What Indigenous fire practices can teach us about saving Southwestern lands

What Indigenous fire practices can teach us about saving Southwestern lands


Recent wildfires have caused havoc in the US, disrupting industries and displacing residents. While climate change has accelerated wildfires across the nation, scientists believe that the US Forest Service past policy may be partially to blame. In the 20th century, the agency extinguished all wildfires, even small fires that posed no immediate danger to human lives and infrastructure.

However, for ecosystems to thrive like the one in the southwest, they need some fire. Regular fire helps prevent the forest from becoming overgrown, clears out dead organic matter, and encourages the growth certain plant species HTML1. Over the past decades, forestry managers have tried to replicate wildfire management practices of Indigenous peoples who used to be the primary stewards.

One such practice is to create controlled “goodfire “, also known as prescribed burning. Intentionally burning land parcels helps kill off fuels , such as grasses, small trees, and other fuels that could cause destructive wildfires. Scientists have been examining the impact of cultural burning practices on the ecosystem before the Forest Service’s suppression policy. Southern Methodist University has released a new study that provides new insight into the impact of Indigenous burning practices on the land.

The study, published on December 7 in Science Advances, examined the burning practices of three different tribes native to the southwest and compared it to the size and intensity of historic wildfires. Using tree ring records, the researchers found that prescribed burning served as a buffer for climate conditions from the years 1500 to 1900.

[Related: How we can burn our way to a better future]

The data showed a typical southwest climate-fire pattern: one to three years with above-average rainfall followed by significant drought. The rain allowed for more vegetation to grow. The drought dried the grass, which became fuel that encouraged fire to spread. This happened regardless of whether tribes practiced prescribed or unprescribed burning. The study authors explain that when tribes did burn, this practice weakened the climate linkage. This meant that the size and timing of fires were not as affected by moisture patterns.

“This study is very careful in where it looks, in what period of time it looks at, and how it looks at the fire-climate relationship versus fire frequency, your fire seasonality,” says Christopher Guiterman, study coauthor and fire ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “That to me uncovers a fingerprint of Indigenous management in an way that was not shown before .”

The study was able to break down the fire-use habits of various tribes. The study included three tribes: the Pueblo of Jemez, Navajo Nation and the Apache tribe. Each tribe used fire in a different way depending on their economic and cultural circumstances. The Dine of Navajo Nation used fire primarily for managing their pastures. Fire incidence was lower on land where their sheep grazed. Land that was used as travel corridors, and where grass grows freely, saw a higher incidence of fire. Pueblo of Jemez’s Hemish people used fire in horticulture for clearing fields and reusing nutrients. They also used it for burning shrub patches to usher long, straight resprouted branches into the fields. This is useful for basket weaving. The Ndee of Apache used fire to control wild plants, grow tobacco and drive deer to certain areas.

[Related: Fires can help forests hold onto carbon–if they’re set the right way]

While the area burned was the same after prescribed burning the size of the burn areas varied from periods without prescribed burning. There might be smaller fires than one large wildfire. Christopher Roos, a Southern Methodist University professor of anthropology and the lead author of this study, says that “lots of small, prescribed fires can help reduce climate vulnerability in places that matter to me, whether they are around human communities, or other parts of my landscape.”

a scientist in a white hard hat uses equipment to take data from soil in the middle of a forest
Roos collecting coring samples in the field. Michael Aiuvalasit

Roos believes that Indigenous knowledge and expertise were key to the design of the paper’s prescribed burning practices. The recent study was co-authored by four tribal members. To determine the time period when tribes occupied the land, the team relied upon archaeological evidence of prescribed fire. The record isn’t perfect. For example, the Ndee have left only a small archaeological footprint, but their members claim they have been on the land since infancy. Roos states that “nobody was comfortable with it being assumed that people were absent”, even though there was no archeological evidence. “It’s not periods with no use or periods of presence and absence. It’s periods that are intensively used and light

Roos hopes that the study will provide policymakers with strategies to deal with the increasing number of wildfires in the southwest. Roos says that these Indigenous practices have had positive effects on the environment and people.

” I’m not Indigenous, but my goal is to show decision-makers that Native Americans have managed fire for centuries in these areas.” he said. “These long histories of fire and Native Americans should give us hope, rather than feeling helpless in the face climate and wildfire challenges .”

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