After more than a century of being sidelined, Native American wildfire experts are starting to get a voice in federal fire policy—but the slow pace of reform could end up creating new risks.
When President Trump visited California this week, he blamed the state’s record-breaking wildfires on poor “forest management,” as he often has in recent years. There are a number of holes in this explanation: Heat and drought associated with climate change are priming forests for more explosive fires regardless of how they are managed, and years of urban development near forests has put more lives and properties at risk.
Still, forest management is indeed an important step in mitigating destructive wildfire and supporting ecological health—if it’s done right. For Trump, it appears to mean giving timber companies more license to harvest trees. But a more effective approach means giving more license to the Native American communities that have lived in the state’s forests for hundreds of years.
Take, for example, the Karuk, a tribe of around 5,000 people in northwest California and southern Oregon living on the front lines of the state’s fire crisis. Carefully controlled wildfires have always been a critical cultural and agricultural tool for the tribe. But since the mid-1800s, they have been legally barred from carrying out their own burns, explains Bill Tripp, director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources. As recently as the 1930s, members were sometimes shot by law enforcement over fire disputes.
Those tensions have eased, but the threat of fire remains. This week, the Red Salmon Complex fire, on territory considered sacred by the tribe, reached more than 95,000 acres. Other major fires, including the Butler fire in 2013 and the Backbone Complex fire in 2009, also ripped through tribal areas.
So in 2014, Tripp and a number of his colleagues in the tribe partnered with environmental groups and local forestry agencies to turn over a new leaf. They wanted to find a way to replace two centuries of government forest management policy, which continues to focus almost exclusively on fire prevention and suppression, with the more nuanced Karuk approach.
The plan they put together, the Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management Project, calls for a mix of strategic forest thinning (for example, to clear out large conifers that prevent fire-resistant hardwoods from growing) and controlled burns. The project was approved by the US Forest Service in 2018.
“We really founded the whole project on traditional ecological knowledge,” Tripp said, “and we established a collaborative process with a set of shared values.”
That integration of indigenous fire management practices with official forest policy was groundbreaking, said Kari Norgaard, an environmental sociologist at the University of Oregon who has studied the role of wildfire for the Karuk and other Native American communities.
“Somes Bar is really profound,” she said. “There’s never been so much indigenous knowledge packed in with traditional policy. The Forest Service system is built around the assumption that fires can and should be prevented. But allowing indigenous land management practices to resume will achieve many of the Service’s own goals in a more cost-effective way.”
The risks of an unfinished job
Some of the project’s designated forest thinning activity finally began this year, Tripp said. But the process has been held up by two key obstacles: A continued reticence by federal officials to allow tribal members to carry out controlled burns, and the recurrence of catastrophic fire seasons, which tend to sap the resources and political will to do anything other than put every fire out.
“We lose our workers because their own homes are burning down,” he said. “And when we get fire years like this, the political systems tend to drive the agenda toward buying more airplanes and other suppression-oriented programs at the cost of the investments needed to enact solutions.”
That has left this year’s work half-done, he said. Thinning operations for the project have left behind thousands of slash piles, stacks of loose branches and undergrowth. These are meant to be burned safely after they’re assembled, but left unattended they can become a dangerous source of fuel.
In fact, the project has not been able to proceed on any of its planned burns, Tripp said, because federal officials haven’t had the time and resources to do it themselves. Ostensibly because of liability concerns, the feds refuse to turn over authority to the tribe, even to members that are certified to conduct controlled burns safely.
“We need some prescribed burns or the problem could get worse,” he said. “But every time we try to get the burning piece done, some kind of excuse comes up.”
The benefits of indigenous fire management are increasingly recognized by the scientific community, Norgaard said—but with a few exceptions, still haven’t percolated into official forest management policy.
“The engagement of indigenous people is limited if not nonexistent,” Tripp said. “But we’re working to change that.”