Indigenous knowledge reveals history of fire-prone California forest

News article from Nature. Many foresters knew this, but research backs us up.

Indigenous knowledge reveals history of fire-prone California forest

A collaboration between scientists and Native American tribes finds tree density in parts of the Klamath Mountains is at a record high, and at risk of serious wildfires

“Combining multiple lines of evidence, Knight and her team show that the tree density in this region of Klamath Mountains started to increase as the area was colonized, partly because the European settlers prevented Indigenous peoples from practising cultural burning. In the twentieth century, total fire suppression became a standard management practice, and fires of any kind were extinguished or prevented — although controlled burns are currently used in forest management. The team reports that in some areas, the tree density is higher than it has been for thousands of years, owing in part to fire suppression.”

This is based on a PNAS paper here:


We provide the first assessment of aboveground live tree biomass in a mixed conifer forest over the late Holocene. The biomass record, coupled with local Native oral history and fire scar records, shows that Native burning practices, along with a natural lightning-based fire regime, promoted long-term stability of the forest structure and composition for at least 1 millennium in a California forest. This record demonstrates that climate alone cannot account for observed forest conditions. Instead, forests were also shaped by a regime of frequent fire, including intentional ignitions by Native people. This work suggests a large-scale intervention could be required to achieve the historical conditions that supported forest resiliency and reflected Indigenous influence.

10 thoughts on “Indigenous knowledge reveals history of fire-prone California forest”

  1. “This work suggests a large-scale intervention could be required to achieve the historical conditions that supported forest resiliency and reflected Indigenous influence.” I’m surprised they went this direction with it instead of forward.

      • While historical conditions were originally conceived as a goal for sustainability, the rapidly changing climate has led that to become a reference point instead, not something to necessarily “achieve.” So this language seems dated. The Forest Service Planning Handbook says, “In light of possible changes in species composition under the effects of climate change and with a focus on restoration, the Agency designs plan components to provide ecological conditions to sustain functional ecosystems based on a future viewpoint” (§23.11).

        • In this case, that means losing conifer forest to hardwood and chapparal. These types are more resilient to future conditions. They don’t provide the habitat that a conifer forest does, not to mention other services (carbon). Is this what we are to take as accraptable from that quote?

          • “Accraptable?” “A crap table” could mean “whatever happens,” (as Larry likes to say), but I’m going to answer as if you asked if species extirpation is “acceptable.” I would say potentially yes. 36 CFR §219.9(b)(2) recognizes this possibility for a species when “it is beyond the authority of the Forest Service or not within the inherent capability of the plan” to maintain a viable population in the plan area. On the other hand, the FS can’t just write a species off under either the Planning Rule or (ESA if applicable), so there are probably different ways this could play out. On carbon, I would say that the FS can’t strive for unsustainable ecological conditions to optimize carbon sequestration. I’ve not seen either of these questions discussed much, so you’re only getting my opinion.

          • You take a right turn on a red light. Red light camera flashes, and nails you for running a red light.
            You came to a complete stop. Checked for oncoming traffic. Safely turned right.
            But, you did not meet the cameras definition of a complete and safe stop.
            Now, the city (and private corp) is fining you 600$, despite that you were in the right for the time and conditions in your hometown.

            You have no recourse. No argument. Guilty before trial. Because the planning book and law said you were, despite the facts (to you) otherwise.
            Maybe society needs to decide what it wants? And if so, deal with the consequences.

          • Society did decide what it wanted when the president signed the law, and when the Secretary signed the regulations, in both cases supposedly representing the public interest. A consequence is that your individual definition of a complete stop isn’t what matters.

        • Jon, I think that (some people) thought historic conditions were a goal, while (other people) thought this never made sense as even without “rapid” climate change, time’s arrow has (historically) only gone one way. That’s why the Montreal Process for Sustainability and its Criteria and Indicators do not reference historic conditions as a goal.
          I think there were actually more people around the world who thought and continue to think the latter rather than the former. But perhaps the goal is not sustainability any more and there is a new buzzword? Oh yes, “ecological integrity.”

          • I was speaking from a Forest Service planning framework, where the relevant timeframe for decisions is the life of a forest plan (or potentially less with amendments). Those thinking longer term would be likely to discount historic conditions more.

  2. Did they take into account the amount of forests that has been burned in the last 20 years in the Klamath mountains? Is this just an excuse to continue their summer fire regime for the Klamath mountains? Is this just old news? I haven’t read about tribes promoting more fire in the Klamaths.


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