Jared Dahl Aldern, PhD. is Environmental Protection Program manager for the Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians. We spoke with him during our filming of Tending The Wild. This is a partial transcript of that conversation. For more by Jared Dahl Aldern, see his article "Cultural Fire on the Mountain: An Introduction to Native Cultural Burning."
Why is fire important in the landscape?
Fire is a lot like electricity. Electricity is a dangerous force when it's used improperly. Electricity can also accomplish wonderful things in the same way as fire. Although a wildfire is a tremendously dangerous thing, that's not all that fire is. Fire can be directed to these tremendously useful purposes in the forest, and it can course through the forest like electrons through a wire, and energize those circuits that the forest has. It can turn on the meadows, and encourage them to bloom at the right time of the year. It can create resistance to fire in certain places. That's just one way to look at fire, as a force of nature that's a lot like lightning, but also like electricity in its other forms.
What is a cultural burn?
A Native American cultural burn is a burn that Native Americans who are experts at lighting these cultural burns use to accomplish purposes that are important to the culture of the community. In a way, it's a double entendre, or maybe more than double, because a cultural burn is also a way of culturing plants in a certain way and of carrying on the culture of the community from generation to generation as people come in and learn how to conduct the burns and how to work with each other. Fire and the cultural burns become an integral part of the culture, a central part.
What are the benefits of a cultural burn?
Native communities in California in the past have used fire for a whole variety of purposes, including increasing the fruit production of plants, berries, and acorns (the fruit of oak trees); burning plants in order to encourage a certain sort of plant growth that is useful, for instance, for basketry. One of the benefits of a cultural burn is also that it reduces the fuel, but it usually has what's termed “light fire behavior” or a “creeping fire,” where the fire creeps along the ground and under the trees and even some of the shrubs without burning them to a crisp. And that does reduce the fire danger, but it also allows some cultural interaction with those plants without destroying them.
Also, I think the general answer for how Native communities have used fire over thousands and thousands of years is to, if you want to sort of jump to the spiritual realm, maintain a relationship with the rest of nature. It's a gift of fire to the land, and then the land gives back in the form of fruits and plants.
What’s the difference between a cultural and prescribed burn?
In a way, a cultural burn might be viewed as a certain kind of prescribed burn, but that word "prescribed" really comes from a certain view of the forest that says, "We are the doctors, and we know how to prescribe this burn to take care of the forest," whereas a cultural burn is oriented more toward making the forest or allowing the community to become a part of the culture of the forest. It's generally smaller scale. Many prescribed burns today are on the order of 400-acre burns or 1,000-acre burns. Cultural burns generally occur in much smaller patches.
How do modern-day Native people go about organizing a cultural burn?
A tribe is a sovereign government, and so a tribal member who, as an individual wants to do a cultural burn would need to go through a procedure with the community to gain approval, and show that he, or she was qualified to conduct the burn. Certainly a tribe, once it's made a collective decision to conduct a burn, may run into some push-back; some regulations and some resistance from other agencies that tribe has to work with in a government to government relationship.
One of the main agencies that a tribe works with is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. If there's a burn to be conducted on reservation or rancheria land, the Bureau of Indian Affairs needs to be involved in that. The law states that the Bureau of Indian Affairs needs to be involved in that burn plan, and approving how that burn is going to be conducted. Depending on the location, various county agencies, and state air pollution control boards who are going to be concerned about the smoke emissions from any fire.
Then of course there's Federal land such as the National Forests, and land that's administered by National Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management, so all of these agencies, depending on where the burn is proposed, are going to have something to say about it.
How do you put out a cultural burn?
It's little like a campfire; it's not that much bigger in scale than a good, big campfire bonfire. So, you wait until it burns itself out. You get the hot spots and actually douse them with water to make sure that they're dead out before you leave for the day.
Historically, why was there such a push for fire suppression?
Fire has been suppressed in California since one of the first Spanish governors located in San Diego, who issued a proclamation in the late 18th century prohibiting all fires from being lit. Essentially, the invasion of the Spanish disrupted the indigenous fire regime simply by relocating people, harassing people, killing people, genocide, and removal of people from the land. Since fire was so central to these people's culture it amounted to fire suppression. Fire suppression is very much tied up with social and political oppression of Native American people.
I believe that the Spaniards wanted to suppress fire because they saw it as dangerous, and did not necessarily understand what purposes that people were putting the fire to. It looked to the early Europeans, and a little later, the early Anglo-Americans, who came to California, as not agricultural or a way of caring for the land, but they saw it as a careless application of fire by what many of them referred to as "primitive people."
The forest service came in the early 1900s, and Gifford Pinchot, the chief forester of the United States at that time, saw what he viewed as too frequent fire. They called [it] scientific forestry, and essentially that's when the official policy of fire suppression came in: about 1905 up until 1910. They shut down all of the light burning that Indian people had been doing and all of the burning that ranchers and other settlers were doing at the time. Essentially, they were really interested in timber production and getting a lot of logs out of the forest. If you keep fire out of the forest, what you will get is thick thicket of trees.
Aren’t more trees better?
It might sound like a good thing to have a lot of trees. That's what the Forest Service thought. [But] by suppressing fire, putting all lightning fires out and keeping people from lighting cultural burns, for instance, keeping all the fire out, you allowed a lot of growth of thin trees that were tremendously good at carrying fire, and so you built up the fuel over time, and that's what has, in large part, led to a situation today where the forest is full of trees really closely packed, and ready for that spark and for a huge wildfire to start at any time.
How can cultural burns prevent wildfires?
Climate change is clearly changing the behavior of wildfire, and fire in wildlands. So the way to turn fire toward that problem is to use fire to re-create natural fuel breaks. Re-create a landscape that bounces back from wildfires, but that prevents large scale wildfires. There are ways to apply fire to the land to get back to a forest of widely spaced trees with all sorts of cultural resources for Native people, for instance, in between those trees, and in meadows, and in creek sides, and other important areas. Prevent the larger wildfires that climate change is certainly bringing to bear on the landscape.
What role could today’s Native people play in setting fire policy in California?
I think the future of fire really depends on more collaboration between American Indian tribes and other agencies who have an interest in and a stake in fire and how to use it, minimize its destructive risks, and maximize its creative potential. I think even if you view it as a catastrophe or disaster, it can also be viewed as a pretty huge opportunity for the Forest Service to collaborate with tribes like the Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians. To approach this tree mortality problem through prescribed fire, for instance; to reduce fire risks in certain areas, but to really talk together and collaborate and design those fires and those burn plans in such a way that you can meet the objectives that a tribe might have for caring for its cultural resources. While at the same time linking together, perhaps, many small scale cultural burns to build a whole area of reduced fire risks because you are reducing the amount of fuel in the area at the same time.