Column, 614 words

California’s Smarter Stewards

Native Americans mastered caring for this land long before the first European even knew it existed.

Jill Richardson

Ten days before Christmas 2006, I moved to California, the Shake ‘n Bake State. The first friend I met in my new home was a firefighter with the Forest Service. The first gift I received was a wind-up flashlight for use in the next major earthquake.

That’s our state. Hollywood, beaches, and natural disasters.

Catastrophic wildfires, like this year’s Rim Fire, seem to be a more frequent problem than earthquakes. We had the 2003 Cedar Fire. In 2007, we had another round of massive wildfires. This Father’s Day, I was hiking on a popular trail in San Diego when a wildfire started within the park. The smoke grew thick and a ranger told everyone to evacuate. When I reached my car, ash was falling on my windshield like snowflakes.

That was one of thousands of small fires that break out each year but barely even make the news. The Rim Fire, on the other hand, has burnt an area larger than the size of New York City and it’s done so within Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. It’s also endangered the water and electricity supplies of millions of people in the Bay Area. This isn’t just a problem for treehuggers.

Richardson-California-Travis S.

Travis S./Flickr

Destructive wildfires, unlike earthquakes, are somewhat preventable. I choose my words carefully when I say that, because wildfires in general are not preventable. The ecosystems native to California are designed to burn. With careful management, the burning can be done in a controlled and beneficial way. Controlled burns reduce the amount of fuel so that accidentally set fires are less likely to reach the monster size and power of the Rim Fire.

Earlier this year, I decided to learn more about my adopted home from the best experts I could find: Native Americans. They’ve lived here for 10,000 years, and for most of that time they had nothing but what came from the land. Although California Indians were hunters and gatherers, they hardly lived at the mercy of nature.

We often think of Native Americans as treating the environment so gently that they made no mark on it at all, but the opposite is true. In fact, the plants, animals, and ecosystems of the state co-evolved with the people who lived here. By tilling, pruning, hunting, fishing, harvesting, planting, and — most of all — burning, the Indians created a Garden of Eden, rich with life, to meet all of their needs.

Fires set at regular intervals under favorable weather conditions burn at a low intensity. They recycle nutrients and reduce pests, disease, and the buildup of brush. They encourage grass growth, producing food for game and increased visibility for hunters. They also reduce the amount of fuel, preventing high-intensity conflagrations like the Rim Fire.

Whereas low-intensity fires don’t kill many plants — in fact, they stimulate seed germination — high-intensity fires often do.

The first Europeans who came to California sought to exploit it for timber, gold, furs, and anything else they could obtain. Later, a conservation movement came about, seeking to preserve land as if it were untouched by human hands. But this is land that doesn’t have a “natural” state untouched by humans, at least not within the last ten millennia.

Without human intervention, done in the right way, we stand to lose not only species but entire ecosystems. And we also place ourselves at risk of disasters like the Rim Fire.

Rather than fumbling around in arrogance as we seek the best way to prevent the next Rim Fire, we should realize that Native Americans mastered caring for this land long before the first European even knew it existed.

Let’s work with them for everyone’s benefit.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. OtherWords.org

  • Johnny Dollar

    Smokey Bear has given me all the forestry advice I’ve needed for the last fifty years. I still hear him on the radio every night just like when I was a kid.