Sometimes Vikki Preston is inching her way through the forest when she comes across a grove of tan oak trees that feels special. The plants are healthy, the trees are old, and their trunks are nicely spaced out on the forest floor. “You can feel that the grove has been taken care of,” she says. “There’s been a lot of love and thoughtfulness.”
Tan oak groves have long been tended by indigenous people who still live along the banks of the forested Klamath and Salmon Rivers near the California-Oregon border. Preston, a cultural resource technician for the Karuk tribe, grew up watching her grandfather tend just such a grove—by burning it. Fire helped cleared away small pines, alders, and willows. It killed pests like weevils that ruin acorns, and allowed for new, straight shoots of hazel to grow that can be used for basket-weaving. It left a forest sentineled with sugar pine and oaks, scattered with meadows full of wildflowers and ferns.
Such scenery is rare in the western US today, a result of 1911 federal legislation that made it illegal to ignite fires on public forest lands. That legislation curtailed centuries of forest management by the native Karuk, Yurok, and Hupa people, who had long lived in villages dotted throughout these forests; a 1918 US Forest Service ranger’s memo declared that “renegade Indian” fires were rooted in “pure cussedness.”
A hundred years later, though, western science and policy-makers are rethinking the subject. Federal forests are now choked with dead leaves, brush, and dense fir trees, a tinderbox for wildfires whirling out of control. Between 1975 and 1985, wildfires burned just over 2,000 acres a year nationwide. In the decade from 2005 to 2015, that number averaged more than 350,000 acres a year. So in a new policy, the Forest Service on July 27 signed an implementation plan for managing public forest lands—an agreement in which both fire and the Karuk play a vital role.
The first project will burn 5,570 acres near Somes Bar, California, with the Karuk, NGOs, and state and federal agencies all working to manage the project’s contracts and workforce for the next 10 years. To prepare the forest, Karuk and other local work crews will first saw away some brush and thick vegetation, lightening the load of flammable material, explains Bill Tripp from the Karuk Department of Natural Resources. They will also use heavy equipment to thin out some dense stands of conifer trees, opening up room for hardwoods that are being shaded out.