Aboriginal Use of Fire: Are There Any “Natural” Plant Communities?

Gerald W. Williams. 2002. Aboriginal Use of Fire: Are There Any “Natural” Plant Communities? IN Wilderness and Political Ecology: Aboriginal Land Management–Myths and Reality, Charles E. Kay and Randy T. Simmons (eds.) University of Utah Press.

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


Evidence for the purposeful use of fire by American Indians (also termed Native Americans, Indigenous People, and First Nations/People) in many ecosystems has been easy to document but difficult to substantiate. Commonly, many people, even researchers and ecologists, discount the fact that the American Indians greatly changed the ecosystems for their use and survival. Scientists often attribute old fire scars found in tree rings to “natural” causes, such as lightning rather than anthropogenic causes (Kilgore 1985 and Pyne 1995). However, there is a growing literature that many of the so-called “natural” fires were intentionally set. A knowledge of the Indian use of fire will understand how ecosystem conditions today have been shaped by humans in the past. The implications of restoring fire to ecosystems for management of million of acres of federal lands are profound.
The following accounts of Indian burning of ecosystems focuses on the Pacific Northwest, where some of the best documentation of Indian use of fire exists (see Appendix B). For other parts of North America, see the excellent studies by Henry Lewis (1982, 1985) on the forest areas of Canada, as well as the articles by Emily Russell (1983, 1997) and Gordon Whitney (1994) for the East (especially the northeast) and William McClain and Sherrie Elzinga (1994) for the Midwest region of the United States. Stephen Pyne’s (1982, 1995) books contain information on aboriginal people and their use of fire in North America, as well as other parts of the world.


For over 100 years there was the idea that nature could only be “natural” when left on its own. Massive landscape changes, such as caused by hurricanes or volcanoes, or even small changes like landslides caused by heavy rainfall, would, if left alone, recover to the natural “order” of nature, undisturbed, peaceful, with harmony restored. In this view, nature is wonder, filling the human body and soul with beauty and spirit of the grand works of God. Painters of the mid-1800s “Hudson River School” emphasized, through magnificent, large-scale painting, this notion of the glory and spirit of nature untamed, wild, and beautiful beyond imagination. George Perkins Marsh, in his classic book Man and Nature, originally published in 1864, set the tone for much of the conservation movement of the late 19th century and the environmental movement of the mid- to late-20th century as he wrote about the stability and resiliency of nature:

Nature, left undisturbed, so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form, outline and proportion, except when shattered by geologic convulsions; and in these comparatively rare cases of derangement, she sets herself at once to repair the superficial damage and to restore, as nearly as practicable, the former aspect of her dominion (Marsh 1864: 29).

There are elements of this simplistic philosophic notion that still live on in society as a whole and especially the minds of the environmental community. The writings of the eminent conservation/environmental scholars in the last century have tended to take these idealistic and romantic, almost transcendental, notions into the realm of gut-wrenching emotion and action to save what is left of the “natural” environment. …

The last few decades, however, have seen significant changes in the ecological basis for defining nature, as well as wilderness “untrammeled by Man” (Botkin 1990). …

Human activities have also influenced and changed ecosystems. Researchers today are tending to believe that the concepts of “nature,” “natural,” and “wilderness” are human constructs and that people have been part of ecosystems since before recorded time. People, in this contemporary notion, are part of ecosystems, have evolved with ecosystems, have used parts and pieces of ecosystems for survival, and have changed portions of ecosystems for their needs:

No forests [shrublands or grasslands] are unaffected; humans have been a part of the ecosystem over the past ten centuries of major climatic change, so that all forests have developed under some kind of human influence, although its intensity has varied greatly over time and space. This influence must be accounted for as an important part of any study of forest structure and dynamics (Russell 1997: 129).

By the time European explorers, fur traders, and settlers arrived in many parts of North America, millions of acres of “natural” landscapes or “wilderness” were already manipulated and maintained for human use, although the early observers did not recognize the signs (e.g., Blackburn and Anderson 1993; Botkin 1992; Denevan 1992; Doolittle 1992; Lewis 1973 and 1982; Pyne 1995; Shrader-Frechette and McCoy 1995; Stevens 1860; Stewart 1954, 1955, and 1963; Whitney 1994; and Wilson 1992).

There are a number of questions for ecologists, natural resource managers, and the public relating to the reintroduction of fire into ecosystems. These are questions that deal with philosophical concepts of the positive benefits of fire in ecosystem restoration work:

* Are ecosystems natural or human constructs?

* Are humans part of ecosystems?

* How many years does it take for humans to be considered as a natural, native species?

* Should we consider ecosystems, and the many components, without people?

* Are humans the issue or the problem in ecosystems?

* Should humans be excluded?

* Are humans the solution?

* Is management by people the answer?

* When we restore or preserve ecosystems, what are we doing it for?

* Who is asking us to restore or preserve ecosystems (the plants or animals)?

* Should we include knowledge of past human-caused changes in future management?

Federal agencies have the problem, if they chose some arbitrary date or era, of trying to lock in one particular time period in a dynamic system and calling it “natural.” Realization of the use by people since the last “Ice Age” in North America throws into question what could/should be considered “natural ecosystems” that have not been influenced by humans: “the goal of maintaining or creating conditions as they would exist without people, a ‘natural’ landscape…is not easy as it might appear, however. We cannot remove people and expect that their past influences will disappear (Russell 1997: 87).” Author Emily Russell continues to explain:

We cannot assume that just because active management has ceased, some preexisting ‘natural’ community will reassert itself. Even the eliminating of non-native species or the reintroducing of native and natural processes cannot erase the effects of centuries or even millennia of human impact (Russell 1997: 151).

Steve Pyne, prolific fire researcher and writer, also wrote recently on the subject of ‘natural processes’ and the role of humans, especially the American Indians who lived with the North American environment for many thousands of years before the advent of the European settlement:

Re-creating the vegetation at the time of European discovery or preserving select natural processes does not re-create the historic wilderness experience because the most critical element, the encounter with humans, many hostile, all alien, is gone. It was those native peoples who made the wilderness “wild,” which is to say, exotic, unpredictable, dangerous, exciting, and wondrous to those for whom it was not already home. Similarly dismissing the things those people did, including burning, only sustains a landscape that is historically incomplete (Pyne 1995: 244).

Bruce Kilgore (1985) noted that not all fire researchers and managers agree that simulated Indian burning should be a management tool. In a survey Kilgore conducted with fire experts from around the country, he found eight basic objections to the reintroduction of aboriginal-type fire:

1. It has not been demonstrated that Indian burning played a significant role in altering forest ecosystems.

2. We will never have sufficiently accurate data to understand the extent, season, and intensity of Indian fires.

3. We do not simulate other factors that have changed-extirpated plants and animals, Indian hunting, and Pleistocene glaciers.

4. Lightning fires were a major source of fire for millions of years, yet the Indians have only been here a short time-minor in evolutionary or ecological terms.

5. Simulating past Indian burning would amount to preserving an artifact; systems must be free to evolve.

6. What is our goal/objective? Do we want to maintain processes as they existed before Europeans arrived or before all human beings arrived?

7. In some areas, frequent Indian fires and lightning fires have the same impact on vegetation.

8. We have come too far to expect society to accept simulated Indian fires in parks and wilderness (adapted from Kilgore 1985: 61-62).

Answers to these eight objections to the reintroduction of fire into ecosystems involve far more extensive explanations than can be provided here. Yet some short answers may help:

1) Indian fires were utilized extensively in almost every locality or ecosystem of North America, although not every area was burned.

2) Accurate data are lacking for every area but we do know quite a lot about the extent or location of fires, intensities, timing or seasons of burning, and frequency of fires.

3) Other ecosystem components (e.g. wolves in Yellowstone) are being looked at for reintroduction, just like fire.

4) Lightning has caused fewer fires in the forests and especially the prairies than previously thought, and with many areas of forest and underbrush being lightly burned regularly, there was less of a chance that lightning could have caused major damage.

5) Ecosystems currently in most parts of North America have coexisted with fire for millennia, we are striving to keep these systems going, if possible.

6) The goal is to revive or renew ancient fire regimes, which may produce more “healthy,” fire-adapted, resilient ecosystems.

7) Lightning does not cause fires at the same time of year as do human caused fires-lightning fires are hotter and very difficult to control, Indian-type fires are cooler and relatively easy to control.

8) Indian-type fires may be the only way to prevent potentially damaging wildfires (e.g. Yellowstone National Park), prevent insect and disease outbreaks, and restore ecosystems. The biggest problem with the reintroduction of Indian-type fire on a regular basis will be the issue of smoke and the public.


Most forest and savanna areas in North America have had thousands of years of human interaction and management. American Indians, who themselves were newcomers to the New World some 12-30,000 years ago, adapted to the environments that they found and they adapted the environment to their survival. Fire was been the major tool that American Indians used to change ecosystems to their survival.
Little of the original open prairie remains today as millions of acres have been transformed into farms, pastures, highways, and cities. However, federal land managers still control millions of acres of forest land. The federal forests are currently being managed under an ecosystem-based approach where the reintroduction of Indian-type fire is a distinct possibility.

The basis for much of the “forest health crisis” of today really started with the almost complete cession of Indian burning in the early 1700s in the East and the 1850s in the West. The common reason that many state for this crisis was the advent of the forest rangers and the Smokey Bear mentality since the turn of the 20th Century. Part of that is true, but not as much as some people would like to believe. We must remember that the agencies have not created problems by fighting fires, rather the problems began years before with the cessation of Indian caused fires.

One important factor to remember is that to restore human-caused (Indian) fire to ecosystems is not the same as allowing lightning-caused fires to burn until the fall rains or snows put them out or through a prescribed fire program to reduce fuel loading in the forests. Lightning-caused fires most often start in the late summer or early fall, when heat is high and humidity is low–which is not when most of the Indian-caused fires were usually started. Fuel reductions–to lower the threat of wildfire–can be accomplished by prescribed burning in combination with clear cutting, selection harvesting, thinning, grazing, or even raking and piling of fuels.

Indian-type fire is intensive land management where not every area is treated at the same time in the same way. The idea is to create a mosaic of forests and grasslands, not monocultures. The “healthy” forest and grassland at all scales should have open prairie-like conditions, shrub areas, young trees, mature stands, and old-growth trees. But to do so, the federal land managers and the public need a shared vision of the future.

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