Tribes look to expand cultural burning to restore traditional practices and address catastrophic wildfire threatsSeptember 17, 2021
By Sara A. Clark
This article was previously published in the September/October issue of the American Bar Association’s Environment, Energy, and Resources Section Trends publication.
People indigenous to California have proactively ignited the landscape to manage plants and wildlife, provide community protection, control insects and disease, and engage in cultural and religious practices since time immemorial. Experts estimate that before 1800, between 4.5 million and 12 million acres of the state burned annually, through some combination of lightning and cultural burning. For perspective, the “unprecedented” 2020 wildfire season burned just over 4 million acres.
With colonization, Europeans sought to eradicate these long-standing cultural burning practices, viewing fire as something to be fought, not fostered. Both the Spanish government and later the state and federal governments prohibited or criminalized the practice. Genocide and forced removal of Indigenous people reduced the practice further. California’s fire-adapted ecosystems—including such diverse species as coast redwood, ponderosa pine, and chaparral—have suffered without frequent low-to-moderate fires. Without the ecosystem heterogeneity created by frequent, patchy burning, biodiversity has decreased. And a steady accumulation of understory fuels over decades now results in high-severity, catastrophic burns, which can torch the overstory, sterilize the soil, threaten communities, and cause smoke-related public health crises.
As California grapples with these severe impacts, interest in restoring and expanding traditional cultural burning has expanded significantly. Tribes and their partners have begun organizing in groups such as the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network and the Western Klamath Regional Partnership to revitalize implementation of cultural burns in native communities and allow western fire managers to learn from centuries of Indigenous knowledge of the landscape. The California legislature is poised to adopt two bills, AB-642 and SB-332, that would codify definitions of cultural burning and cultural fire practitioner, recognize cultural burning experience in state programs, and provide tailored liability protection for cultural fire practitioners.
Despite this enthusiasm, however, significant barriers must still be navigated by Tribes and cultural fire practitioners eager to expand cultural burning across their ancestral territories.
Failure to understand or recognize tribal sovereignty
Tribes and Native Americans in California and the United States have retained sovereignty over their affairs. Sovereignty allows Tribes to make their own laws and be governed by them; recognition of this right is particularly strong with respect to lands, waters, and natural resources.
Nevertheless, fire agencies and air quality regulators have not always recognized the authority of Tribes and cultural fire practitioners to engage in cultural burning on their terms. Agency staff have required burn permits or smoke management plans, issued fines, or sought to suppress cultural burning. Conflicts have emerged over the timing and location of cultural burning, when traditional ecological knowledge has diverged from modern smoke or fuel load modeling.
Issues emerge even when the state or federal government seeks to partner with Tribes. Agencies have struggled to integrate Indigenous knowledge and authority into the highly regimented world of prescribed fire. Further, traditional grant funding or cooperator agreements may require Tribes to broadly waive their sovereign immunity, putting Tribes in the difficult position of choosing between receiving resources or retaining an inherent aspect of governance and identity.
Insufficient land under tribal control
The ancestral territories of California Tribes—and thus, the areas that may be appropriate for cultural burning—cover much of the state. Yet, as a result of forced removal and broken treaties, Tribes have clear jurisdiction over only a fraction of that area. Typically, Tribes retain jurisdiction within the boundaries of a reservation, or on land taken into trust. The Land Back movement—which seeks to return Indigenous lands to Indigenous hands—and efforts to restore true co-management to public land would allow expansion of cultural burning practices across more of the landscape.
Prescribed fire and cultural burning are among the least expensive mechanisms to reduce high fuel loads and return ecosystem resilience. Yet, they are not without cost—for training, equipment, contingency resources, and public outreach. Many California Tribes are chronically underfunded, with relatively few resources available to support expansion of cultural burning practices.
The time is now to address these issues. Climate change is making the threat posed by catastrophic wildfire more dire; we must work to return beneficial fire to the forest while we still have the ability. With greater understanding and recognition of tribal sovereignty, ongoing return of land to tribal control, and an infusion of resources, Tribes and cultural fire practitioners can be a key part of California’s strategy to reach a more resilient fire regime.