers and ferns.

Such scenery is rare in the western US today, a result of 1911 federal legislation that outlawed igniting fire in public forest lands. That legislation curtailed centuries of forest management by the native Karuk, Yurok, and Hupa people, who had long lived in villages dotted throughout these public forests; a 1918 US Forest Service ranger’s memo declared that “renegade Indian” fires were rooted in “pure cussedness.” A hundred years later, though, western science and policy-makers are rethinking. Federal forests are now choked with dead leaves, brush, and dense fir trees, a tinderbox for wildfires whirling out of control. Wildfires burned just over 2,000 acres in the decade between 1975 and 1985, compared to over 350,000 acres between 2005 and 2015. So in a new policy, the Forest Service on July 27 signed an implementation plan for managing public forest lands—an agreement in which both fire and the Karuk play a vital role.

The first project will burn 5,570 acres near Somes Bar, California, with the Karuk, NGOs, state and federal agencies all working to manage the project’s contracts and workforce for the next 10 years. To prepare the forest, Karuk and other local work crews will first saw away some brush and thick vegetation, lightening the load of flammable material, explains Bill Tripp from the Karuk Department of Natural Resources. They will also use heavy equipment to thin out some dense stands of conifer trees, opening up room for hardwoods that are being shaded out.

A few landowners whose homesteads are tucked within the public forest are wary of the controlled burns. But Will Harling, co-director of the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council, says most of them have come to see their logic. It’s the difference between having a few days of smoky air and long months of wildfire smoke. And part of the work crews’ task is to dig up a bare-soil buffer to protect private lands.

Usually if a prescribed burn gets out of control, it’s due to inexperience. But among the Karuk, Yurok, and Hupa, fire knowledge is deep—and now that laws are changing, that knowledge can finally be applied. Preston attends a yearly managed fire training program, TREX, in her small hometown of Orleans. The two-week program attracts about 80 to 100 participants, who learn to spray water, create fire buffers, and determine safe temperature and wind conditions for managed fires. At the end, the teams conduct a prescribed burn on a few hundred acres of forest. Trained youth teach their new skills to their parents, filling in generational gaps where traditions were lost (federal policies separated Karuk children from their families for “re-education” in the early 1900s).

Getting to this point took a lot of work. In 2009, a previous collaboration between the Forest Service and the Karuk fell apart when a ceremonial trail was damaged by loggers. During discussions, the Karuk had pointed out the significance of this trail, but their requested protections never made it into the Forest Service logging contract. Resentment built and all sides found themselves in court, which eventually ordered the contract be re-written with cultural protection in place.

Just around that time, Randy Moore became the regional forester for the Forest Service in the area. Moore grew up in Louisiana, and moved to North Dakota to work with natural resources. “I was shy and reserved,” Moore recalls, and stood out as an African-American man. “I didn’t think anyone wanted to know what I think. What made a difference to me was when people invited me into the conversation.”

Moore remembered that feeling when he started working in the Klamath River area. To rebuild trust, he hired two Hupa members, Merv George and Nolan Colegrove, to his team. “They were both highly qualified,” Moore says, “and I really mean that.” In 2013, the Karuk and NGOs led the formation of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership, with members including indigenous people, the Forest Service, landowners, and fire safety councils. The Nature Conservancy facilitated the hodge-podge of interests through public workshops, out of which emerged the first pilot project at Somes Bar. It was just awarded $5 million from Cal FIRE, besides other funding from the Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

On July 27, about 40 people assembled around a table placed at Camp Creek in the forest outside of Orleans to watch the Forest Service sign the project implementation plan. “We had elders crying their eyes out, they never thought they’d see this day,” says David Medford Rubalcaba, who heads the Karuk’s Integrated Fire and Fuels Management Program and is in charge of the Karuk work crews who will carry out the project. “There’s still some people around here who think natives are savages. But western science is catching up. They’re finally realizing that Native Americans have had this [forest management] knowledge all along.”

One day, Rubalcaba hopes they will manage the entire 1.4 million acre area that comprises Karuk aboriginal lands, almost all of it administered by the Forest Service today. But in the near future, they at least want to clear away enough brush and forest litter so it will be safe enough to perform ceremonial burning for the Karuk’s World Renewal Ceremony at Offield Mountain. Ceremonial burning has been absent for over a century.

American Indians across the US are now contacting Tripp, Rubalcaba, and others in the Klamath River, wondering what chances they have for similar partnerships. Many tribes in different parts of the country are in conflict with local authorities—from state agencies controlling reservation water resources in Wyoming, to oil and gas companies threatening to disrupt reservation lands in Oklahoma. Rubalcaba offers them advice and some hope: “Washington, DC is watching what’s happening here, they’re aware. If you can’t convince your local agencies to help, what about Congress or your governor? If you can’t build it with them, go higher up, go to Washington, go to the media. You’ll get somebody’s ear. Talk to other tribes, find out what ear they have. But don’t wait, don’t waste time.”


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