We’re getting ‘Indigenous’ controlled burning all wrong

In Pursuit of Logic: Part I of IV

The call by non-Indigenous people to incorporate a romanticized, stereotyped version of Native American fire use is a thinly veiled attempt to appropriate Native culture for the same reason colonial powers have done so in the past — for self-interest or financial gain.

In this case, to increase habitat clearance projects and logging operations under the guise of controlling wildfires.

The false “cultural burning was able to prevent large wildfires” narrative, promoted by U.S. Forest Service scientists and others who profit from government wildfire grants, has also had the effect of demonizing nature. Rich, dense vegetation is no longer habitat but, rather, “fuel” that must be removed.

This is not just contrary to logic and science but is a threat to wilderness.

The reality, based on multiple studies, is that Indigenous fire was used on a local basis. Most of those places are now under concrete, not miles away in the wildlands that Indigenous people knew so well — wildlands that have yet to be destroyed by us.


The above is our letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times that was published today in response to an op-ed this past Sunday (7/31/2022)* that promoted prescribed fire in the name of Native Americans. Below is the email we sent directly to the authors of the op-ed, expanding our points further.

Dear Drs. Don Hankins, Scott Stephens, and Ms. Sara A. Clark,

As you are aware, Indigenous fire use is being promoted far in excess and extent to what ever occurred historically. In the name of Native Americans, fire is being applied in plant communities that are already threatened by too much fire, such as chaparral and coastal sage scrub (Scott, this is an issue you have addressed in your own research). And Indigenous Peoples of California, who historically created one of the greatest diversity of cultures on earth, are being lumped together as a simplistic, homogeneous mass that used fire in the same way, everywhere.

We urge you to make mention of these points when you promote Indigenous fire use – points you failed to make in your op-ed on Sunday. Otherwise, California’s native habitats will continue to be compromised and Native Californian culture will be dishonored as has occurred so many times in the past by our species’ greatest liability – hubris.

The Endangered Habitats League and we also addressed these issues in our letters to the editor today in response to your op-ed.

Sincerely,
The California Chaparral Institute

Further discussion of Indigenous fire use, with linked research, can be found on our website here: https://californiachaparral.org/fire/native-americans/

*If you can not access the LA Times op-ed we are addressing, please send us a private email to nature(at)californiachaparral.org and we’ll send you a copy.

Next week’s topic in pursuit of logic: Part II – Invasion of the Alien Brush!

A beautiful stand of native Ceanothus palmeri in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, representing the first stage in post-fire succession.
The consequence of hubris – thinking we know better than Nature. California State Parks used giant grinding machines, herbicides, and fire to destroy the naturally regenerating ecosystem on Middle Peak in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park in a misguided effort to “restore” the burned forest. This is the often the actual on-the-ground consequence of the perspective being promoted by the authors of the op-ed mentioned above, in the name of Native Americans. Prior to prescribed fire, the logging of trees, mastication of shrub habitat, and soil disruption are usually carried out to reduce the “fuel” load. The use of prescribed fire is not the gentle, natural process that is portrayed by the US Forest Service and fire scientists funded by wildfire grants. And it is certainly not what Native Americans did.

7 Comments on “We’re getting ‘Indigenous’ controlled burning all wrong

  1. Thank you Richard for correcting the narrative and fighting back this cultural appropriation that is so destructive!

    Thank you Amelie

  2. “The use of prescribed fire …. is certainly not what Native Americans did.” Are there links as to what Native Americans did?

  3. I find it highly ironic that you, a non-Indigenous person, are telling Dr. Don Hankins, an indigenous person and cultural fire practitioner, that he and his colleagues are appropriating Native culture. He calls for partnership and co-management. This is hand-in-hand with the remaining descendants of the California’s indigenous people to reintroduce fire to our forests. You need to branch out of your chaparral bubble and listen to tribal fire practitioners. They don’t need you to speak for them.

    • Resorting to ad hominem attacks devalues whatever contribution you intended to offer here. And please, provide us with the evidence that none of those who contributed to our response have Indigenous ancestry – and keep it on topic. A continuation of personal attacks will result in your comment being deleted as will your ability to visit us again, Anonymous.

  4. Perhaps the ad hominem was unnecessary, but I highly recommend you think more broadly on this issue. These comments are entirely on topic. I was referring to the first sentence of this post that suggests primarily non-Indigenous people are calling for more fire. The call is coming from practitioners and scientists, both of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ancestry. Given that I didn’t author your post, the burden of proof is not on me to provide. CCI has ample opportunity to highlight it’s Indigenous contributions or partnerships. As to the content of your post and article, it’s Argumentation ad Ignorantium to claim that, “Indigenous fire use is being promoted far in excess and extent to what ever occurred historically.” It’s also presumptive to say that most places where Indigenous people burned are under concrete. Additionally, addressing forest health isn’t demonizing nature. It demonizes the removal of large-diameter, fire-adapted trees on a landscape scale. It demonizes the removal of cultural fire. Overly dense, 2nd-growth forest is not great habitat. Forest wildlife need mosaics, cavities, and a healthy recruitment of snags. Lastly, the op-ed itself refers specifically to “forested ecosystems,” “resilient, fire-adapted forests,” and “laws and policies that encourage the kind of fire that people and ecosystems need.” In no way does it promote or encourage burning in habitats such as chaparral or coastal sage.

    • First, let’s discuss what we agree with.

      You are correct about 2-nd growth forests. Many forests, mostly under 7,000 feet are clearly damaged environments. They are the product of excessive logging and overgrazing by private industry facilitated by greed and government agencies. These abuses opened up the forest to light, and hence the growth. There is definitely a place for restoration efforts there. Unfortunately, the fire suppression argument conveniently ignores this issue, placing blame on the government and firefighters.

      In this lies the basic problem with the approach advocated by Stevens et al. Our compromised forests did not become so because of a lack of fire by Native Americans or modern fire suppression. They were ruined by greed.

      So what’s the solution we are advocating? This is where we will disagree.

      First, be honest as to the cause as stated above. Rarely have I attended a fire conference or read a paper that does so.

      Secondly, we need to be honest about what is exactly happening in these forest restoration projects. Having studied multiple examples, especially on the Stanislaus NF, most of these restoration efforts only end up disrupting the natural sucessional processes more, destroying the fragile soil ecology, and are handicapped by who is actually funding theses things – timber companies and the government agencies/grantors/politicians they lobby. Hence, massive salvage logging, tree plantations, and further logging results.

      Most of these restoration projects are not the natural, gentle processes the op-ed implies. They are usually prepped with mastication, logging, soil disturbance, pile burning, and the rest, including replanting with nursery trees.

      Finally, the notion that we can somehow prevent wildfires from burning through forests with large high-severity patches is not confirmed by the science. There’s a lot of science that’s being ignored here. It’s not about the vegetation, but drought, low humidity, temperature, and wind. We have some of this research on our website here:
      https://californiachaparral.org/fire/forest-fires/

      High-severity fires are not the disaster Steven et al. are claiming. Contrary to what some of the USFS says, there is significant regeneration within these environments.

      The best approach is to conduct some prescribed burning/restoration projects in forests in and around areas often used by the public. Leave the rest alone.

      Concerning the other comments you offered.

      Ad hominem attacks are always unnecessary and counterproductive. No buts.
      When you acknowledge an error, you admit it, apologize, give no qualifications, then move on.
      Another logically fallacious argument is to accuse someone of something, then demand they provide the evidence to counter the accusation. This is in reference to your desire for us to engage in a discussion about our ancestry. We have no interest in doing that.

      The fundamental problem with the op-ed’s approach is that there is no effort to explain that more than half of the plant communities in the state of California are suffering from too much fire rather than not enough. In addition, when people hear “forest,” they think all wildlands. Stevens knows this, so he should have made an effort to qualify his position in the op-ed. It is a simple fix. However, speaking the truth on this issue complicates the story, a story that has been unfortunately very successful – Nature is characterized as a clogged mess that must be cleared. This is a significant problem. In our work in protecting chaparral over the past 20 years, we have repeating observed Cal Fire, USFS reps, the public, and virtually every article on fire make mention of Indigenous fire use without reference to ecosystem applicability.

      We also have first hand experience of Indigenous fire use being promoted far in excess and extent to what ever occurred historically. Supposedly informed individuals have said Native Americans burned chaparral every 5-10 years. That’s impossible. Chaparral can not survive such high fire frequency.

      This is not an argumentum ad ignorantium as you claim, an argument that is unjustly claimed to be true because it hasn’t been proved false. In what possible way is our statement about people improperly applying Indigenous fire rhetoric relevant to this particular logical fallacy?

      And you write, “It’s also presumptive to say that most places where Indigenous people burned are under concrete?” Please download and read the research we have listed at the end of our page on Native American fire use that provides significant evidence that most fire use was local, around villages. This concept is rarely appreciated. Today’s urban areas are the exact places where Indigenous cultures also thrived and where cultural burning occurred, because those places were, and remain, the best places to live:
      https://californiachaparral.org/fire/native-americans/

      To think that Native Americans were spending precious time roaming through wildland areas across 100 million acres in California, carefully applying fire everywhere they went for the purpose of maintaining low-severity fire and preventing large wildfires is absurd. Large wildfires, many at high intensity, have been occurring for as far back as the evidence goes.

      More specifically, climate was different back when Stevens et al. claim that Native burning was keeping all fires small and at low-severity. We have a situation today much more like the Medieval Warm Spell. There were massive wildfires all along the Sierra Nevada during this period between 800-1300 AD at that time as one would expect with warm, dry conditions. Many of the older forest stands of sequoia etc., likely got their start during this warm interval.

      If Indigenous fire use precluded large fires, why were there so many large fires recorded during this period? There were plenty of Native Americans living there. This was before European diseases or any other reasons given for Indian population decline. If Natives burning precluded large fires, why did so much of the Sierra Nevada burn at that time?

      Regardless, as I mentioned above, our large fires are being driven by drought, heat, and extreme fire weather, not the amount of vegetation. The same goes for all the wildfires in Italy and Greece of late, where no one brings up Indigenous People or past fire suppression to account for why the fires are occurring.

      The bigger threat is the domestication of the natural landscape, which is where the demonization of dense habitat relates. The Indigenous fire use narrative is promoting the idea that humans need to constantly “manage” our forests. Again many forest species including ponderosa pine and other dry pines existed for millions of years in North America without any human presence. How did they survive all those years without us?

      In closing, knowing how to use fire on the landscape is not some kind of magical process. How to use fire and its impacts on overall ecological processes are generally well-known (despite the fact that land managers often ignore that knowledge). Of course, it is helpful to have various inputs, but characterizing Native American understanding of fire as something known only to them, and creating an impossible narrative that large, high-intensity wildfires were able to be prevented by Native American fire use, is no different than believing that traditional/family knowledge of any group is equivalent to decades of scientific research. With all the embellishment, forgetfulness, and inherent bias found in stories, especially stories that have been affected by generational disconnections caused by genocide, stories are not dependable templates when trying understand the physical world, verify history, or make public policy. That’s why we have science. To think otherwise, is to elevate and romanticize one group of humans over another and to view folklore as equivalent to fact. That’s why we believe the current narrative about Native American burning is more about appropriation of culture in pursuit of self interest than anything else.

      Stepehens et al., Governor Newsom, and environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy embracing Native American fire use is no different than advertising agencies using Native American images to promote products, or the incredibly successful national litter campaign in the early 1970s that famously featured a crying Indian. The mystique and wisdom of Native American culture, combined with our nation’s guilt over the genocide we caused, is a powerful image. Those promoting the clearance of native habitat have been incredibly successful in tapping into that power – people have been made to believe that small groups of Indigenous People were able to tame the flames of Nature for thousands of years across millions of acres, when all the fire retardant-dropping 747s, legions of highly skilled firefighters, and modern technology wither in the face of wildfires driven by drought, 60 mph winds, low humidity and high temperatures. Truly remarkable.

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