How Indigenous Practices Can Help Forests Thrive

New UC Feature Illuminates Cultural Burning

Beth Rose Middleton Manning and students conduct Indigenous burn in Woodland CA
UC Davis Professor Beth Rose Middleton Manning, students and community leaders take part in a cultural burn at the Tending and Gathering Garden in Woodland, California in January 2020. (Alysha Beck, UC Davis)

As California continuous to experience deadly and devastating wildfires each year across its landscape, the Indigenous practice of cultural burning and “good fire” is earning renewed attention.

The University of California published this week an excellent feature by UCOP writer Robyn Schelenz and videographer Jessica Wheelock called “How the Indigenous Practice of ‘Good Fire’ Can Help Our Forests Thrive.”

The feature includes UC Davis professor of Native American Studies Beth Rose Middleton Manning and the Honorable Ron W. Goode, Tribal Chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe. They have worked together to teach UC Davis students and others about traditional Indigenous burns—an experience highlighted by our own 2020 story, “Rethinking Wildfire.”



The excerpt below focuses on important differences between “prescribed burns” and “cultural burning:”

The difference between prescribed burns and cultural burning

[T]here are important differences in philosophy and execution between prescribed burns and cultural burning in their approach to the land, Goode says.

Agencies tend to focus on acreage and fuel reduction, relying upon natural features or previous fires to control potential spread. Forestry technicians may prioritize large-scale pile burning, for example, then leave when it is done.

Indigenous cultural burns focus on what needs to be burned to revitalize the land with the intent of returning to make use of it again. Traditional baby baskets of the Yurok and Karuk Northern California tribes, for instance, are made from hazelnut shrub stems that are collected after fires as part of the clean-up process. Only those types of stems are strong enough to create the baskets. But in order to collect them, hazelnut shrubs must be propane torched, a step agencies do not currently take.

Indigenous preparation of land for a burn can also involve promoting oak trees in place of pines, for example, creating a new food source for animals and people alike. The ecological and spiritual importance of cultural burns is written into a North Fork Mono creation story — how the Inchworm was able to retrieve the Falcon caught on a high rock by going up the rising water table created by fires put on the land by the Mono.

“Cultural burning comes back to what we are burning for, and it’s not burning for acres,” Goode says. “We're burning to restore the land, restore the resources, restore water. Bring it back to where it can reproduce on its own.”

Now go read the full story.

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Kat Kerlin is an environmental science writer and media relations specialist at UC Davis. She’s the editor of the “What Can I Do About Climate Change?” blog. @UCDavis_Kerlin

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