If you smell something burning this week as you visit Sequoia National Park, that might just be two centuries of cultural misunderstanding going up in smoke.
Fire crews from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are managing a controlled burn in Sequoia's Ash Mountain area, adjacent to the Park entrance on Route 198 east of Three Rivers. The 26-acre burn, which will continue in several sections for four or five days, is being conducted in part to attempt to knock down grassy fuels whose growth was stimulated by the Sierra Nevada's wet winter.
Controlled burns in the Parks are nothing new, but the Ash Mountain burn is a little different: it's happening with advice and assistance from the Parks' Indigenous neighbors, and reducing fuel load is just one of the objectives. The Ash Mountain burn is also intended to boost the health of oak trees in the area, and increase acorn crops in subsequent yields.
That's in line with the way Native peoples historically used fire to tend Sierra Nevada forests: as a way of making the forests healthier, and more hospitable to people and wildlife alike.
As we reported last year, cultural burns are still being conducted in places in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere in California by Native peoples seeking both to maintain their landscapes and preserve their cultural traditions. But Native cultural burning has mainly been obstructed, in California and across the West, but close to two centuries of American fire suppression. Almost as soon as American settlers took control of California, the state's new Legislature outlawed all forms of cultural burning under the impression that the Native practice damaged the landscape.
North Fork Mono Tribal Chairman Ron Goode on Restoring Cultural Burning
After about a century, Western scientists began to come around to Native peoples' ways of thinking, though usually without giving those Native peoples credit. Especially after the wildfires in Yellowstone National Park, in the 1980s, some agencies like the National Park Service recognized that putting out every forest fire at all costs caused significant long-term damage to the landscape.
California's forests, from Klamath conifer forests and coastal chaparral to oak savanna in the Sierra foothills, have thus been deprived of the fires set regularly for millennia to control overgrowth. As a result, the ecology of California's forests has shifted in unsustainable ways, and the state faces the threat of wildfires much larger than most that happened before 1840.
But despite the return of western-style controlled burning over the last generation, western land managers have been slow to appreciate Native land management expertise on how to manage fires for values other than fuel load reduction.
Over the last few years, however, the National Park Service has been paying closer heed to Native Traditional Ecological Knowledge on burning and other practices. In some cases, as at Sequoia and Kings Canyon, the agency has worked to build partnerships with both federally recognized tribes and those tribes with no federal recognition; a common-sense approach that's quite unusual among federal agencies.
Sequoia National Park's consultation with local Native peoples, and cooperation on planning and conducting the Ash Mountain burn, is welcome evidence that that new approach by NPS is bearing fruit.
At Ash Mountain, that fruit will probably be acorns.
The oak trees are an essential part of [the] landscape," says Jessie Russett, archaeologist and tribal liaison for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “If we take care of the oaks, they will take care of us.”