Scientific paper says Native fire management techniques were better for Oregon forests

09.13.2018 Dean Rhodes Culture, History, Natural Resources

A new scientific paper authored by The Nature Conservancy and its partners is shining a spotlight on traditional Native American burning of forestlands before Euro-American settlement of southern Oregon and how it was a better than modern-day forest management practices.

“The findings of this study are important for considering the historical role that Tribal burning had in contributing to past fire regimes, and for increasing the public’s and resource managers’ awareness of how working with Tribes on forest restoration and restoring fire as an eco-cultural process can benefit society and the environment today,” said Frank Lake, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Researchers examined 100 trees scared by more than 200 fires dating back to 1650. They found that diverse dry forest stands from across the Rogue River Basin survived repeated fires and that fires returned on average every eight years with 90 percent of fires returning within three to 30 years.

The research also found that half of all historical fires burned in the spring or fall instead of at the height of summer wildfire season. Frequent fire and cool season burning ended in the research stands between 110 and 165 years ago.

Loss of frequent fire in the 1850s corresponds with Euro-American settlements and the forced displacement of Native Americans, which ended their well-documented cultural burning. In addition, researchers found that fire regimes were disrupted by 1906 in more remote areas.

“These local fire-scar data from Ponderosa pine, mixed conifer and mixed evergreen forests sharpen resolution of burn patterns and reveal similarities in fire regimes in diverse dry forests across the Siskiyou, southern Cascades and northern Sierra Nevada mountains,” said lead author Kerry Metlen, a forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy.

The study could help current-day forestland managers, said Forest Service Northwest Research Station research ecologist Paul Hessburg.

“The findings of this paper match well with other studies in dry forest ecosystems,” Hessburg said. “Frequent fires created fuel-limited systems, with open forest canopies and clumped tree distributions. These conditions are readily restored and an excellent bet-hedging strategy for the coming wildfires and a steadily warming climate.”

Bill Kuhn, an ecologist with the Rogue River-Siskiyou and Umpqua national forests, said the research proves that modern-day exclusion of fire in forests has led to large fires during the hottest times of the year, making suppression more difficult, dangerous and costly.

“This makes the case for using fire in cooler spring and fall months, along with significant fuels reduction work, to prepare our forests for a changing climate,” Kuhn said.

“This research identifies what we as Native people have always known; our ancestors burned the land to improve it,” said David Harrelson, Grand Ronde Cultural Resources Department manager.

The Nature Conservancy paper was published in the journal “Forest Ecology and Management.”