21 Jan 2008, 6:36pm
Resident Stewardship
by admin

Forestry in Indian Country

Over the last twenty years there has been one clear, consistent, and surprisingly infallible advocate for forests, Mr. James Petersen of the Evergreen Foundation. Jim is the founder, publisher, and editor of Evergreen Magazine [here].

Evergreen Magazine is a step above any other forestry periodical, but occasionally Jim publishes a super issue, one that is truly archival. Winter 2005-2006, is one such ground-breaking, deeply insightful, historic work. Entitled Forestry in Indian Country: Models of Sustainability for Our Nation’s Forests? the issue examines forestry as practiced by Native Americans on tribal reservations and compares it to forestry practiced on our National Forests. It is a superb collection of essays, expert reports, and stunning photography (many by Larry Workman of the Quinault Nation).

So much is revealed in this issue. The first articles are by outsiders, Euro-American forest scientists with political foci. They seek to impose “helpful” red-tape bureaucratic burdens on the tribes. They do not mention the interwoven historical nature of the forest and the Indians. Their approach is sadly prejudicial and bigoted. Imagine telling people who have managed their land successfully for thousands of years how the white man thinks it ought to be done, complete with phony ecology and “natural” catastrophic fire.

But then the Native American voices are heard in the rest of the articles. From A School of Red Herring by Gary S. Morishima, Technical Advisor, Quinault Nation:

Tribes have been managing natural resource systems for thousands of years, but protecting tribal legacies for the future is no simple task. The resources that are essential to sustain tribal cultures are coming under relentless attack from a variety of economic and political forces … To a great extent, these threats stem from the introduction of an invasive species several centuries ago … Europeans.

From Sovereignty, Stewardship, and Sustainability by Larry Mason, Project Coordinator for the Rural Technology Initiative at the College of Natural Resources, University of Washington:

Tribes are known to have been managers of natural resources for 10,000 years or more. In many areas of the United States, ecosystems found by early European settlers were not virgin wilderness untouched by the hand of man, but were instead forests altered through time by many generations of Natives that burned, pruned, sowed, weeded, tilled, and harvested to meet their requirements for firewood, fish and game, vegetal foods, craft supplies, and building materials. Periodic underburning not only produced desirable vegetative conditions but reduced fuel accumulations that might otherwise sustain intense fire. A severe fire in a tribal territory would have meant not only loss of property, resources, and lives, but also a long-term disaster for the well-being of the community.

From The Yakama’s Prescription for Sustainable Forestry by Markian Petruncio, Ph.D., Administrative Forester, Yakama Nation, and Edwin Lewis, Forest Manager, BIA, Yakama Agency:

Forest restoration implies that a forest will be returned to a prior condition. Nineteenth-century forest conditions on the Yakama Reservation appeared to be more sustainable than present conditions. For example, open pine stands were maintained in a healthy condition by frequent, low-intensity fires. The forestry program [on Yakama Nation lands] is using historic species composition and stand densities as references for restoration of forest health. … The pathway to sustainable forestry requires proactive management.

From The Forest Is In Your Hands by Nolan Colegrove, Sr., Forest Manager, Hoopa Valley Tribal Council, Forestry Division:

We tended and managed the forest with many tools that were created from nature, but the most effective tool was controlled fire. … The tending of the forest with the use of fire produced annual crops which provided the daily necessities of the people; but what also occurred, by conducting low intensity burns annually for hundreds of years, was that the condition of the forest was healthy and in balance.

From Ecosystem Management and Tribal Self-Governance on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana by Jim Durglo, Forest Manager, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes:

The Tribes understood that both Indian-lit and lightning fires shaped the forest. Here in the Northern Rockies, fire, more than any other factor except climate, shaped the structure of our forest. It determined the kinds and ages of trees, how close together they grew, and the number and types of openings that existed. … From the stories of elders, the historical accounts of early Europeans, and the findings of modern scientific research, we know that Indians have been purposefully burning in the area for at least 7,000 years.

From The Gift of Fire by Germaine White, information and education specialist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Montana:

As Salish and Pend d’Oreille people, our view of fire was and is quite different from the modern western view. In our tradition, fire is a gift from the Creator brought to us by the animals. We think of it as a blessing, that if used respectfully and in a manner consistent with our traditional knowledge, will enrich our world. This belief explains our long tradition (12,000 years plus) of spring and fall burning …

On my last trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area with one of our tribal elders, Harriet Whitworth, we followed the trails she had followed seventy years previous with her mother and grandmother, trails her family had followed for multiple generations. When we arrived at Big Prairie on the South Fork of the Flathead River, Harriet described what it was like when she was a little girl. She said it was a big, open, park-like area where there were enormous ponderosa pine trees, an abundance of grass, and many animals … [with] many clearings, a series of prairies in one place, and Harriet talked of how beautiful it was when she was a child.

Now there is only a little bit of a camp and small prairie or meadow left, and the big pine trees are crowded with Douglas-fir trees. Being there in that place and listening to the stories of how it used to look just a single elder’s lifetime ago showed me in a vivid way what it means to exclude fire from the landscape.

There are more great articles in this issue of Evergreen magazine, including an excellent history of Indian firefighters by Bodie Shaw, Deputy Chief, National Interagency Fire Center, BIA.

For two decades Jim Petersen has been the strongest voice in the country for stewardship of our forests. Forestry in Indian Country is another of his numerous masterpieces

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