The Ecological Wisdom of Prescribed Burns

Before colonization, landscapes were consciously shaped by the transformative power of fire. Many Indigenous peoples used fire to clear the land, protect it from uncontrolled wildfires, improve harvests of nuts and acorns and to conserve water for selected plants and trees. This process was central to cultures of fire; to shape the land, to grow the food, to generate the plants for medicine and ceremonies. Many Native Nations, including the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk of Northern California managed underbrush with fire.

John Muir commented that the area that became Sequoia National Park looked like a natural, pristine wilderness garden. He did not understand that the gardeners who had shaped the land for thousands of years were the Indigenous people whom he and other newcomers wanted to exclude, complete with their practices to maintain the beauty and health of the area.

For one hundred years between the late 1800s and 1900s, fire was suppressed in National Parks and throughout the USA. The grand redwood and sequoia trees suffered, due to brush capturing their water and the devastating wildfires that resulted from a lack of controlled burns of the excess fuel of the undergrowth. Native culture and food sources could not thrive either, prohibited from their cultural burns.

It took a century for Western science to catch up with traditional wisdom. In the National Parks, foresters began to light controlled fires in 1968. Those were not in consultation with traditional Native practices, however. Cultural burns were only completed on Indigenous lands largely until this millennia.

Partnerships are forming now between the National Parks, the US Forest Service and the traditional keepers of the land. Native American elders formed the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network (IPBN) in 2015 to support traditional fire practices with trainings and a network of indigenous traditional knowledge-holders. The first group of cultural fire leaders are from the Miwok, Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk tribes.The Nature Conservancy upholds their work.

Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III, NPS Image: National Park Service

Currently under President Biden, the Director of the US National Park Service is Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III, of Cayuse and Walla Walla heritage and he’s an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Northeast Oregon. His boss, the US Director of the Interior is Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, New Mexico. Deep changes are happening in regards to old policies and procedures through the catalyst of fire. The cultural stewards of the land are regaining access to the sacred earth and fire is transforming and regenerating both.

Deb Haaland Image: US House of Representatives

Cultural burning leads to greater biodiversity. Fire can save forests from the ravages of climate change, as an adaptation strategy and a way to store carbon. Burning with traditional wisdom creates good healing fire.

¡Olè! –Rebecca

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Rebecca Cuningham

24 thoughts on “The Ecological Wisdom of Prescribed Burns

  1. That’s so interesting. Is the indigenous population still in touch with its ancient wisdom? It’s been so comprehensively suppressed for so long that it would be a miracle if they’ve been able to maintain their learning intact.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It took a long time for our parks departments to realize how to manage wildfires too and that they’re actually important gor the forest. Things that were keeping the forests healthy for generations were ignored. Here’s hoping the future will be healthier for the forests. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had no idea that fires actually help the environment– if anything, I would assume they’d be disastrous! Native Americans really know how to cultivate this beautiful land, and we can definitely learn a lot from them; it’s great that the government is working together with them to make our land gorgeous again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it is surprising without knowing the horticulture behind the idea! Turns out that the burn cycle is yearly in some areas. I’m happy to see Native representation in high offices. The tribal elders have much to teach us in living right for the land.

      Liked by 1 person

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