“Ancient Forests of the Sierra Nevada,” by Thomas M. Bonnicksen

To further the discussions of fire and forest management in the Sierras, here’s an article of interest, “Ancient Forests of the Sierra Nevada,” by Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D., Texas A&M University. Thanks fo Dick Powell for passing this along.

I recommend Bonnicksen’s book, America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery. Ought to be required reading for foresters — and anyone else with an interest in forest management.

39 thoughts on ““Ancient Forests of the Sierra Nevada,” by Thomas M. Bonnicksen”

  1. A most timely and telling counterpoint to the discussion on the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA). Bonnicksen’s research tells us that human activity created “Ancient Forests” and was the driving force behind its maintenance. Heresy! I’m looking forward to the reaction of the usual suspects.

  2. Heresy? Yes indeed! It seems people, even those in very ancient times, like to eat and one way to assure a food supply is to manipulate our environment. That was certainly true of the American Indian and true for all of us today.

    The ancient forest as the Indians knew it and as encountered and described by Euro-Americans (and that includes John Muir in the Sierras) probably does not fit what people think it was. Therefore, our efforts to preserve what we think of a “ancient” is probably based more on myth than on historical fact. I think Bonnicksen has a lesson for us all.

  3. Bonnicksen. Where have I heard that name before?


    Logging Proponent’s Credentials Questioned

    An emeritus professor has been highly visible in the push to log on federal land. He has a contract with a timber industry foundation.

    By Bettina Boxall, LA Times, October 21, 2006

    In the perennial battle over how the West’s vast acreage of federal forests should be managed, science is a favorite weapon. And on the pro-logging side no academic has been as visible as Thomas M. Bonnicksen, particularly in California.

    The Texas A&M emeritus professor of forest science has testified before Congress 13 times, written numerous op-ed pieces and been widely quoted in Western newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. Always he sounds the same theme: Logging is the key to restoring public lands to their former fire-resistant state.

    In his writings, Bonnicksen has commonly disclosed that he sits on the advisory board of the Auburn, Calif.-based Forest Foundation.

    What he hasn’t divulged is how lucrative his connection with the pro-logging timber industry-funded foundation has been. According to public tax documents, Bonnicksen collected $109,000 from the foundation in the last two years as an independent contractor.

    “He’s always introduced as the leading expert on forest recovery, and he’s just not. There’s nothing in his record other than just talking and hand-waving,” said UCLA ecology professor Philip Rundel, one of several academics who issued an open letter to the media this week questioning Bonnicksen’s credentials.

    Full article at: http://articles.latimes.com/2006/oct/21/local/me-bonnicksen21

    • Matthew, have you read Bonnicksen’s “Ancient Forests of the Sierra Nevada” or America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery?

        • Any of Bonnicksen’s works are fair game for constructive criticism, but you ought to read these materials before launching or repeating a character assassination.

          • Excuse me Steve. “Launching or repeating a character assassination?” Get real. I simply posted an article from the respected LA Times about Bonnicksen, and how respected scientists question his qualifications. And heck, it was Throwback Thursday after all. Besides, your plea comes off a little limp especially because you said nothing during Larry Harrell’s years of real, actually ‘character assassinations’ on this blog of Dr. Chad Hanson.

            • Matt, My reaction to your post was the same as Steve’s. The LA Times “news” article that you posted was a compilation of unsupported assertions, pejorative labeling (pro-logging rather than pro-management), innuendoes (“Whose bread I eat, his song I sing”) and academic feuding. There was not a word about the research, its methodology, data gathering and interpretation, or conclusions. The attack was on the man, not his works. Your defense of the post was disappointing. The last sentence, “You did it first”, would seem to be vintage Trumpism.

              Bonnicksen has raised a legitimate question as to how much human intervention into the functioning of a wilderness area would fall within the range of natural variation. There is no question that Paleoindians did manipulate, perhaps substantially, both the flora and fauna of the “Ancient Forests” , especially by fire. That being the case, the question is not “to do or not to do?”. Rather, the question is “how much?”.

              It may be that Bonnicksen has overstated the case for anthropogenicism. However, it seems to me that we should applaud, rather than condemn, him for posing the question. Now It’s time to move on, searching for the answer to that question..

            • Yes, I did criticize his tree cambium study, where he sampled for live cambium at dbh, instead of at ground-level, where protocol says you must. Face it, he’s a sloppy “scientist”, with very little objectivity. I don’t think many would consider that “character assassination”.

              Yes, it’s pretty fun watching Matt keep digging in that deep hole *SMIRK*

              Watch, now, and you’ll see him run out on a tangent to produce quotes from me that he considers to be abusive, without tying anything to the current topic. Troll move, Matt.

              • See you are still keeping it classy Larry, and still not worth the time, so please don’t flatter yourself. Elk stew on the stove and friends coming over. Cheers.

  4. Here is Bonnicksen’s desired outcome: “Thus, dramatic stands of old growth would float around the future forest mosaic in the same way that they floated around in the ancient forest mosaic.” That sounds like what the 2012 planning rule requires for national forests (natural range of variation, assuming that is backed by science).

    Here’s his prescription: “Decadent old growth cut in one part of the mosaic would be replaced with renewed old growth as the trees grow larger in another part.” (Aside from the fact that cutting in one place is unrelated to growth in another area), where there is less old growth forest than there was historically, the burden should be on the Forest Service to ecologically justify removing old growth (and “decadent” is not an ecological justification). Given the irreversible effect of logging old growth, there should also be a burden on the Forest Service to demonstrate with some certainty that a particular area has “too much” old growth before logging it.

  5. Bonnicksen’s call for a “the sustainable old growth option” — written in 1993 — is right on the money, even if he did use terms such as decadent. The Late Successional Reserves in the PNW are doomed, unless human managers can mimic fire and other natural processes that have been curtailed.

  6. Something many people do not seem to understand (or they choose not to understand) is that a forest has a limited life span. In other words, nothing lives forever. This applies to old people as well as to every other organism. To be sure, relative to a human’s life span, a tree or a stand of trees may be quite long but, nevertheless, it is finite and it will die.

    Bonnicksen’s sustainable old growth option understands this biological reality and provides for the replacement of a stand of trees as it dies, blows over in a windstorm, is burned, etc. It more nearly mimics nature. Thus, late successional reserves are doomed if there is no provision for their replacement; they are artificial and not natural in a landscape scale sense that some people want.

    This may not be politically correct or meet the philosophical values of some but it is nevertheless simple biology.

    [To assign something to the “bathroom reading list” sounds a bit like a mind that is not very open to another point of view.]

  7. Mac McConnell: “There is no question that Paleoindians did manipulate, perhaps substantially, both the flora and fauna of the “Ancient Forests” , especially by fire.”

    If “Ancient Forests” means forests a long time ago, I would agree. If it means burning old growth, I would look closer at the science. Maybe only in those open forests prone to burning any way.

    Dick Powell: “Thus, late successional reserves are doomed if there is no provision for their replacement; they are artificial and not natural in a landscape scale sense that some people want.”

    I think “replacing” old growth should be a discussion of what to do in places outside of existing old growth. There may be another question about “maintaining” existing old growth in some forest types, but rarely would the ecological solution be to cut old trees.

  8. The issue of whether “pristine” pre-colonial ecosystems were in fact produced by intense human activity — prehistoric development, so to speak — isn’t just a scientific question, but a deeply political one, with profound implications for how we understand modern economic and industrial activity. And if the Sierra Nevada’s pre-colonial bounty in fact flowed from indigenous forest management practices, a hands-off approach would seem misguided.

    Fair enough. Bonnicksen sets up his argument, however, by jumping straight from hominids using stone tools 2.6 million years ago to “humans [as] an integral part of the forces of nature” — a piece of reasoning so sloppy as to call his judgement, if not his motivations, into account. Later he states, “Indian burning played a decisive role in creating and maintaining ancient Sierra Nevada forests and other forests throughout North America.”

    A more careful evaluation comes from “Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests,” Albert J. Parker’s entry in “Fire, Native Peoples, and the Natural Landscape,” edited by Thomas Vale. Writes Parker:

    “Although it is plausible that indigenous humans may have locally altered forest structures and fostered increased spatial heterogeniuty in vegetation cover, it is hardly necessary to invoke human agency through the use of fire as the creator and manager of that heterogeneity. Lightning fires, coupled with windstorms, disease and pest infestations, occasional drought and large floods, and tectonically triggered mass movements, would maintain a structurally heterogeneous landscape and vegetation cover, with or without human agency.”

    (See article here: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=W3LrISDC5sAC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=california+native+american+fire+regime&ots=L0a1JWaDEC&sig=7mKfh7rGWYdH0yx5UMWCd4Iek80#v=onepage&q=california%20native%20american%20fire%20regime&f=false)

    So: humans played a role, but so did non-human natural processes; the latter seem more important than the former. And while in certain places — like the Yosemite Valley — our historical baselines indeed reflect the outcomes of human-directed engineering that long went unknown and unappreciated, that wasn’t the case with a great many other places and baselines.

    I came across Vale’s book in “Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth,” a collection of essays critiquing the humanity-reigns-supreme tilt of discourse around the idea of the Anthropocene. It’s referenced in an essay by Dave Foreman entitled “The Myth of the Humanized Pre-Columbia Landscape,” which takes apart several examples frequently given — in a historically and scientifically half-baked way — of supposed pre-Columbian ecosystem engineering.

    These examples include the southwestern and northeastern United States, where indigenous fire regimes played minimal historical roles; the half-baking typically involves taking the localized impacts of a few indigenous people and extrapolating them to landscape-scale significance. Foreman quotes Vale: “The desire to visualize humanized landcapes in the pre-European era derives from social ideologies … rather than from careful assessment of ecological facts.”

    I imagine that for someone who believes deeply in both the economic and ecological values generated by thoughtful forestry, the idea of indigenous people having engineered pre-European forest richness would have great appeal. But it’s at best a contested idea, and there’s not much evidence for it at large geographical scales.

    • Thanks so much for your comments and participation in this blog Brandon. You add a great deal to these discussions, so I hope you keep chiming in.

    • Brandon, I wouldn’t call Bonnicksen’s reasoning sloppy. Indian burning did play a decisive role, though of course so did “Mother Nature.” Take a look at this essay by Stephen Pyne, “Where Have All The Fires Gone?” from Fire Management Today, Summer 2000 (http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/fmt/fmt_pdfs/fmn60-3.pdf), which includes 5 other essays on the topic of aboriginal fire — the theme of that edition is “Wildland Fire — An American Legacy.” Pyne: “The fires that once flushed the myriad landscapes of North America and have faded away are not fires that were kindled by nature and suppressed, but rather fires that people once set and no longer do. In some places, lightning has filled the void. But mostly it has not, and even where lightning has reasserted itself, it has introduced a fire regime that can be quite distinct from those shaped by the torch.”

      • Steve, Pyne is an excellent writer, but not a fire scientist (he has admitted this himself – not being a fire scientist part). That last paragraph of his that you quoted is more about literary license than a reflection of reality.

        At best Native Americans on this continent did not likely have the level of population required to significantly impact the landscape with fire on a regular basis until about 5,000 years ago. That is a pretty short time period to have much of an evolutionary impact.

    • I’m not terribly familiar with other parts of the US so I will keep my comments specific to Oregon, a place where I’ve lived and worked for 60 years.

      Of course, Mother Nature helped shape the landscape but, hereabouts, the indigenous people played a huge role – perhaps a larger role.

      In the hills where I’ve worked all these many years, there are places with names like Grass Mt., Prairie Mountain, Burnt Woods, and Bald Hill; these names may have been appropriate at one time but they are badly mis-named today. Marys Peak, at about 4100 ft., is the highest point in the Coast Range and, a hundred years ago, had 5-600 acres of meadows around the summit; it now has less than 200 acres.

      Why? Trees are invasive and, where they have a chance, they will dominate the landscape. And, if trees will dominate, then why did those meadows exist? I’ve been looking at Marys Peak and find zero evidence of forest fires, wind storms, or any other sort of natural disturbance. My conclusion is that, over the many hundreds of years (maybe even since the arrival of people many thousands of years ago), people found these meadows and kept them burned. It is well established that the natives used Marys Peak for their spirit quests; they probably kept it free of trees for their quests as their boys made the transition into manhood. On their quests, the meadow would have had many foods for them to gather. [I’ve talked about this with others who have a long history around here and they concur with my conclusions.]

      On the more upland soils in the Willamette Valley, the settlers should have found extensive conifer forests and, on the lowland soils prone to winter flooding, should have found ash, cottonwood, willow, or other species. However, the settlers described vast oak savannas and oak woodlands – a so-called “native prairie”. They also complained about the Indian’s “habit” of annually burning the Valley and the lack of feed for their livestock. The Indians depended on acorns for around a third of their food and the camas and many other plants found among the oaks and for the forage for the game they hunted. Fire was their management tool to assure the continued existence of these oak savannas and prairies.

      Or. St. University’s College of Forestry has their research forest just north of campus. The surveyors in the mid-1800s often had to look a thousand feet or more for the nearest witness tree to mark for the corners they set. Throughout the region, they frequently noted burned forests. (I must note that, west of the Cascade Mountains, lightning is infrequent and, when we do get lightning, it is usually accompanied by rain. Thus, lightning-caused fires cannot possibly explain all the burns the settlers and surveyors found)

      The only logical conclusion is that these people not only shaped their environment, they did it by design.

      I might also add that people really like the old-growth noble fir forests near Marys Peak’s summit. However, I’ve been coring these trees and can find none that pre-date the arrival of the settlers – most are around a hundred years old. In other words, the “old-growth” noble fir that people revere is not very old. Coincidence? I think not.

      I have photos of the summit of Marys Peak with the oldest taken around 1920. What was once an open, north-facing slope near the summit is now a slope completely filled with noble fir. In fact, there is so little of this north-facing slope that remains open that the summit is no longer visible from the north. [The US Forest Service has been removing the “islands” of noble fir that keep cropping up as part of its efforts to maintain the meadow.] {I’d have included these photos if I knew how to attach them.}

      I think it fair to say that, at least in these parts, people probably played a greater role in shaping the landscape in pre-settlement times in a large geographical scale than did Mother Nature.

  9. A few years ago, Bob Zybach in his PhD work, studied the fire patterns of Oregon’s Coast Range – 1491-1951. Yes, this region does have lightning caused fires but, most of the time, rain accompanies the lightning. Given our coastal climate, stand-replacing fires tended to happen every few hundred years. [Because of the infrequent fires, fuels (i.e., downed logs, limbs, snags, rotting trees, etc.) accumulated and, when a fire did start, it became an intense, stand-replacing fire.]

    Since the lighting fires were so infrequent and could not explain the Coast Range forests, Bob asked what the source of these fires was and concluded they almost certainly had to have been set by the indigenous people. Further, he found lots of records by early explorers and settlers to that effect.

    And, yes, there are other means of disturbance besides fire. However, Mt. St. Helens blows up only rarely and wind storms like the Columbus Day Storm (Oct. 12, 1962) are very infrequent and tend to be localized. Floods that reach the tops of ridges and alters the forest are probably not the answer, either.

    West of the Cascade Mountains in both Oregon and Washington, the forest’s climax species are western hemlock and western red cedar (Sitka spruce occupies a very narrow strip along the coast). Thus, the early explorers, settlers, and botanists (e.g., David Douglas and Archibald Menzies) should have described vast hemlock and cedar forests. Instead, they found primarily Douglas-fir, a disturbance-dependent species. These forests were/are so vast that Mt. St. Helens or Columbus Day Storms could not explain them.

    Therefore, Bob looked at why the Indians burned. As I said earlier, these people liked to eat and Bob looked at their foods. He found that most were fire-dependent: bracken fern, hazel, camas (and a few dozen other plants), as well as elk and deer. Their foods simply could not be found in sufficient abundance under the canopy of an old forest.

    All up and down the West Coast, acorns were a critically important food source and, in western Oregon, may have been as much as a third of the native’s food. (Bonnicksen mentions oak and its post-settlement disappearance in the Sierras.) This meant, instead of conifer forests, the Indians wanted oak savannas for the acorns, elk and deer forage, camas, hazel, etc. Towards that end, they frequently burned the Willamette Valley and adjacent foothills and valleys. (In fact, early settlers commonly complained about the lack of grass for their livestock due to the Indian’s habit of burning!)

    In eastern Oregon, (where dry lightning is frequent) it was quite common for the Indians to summer in the higher elevations and, as they left for the winters in lower elevations, set the pine forests ablaze. This was to make the forest safer when they returned the next year by removing accumulated needles, cones, limbs, brush, etc. (i.e., reduce the fuels and lessen the chances of a dangerous lightning fire) and to produce better forage for game. This also kept the forest open which made it easier to hunt and to make it more difficult for their enemies to attack.

    But, with the removal of the Indians in eastern Oregon and now that we’ve been putting out the fires for the past hundred years or so, the forest has been greatly altered. Now, instead of being an open pine forest, it is choked by invading white and Doug-fir. These greatly increase the fuel loading and provide the ladder fuels for stand-replacing crown fires. These suck a tremendous amount of water from the soils and make the forest more prone to stress from drought and susceptible to insects.

    I’d suggest that there is ample evidence of pre-settlement “engineered” forests on a landscape scale. Again, these pre-settlement people liked to eat and, as people have always done (just as we do today), manipulated their environment to better meet their needs.

    I’d also suggest that a hands-off policy of forest management is creating a de-facto engineered forest and is unlike any pre-settlement forest.

  10. Dick, Thank you for taking the time to respond. l find you comments very enlightening. Your background and the logical and historically based information you contribute are very valuable in making this blog a meaningful discussion rather than just a forum for some to spout their personal opinions.

  11. Since we’ve been talking about the Sierras and human management of landscapes, I just now came across this — http://www.perc.org/articles/perc-reports-environmental-policy-anthropocene — What is particularly interesting is an account of a woman who visited the Yosemite Valley some 78 yeas after her tribe had been driven out of the valley. She said, “The wide open meadow of her day was covered with trees and shrubs. She shook her head, saying, ‘Too dirty; too much bushy.’”

    There are links to John Muir’s 1894 writing and to Frederich Law Olmsted’s 1865 report on Yosemite.

    • Hi Dick, I understand that Native Americans had an impact on their environment and one of those impacts was to use fire to clear out brush and trees from around their villages and settlements and perhaps to improve some hunting grounds. Sure, I can think of places in Montana and my home state of Wisconsin where that same type of activity occurred. Seems like it was typically in lower-lying areas that were fairly easily accessible.

      However, I have a hard time understanding or accepting that the impacts of this extended everywhere, across tens and millions, even hundreds and millions of acres. This is especially true in the Western U.S., given the topography, elevation and extreme conditions found in many mountainous areas, where it just so happens in modern times many of our National Forests and National Parks are found.

      In other words, I have a very hard time believing that Native American burning activities impacted the entire landscape. I also have a hard time believing that in the 1800s, or 1500s, or 500s, that we didn’t have drought and dry lighting storms and therefore a fair amount of lighting caused wildfires, which must have gotten fairly large from time-to-time, given the right weather conditions and also the fact that there were no smokejumpers or slurry bombers to help provide initial attack.

      • Here’s another excerpt from Stephen Pyne’s “Where Have all the Fires Gone?” essay:

        What Burning Meant
        How effective were these burns? That, of course, depends. If the land was fire prone, people could easily seize control over it. They simply burned before natural ignition arrived, sculpting new fire regimes, forcing the biota to adjust. The aboriginal firestick became a lever that, suitably sited, could move whole landscapes, even continents. The outcome was particularly powerful where places had the ingredients for fire but lacked a consistent spark. That people supplied. They made flame an environmental constant, which left fuel and climate as the principle variables in determining how extensively fire burned. This is worth repeating: People transformed ignition from chance into choice, from something that was sparked through lightning’s lottery into something as chronic as sunshine.

  12. Bonnicksen’s “Ancient Forests” book is a political document, not one that should be utilized in forest management. His basic message, which is what he was preaching continuously until recently (he seems to have left the lecture circuit), is that we need to get in and actively manage ALL forests regardless of type. This is clearly ridiculous.

    Bonnickson was a paid lobbyist for the timber industry and his opinions should be measured accordingly.

    We have a full analysis of some of his political efforts on our webpage here:

  13. @Matt thank you, it’s a pleasure. I really enjoy these discussions.

    @Steve & @Dick — I think it’s important to go case-by-case (and thanks, Dick, for the Oregon example. Very interesting.) Bonnicksen is so quick to jump from “humans had stone tools” to “humans terraformed the whole planet.” That’s an extremely big leap (or I’d say, a slip 😉

    To take a couple international examples of possible interest: the evidence is pretty solid now that the baseline for pre-colonial Australia was established by large-scale controlled burns used by aboriginal people to engineer a more-verdant landscape. By contrast, in the Amazon terraforming (not just burns, but hydrology-altering earthworks and soil enrichment) was extremely limited in scope, being concentrated along major rivers and leaving nearly all the rain forest undisturbed. Yet now you hear people using Amazon terraforming as a justification for deforestation: “people have always been there, engineering the landscape!”

      • Where were these widespread areas of old-growth pines and bearclover, Larry?

        And why, if they existed, would that prove California Native Americans “expertly managed huge acreages by fire?”

        • The simple existence of a landscape of 400 year old pines, a minimal understory and copious bearclover cannot be accomplished with lightning, alone. For about a 3000 foot elevational swath, throughout the Sierra Nevada, that was the dominant vegetation pattern.

          • A 3,000 foot elevational swath throughout the Sierra Nevada? East or west side? Do you have any documentation that has demonstrated this indeed existed?

            There is some really compelling evidence for ponderosa pine forests that came close to the forest type you are describing in the New Mexico/Arizona region, but I’ve never seen such evidence for the Sierra Nevada.

            • Yes, there is… and because I’m not willing to take the time to do the research, that does not mean that it doesn’t exist. I’d suggest actually reading Dr. Bonnicksen’s books but, you’re clearly not willing to do that. Or, how about reading some historical descriptions of what pioneers found, in the mid 1800’s?

              AND, umm……. I’m pretty sure there is ZERO bearclover in New Mexico/Arizona.

  14. Some time has passed since the last comment was posted. Nonetheless, I will make a few observations …

    As I expected, I stirred up a bit of controversy with this Bonnicksen posting. Some agreed with Bonnicksen while some disagreed; fair enough.

    It became evident that “my” scientist has more credibility than yours, especially if that scientist has the same philosophical leanings.

    That a scientist has any private funding destroys that scientist’s credibility. Of course, that ignores the fact that, given student tuition/fees, endowments, grants, etc., many scientists simply cannot work without private funding. In fact, because publicly funded research has dwindled so much, a recent public radio program questioned whether there is such a thing as a publicly funded university scientist anymore.

    There seems to be a real lack of historical understanding of forests. My feeling is that forests and human civilization are so intertwined that one cannot be looked at without also looking at the other. For example:

    Considerable parts of the Middle East were once forested. (Did you know that, today, Iraq and Saudi Arabia has forests and foresters? There is even a forestry school in Tehran!) However, with deforestation, grazing, etc., it became the barren, dry landscape we know today. As a civilization, Mesopotamia collapsed largely due to siltation that clogged their irrigation canals. Ephesus, a prominent Roman city on the west coast of Turkey was once a bustling seaport; despite dredging and moving the Cayster River to maintain the harbor, due to silt from deforestation, over-grazing, etc., it is now several miles inland!

    After the Romans deforested much of the Italian peninsula, they looked to their neighbors for a source of wood (at least in part, the need for wood led to the Roman Empire) for their baths and to produce silver coins.

    After the Romans took much of England’s forests, the forests regrew until it was discovered that, rather than import iron from elsewhere, the English could produce their own iron. That required great quantities of charcoal and much of the post-Roman forests were harvested again. Because of the great demand for wood for iron production, the peasants found firewood prohibitively expensive and there was an uprising against the king.

    The earliest English settlers in the New World may have come to the Colonies for religious freedom but their financial backers saw the Colonies as a source of wood. Further, a significant reason for the Revolutionary War was that the English king felt the Colonial forests were his and it was his at a low cost. However, the French, always at odds with England, was willing to pay the Colonists a good deal more!

    There seemed to some question about the American Indian managing N. America on a landscape scale. There is ample evidence of the Indian burning prairies to improve bison hunting and, prior to the arrival of the horse, to drive bison herds over a cliff, into rivers to drown, or towards hunters lying in wait. Oregon’s Willamette Valley was burned more or less annually to create/maintain an oak savanna/woodland and to improve forage for game and for acorns, camas, and many other plants as a food source. (Because of the burning, early settlers complained of the Indian’s “habit” of burning and the lack of grass for the settler’s livestock.) In their notes, the surveyors in the 1850s recorded many, many instances of burned forests. In an effort to subjugate the Indians, Kit Carson is known to have destroyed peach orchards in the Southwest. Hernando de Soto described fields of four square miles in the southeastern US. De Soto also described sophisticated settlements of the Cahokians in Illinois and Arkansas. [See — https://www.britannica.com/place/Cahokia-Mounds — for a rendering of a Cahokian settlement and then reconsider whether or not the Indian managed on a landscape scale.]

    Some books well worth reading (you’ll find that some of what we learned in our history classes was just plain wrong and our perceptions of history is sometimes based more on myth than fact):
    1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus — Charles C. Mann
    Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World – Jack Weatherford
    Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England – William Cronon
    A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization — John Perlin
    American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation — Eric Rutkow
    American Forests: A History of Resilience and Recovery, Douglas W. MacCleery, 2002 (first published in 1992 by the USDA Forest Service; 2002 edition published by the Forest History Society)
    The World of the Kalapuya, Judy Juntenen, et al, 2005, Benton Co. (Oregon) Historical Society and Museum.

    • This press release, which I received today, adds to the discussion of Indian influence on fire and forests.

      Understanding Forest Fire History Can Help Keep Forests Healthy
      New study chronicles forest fires in Oklahoma and Tennessee


      COLUMBIA, Mo. – For nearly a century, forest fires have been viewed by scientists and the public as dangerous and environmentally damaging disasters. However, recent research has shown that forest fires are vital to maintaining healthy forests. While people in the western portions of the U.S. experience forest fires often and know of their value, many people on the eastern side of the U.S. do not know of their importance. In a new study, University of Missouri researchers have studied tree rings throughout Oklahoma and Tennessee to determine the history of fires in those areas. Michael Stambaugh, assistant research professor in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, says understanding this history is important for managing and improving the ecology of forests in the future.

      “Many forest ecosystems are fire-dependent, meaning that in order to maintain their health and vibrancy, they must be subjected to fire on a regular basis,” said Stambaugh, who is a member of the Missouri Tree-Ring Laboratory at MU. “By understanding how fire has maintained forest ecosystems in the past, we can determine the best ways to use fire to maintain those forests in the future.”

      To study the history of fire in Oklahoma and Tennessee, Stambaugh examined tree rings from 332 trees in eight different sites throughout both states. Stambaugh found 843 different fire scars embedded within the tree rings and was able to determine when and how often each site experienced forest fires over the last 300 years. He found that despite having a wetter, cooler climate, forests in Tennessee experienced higher fire frequency than Oklahoma. He also found that fires existed in those areas long before Euro-American settlement, showing that fire has been important to those forests for centuries.

      “The history of fire in America also is the history of humans on this continent,” Stambaugh said. “Humans have been here for more than 12,000 years and everywhere we see humans move, we see fires follow or be altered. This has been a constant for so long that forest ecology has become dependent on these fires, if they already weren’t before humans arrived. However, many parts of the U.S., especially in the eastern half of the continent, have not experienced forest fires in more than 150 years because humans have worked hard to prevent those fires. Many of those forests are now suffering because of the lack of fire to help renew the ecology.”

      In order to understand the effects of fire around the U.S., Stambaugh and his fellow MU researchers are cataloging the history of fire by studying tree rings from trees throughout the entire country.

      The study, “Scale Dependence of Oak Woodland Historical Fire Intervals: Contrasting the Barrens of Tennessee and Cross Timbers of Oklahoma, USA,” was published in Fire Ecology. The study was coauthored by MU Associate Professor Richard Guyette along with Joseph Marschall and Daniel Dey of the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station located at MU.

      • “Humans have been here for more than 12,000 years and everywhere we see humans move, we see fires follow or be altered. This has been a constant for so long that forest ecology has become dependent on these fires, if they already weren’t before humans arrived…”

        Glad they put in the qualifier, “if they already weren’t before humans arrived.”

        The desire the see Native American influence in shaping the evolutionary development of plant communities is so strong, that investigators push conclusions beyond the data they collect. A fire scar is great evidence for a fire, but not something one can use to easily determine if that fire was caused by human activity.

        Tom Swetnam has assembled an incredible data set for the Southwest. His conclusion? Native Americans removed fire from the landscape during periods of heavy occupation.

        • “Native Americans removed fire from the landscape during periods of heavy occupation.”

          Because they used so much fuel for fire and building? Bob Zybach has talked about the “fuel breaks” Indians created by collecting downed wood material for cooking/warming fires along travel routes. These linear zones, cleared of much fuel, acted like the shaded fuel breaks modern forest manages have intentionally created.

          • Exactly, Steve.

            The story is pretty interesting.

            According to Swetnam, it all began with the Anasazi when they migrated onto the mesas after being driven from their cliff dwellings around 1300, most likely by drought and the over-exploitation of the arid landscape. The occupation of the out-lying mesa’s dry forests over the next several hundred years caused significant impacts to the land, namely the collection of wood for fuel. This changed the frequent, wide-ranging, low-intensity fires, to smaller, frequent, low-intensity fires.

            Then the Spanish showed up. After two centuries of efforts, they finally wiped out the Pueblo’s ability to resist and resettled them off the mesas and into missions in the canyons and flat lands. Without humans exploiting the forest, the fuel accumulated again (downed wood and grass) and the natural fire regime returned to frequent, large, low-intensity fires.

            Then the Americans came at the end of the 1800s with millions of sheep. The mesas were over-grazed and the grass was replaced by bare dirt. The fires stopped because there was nothing on the ground to carry the lightning-caused flames.

            Then the loggers came. Over a period of 50 years, the forests were heavily damaged, the soil was disturbed, and the canopy was removed, allowing sunlight to hit the ground. The result? The classic doghair thickets of trees so dense that the forests became difficult to walk through. The forests also became less biodiverse.

            Enter the third leg of the abuse – fire suppression. The key learning for me here was that fire suppression was NOT the cause of the damage, as many policy makers and land managers continually claim, but the by-product of altruistic land management policy. Although there was certainly a selfish component, protecting lumber for profit, fire suppression was implemented primarily to protect communities. The government was acting in the interest of the people. This was when the US Forest Service was clearly the good guy, acting to protect the people’s forests from the greed of loggers, ranchers, and land speculators.

            The original damage, in contrast, was caused by selfishness and greed by the business community, facilitated by government inaction. This is conveniently ignored by conservative politicians and their supporters who enjoy rallying against the government and the environmental community as the source of the problem.

            Enter the modern era. We are now confronted by an influence that will overwhelm the rest, climate change. The 20,000+ acre hole within the 2011 Las Cochas Fire in New Mexico demonstrates what a climate-change induced, high-severity fire can accomplish in a forest characterized for at least 1,000 years by low-severity fire. The space is too large for the conifers to come back as they did in the past. The approximate 100 meter regeneration limit for ponderosa pines offers a two to three century forest return model (about 75 years for each 100 meters) IF we had last century’s climate.

            We don’t have last century’s climate.

            By most estimates, around 2050 we will be leaving the known climate envelop and entering an unknown world with a 2+ degree C worldwide temperature increase and all the ecosystem change that will engender.

            What can we do? Reduce carbon in the atmosphere by reducing the burning of fossil fuels. Can we stop large, high-severity fires in low-severity forests? No. Most will continue to rip. But we can re-introduce fire into those ponderosa pine forests that have become a testament to our greed, in an attempt to reduce fire severity to protect and restore a few stands. The challenge is, given the mistrust involving such efforts, can we pull it off?

            Here’s Tom’s paper on the subject:

            • Here’s Figure 2 from Swetnam et al’s “Multiscale perspectives of fire, climate and humans in western North America and the Jemez Mountains, USA.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Published 23 May 2016.DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0168.


              The combined record of fire occurrence from more than 800 sites in western North America shows relatively high fire frequency prior to ca 1900, and a high degree of synchrony in both large and small fire years. The 15 largest and smallest fire years are labelled. A pronounced decrease in fire frequency occurred at the time of Euro-American settlement, coinciding approximately with the arrival of railroads, intensive livestock grazing, removal of many Native American populations, and subsequently organized and mechanized fire fighting by government agencies.

  15. In the late 60s/early 70s, I spent quite a lot of time in San Antonio, TX (US Air Force) which is where I met my wife. Consequently, I’ve been back to SA multiple times over the years to visit her family and old friends.

    Everyone knows about the Alamo but many do not realize that, going downstream along the San Antonio River, there are four other Spanish missions, all within the city limits. All the missions are under control of the National Park Service though all (?) except the Alamo are still actively used as a church. Mission San Jose has a particularly good interpretive center.

    At Mission San Jose there is a great film about the early history of south Texas. The last time I saw this film, it struck me that, much like the natives elsewhere, the natives burned the landscape to maintain the environment in which they lived. Since that time, the land has changed as it became farm and ranch. Today, I suspect there is a lot more prickly pear cactus and mesquite than in ancient times.

    One thing I’ve noted in recent trips is what the locals call “cedar” (I think it is actually eastern juniper (Juniperus virginiana)). When I was there in the 60s, I do not recall seeing any cedar at all though recent trips show there is quite a lot invading the landscape. I suspect, early Indian burning kept the cedar out but, given the absence of burning, cedar has been able to get a foothold.

    If you are in San Antonio, by all means check out the Alamo (it is right down town and near the Riverwalk) but follow the San Antonio River downstream and check out the other four. They are easy to find and the crowds are sparse.


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