James Quigg / File / AP

Native traditional methods revived to combat California drought, wildfires

Local tribes called on for traditional knowledge of forest stewardship to preserve water and create wildfire buffers

As California battles its worst drought in 1,000 years  — and after massive wildfires swept across the state for two consecutive summers — a number of tribe members, scientists and U.S. Forest Service officials are working to revive traditional Native American land management practices that some believe could help contain the blazes and lessen effects of the drought.

Native Americans in California had long tended the land in ways that preserved watersheds to ease droughts and created barriers to out-of-control fires, said Rick Flores, steward of the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program at the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum. 

Flores is leading the program in conjunction with California’s Amah Mutsun tribe to revive the knowledge of those cultural practices. One of the activities they have carried out is controlled burning in an effort to preserve certain useful plants and prevent larger fires.

The U.S. Forest Service uses prescribed burns in areas of high risk for wildfire, usually during the summer and not every year. But that practice has declined because of issues with staffing, budgets, liability and new development, a recent study showed.

Native Americans in northern California traditionally used a different approach to controlled burning, carrying it out every year in the late fall and early winter while the ground was damp and cold, experts said.

Indigenous groups also helped preserve fire-slowing open areas by clearing out some of the coniferous trees that often invade oak forests, meadows and grasslands, Flores said. The conifers, especially older and larger ones, also use a large amount of available water to the disadvantage of other plants and local inhabitants.

The North Fork Mono tribe, whose traditional homeland includes much of the Sierra Nevada National Forest, is now conducting similar land management activities. The tribe has its own nonprofit organization dedicated to managing the landscape and reviving traditional knowledge.

Tribal Chairman Ron Goode — who has been working on such projects with the U.S. Forest Service for over 20 years — said he has been receiving more requests to share knowledge of traditional land management techniques since the current drought began gripping the state. 

Goode’s technique to combat drought and wildfires focuses on restoring meadows, which he said achieves dual purposes: keeping more water in the ground by thinning the forest canopy, and thus also creating clear, wetter areas that act as buffers to large fires.

The North Fork Mono tribe also managed forest canopies, keeping them thin enough so that one could see about a quarter of a mile through the trees, Goode said. But in the past century canopies have become overgrown, which he said fuels out-of-control fires and prevents rain and snow from reaching the ground and entering the watershed.

The U.S. Forest Service heard of Goode's methods and last year asked his organization to collaborate on a project to restore a meadow, where “everything is still green and wet” this year despite the drought, Goode said.

Goode and his team of volunteers — mostly students from high schools and universities, and including local Forest Service rangers — have cleared three meadows in the Sierra National Forest.

Restored meadows “retain water like a sponge,” Dirk Charley, U.S. Forest Service tribal relations manager in the Sierra region and member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians, told Al Jazeera. Charley said he and other forest service employees heard of Goode’s work, and began to learn about and incorporate his land management practices.

Actively managing the meadows has not only helped preserve the area’s water resources and reduce wildfire fuel, but has helped strengthen the entire ecosystem by providing more food for insects and animals, he added.

“We opened the meadow up, and all of a sudden the bees are there, here come the bears, deer and their fawns come walking through and next thing you know you see a [mountain] lion track on the road — that’s the way the meadow works,” Goode said.

Managing mountain forests to build the watershed also benefits humans living in urban areas below, as “water flows through various streams, meadows and creeks down to the rivers and goes into the waterways,” Charley said.

As California’s drought drags on, traditional land management techniques are also being experimented with at Pepperwood Preserve, a 3,120-acre protected area in California’s Sonoma County coastal mountains just north of San Francisco.

Pepperwood has an inter-tribal Native American advisory council that it hopes can revive traditional knowledge of land management, the preserve’s Executive Director Lisa Micheli told Al Jazeera.

“Across California, the area’s first people are reclaiming their roles as expert stewards of the state’s land and water resources,” Micheli said. “As drought and fire ravage undermanaged and overgrown public and private lands, partnerships like this are reintegrating native knowledge."

Pepperwood and local tribes are collaborating on projects including one to clear underbrush, a practice that has been largely lost since modern Americans colonized the West Coast, Micheli said. 

Similar collaboration projects with the U.S. Forest service have also been implemented in northern California by leading fire management tribes including the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa, Charley said.

Although the use of controlled burns is viewed critically by some landowners ­— as well as environmentalists worried about protected species — Flores said such techniques have been used for centuries.

“This was a tradition they were doing for fire prevention,” Micheli said. "This is how it was managed for 1,400 years, and they were doing a pretty good job so we’re interested in learning from them.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that an earlier version mischaracterized Dirk Charley as being a member of the North Fork Mono tribe. Charley is a member of the Dunlap band of Mono Indians.

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