Indigenous Fire Practices Work

Fire exclusion policies forced California Indian communities and forest managers to curtail their routine cultural and prescribed burning practices. Despite these policies, Karuk and Yurok basketweavers retained their knowledge, maintained their practices and, most importantly, developed several innovative techniques to replicate fire’s effects on hazelnut to produce essential basketry materials. (Marks-Block 2019)

ARTICLE: Marks-Block, T., F. K. Lake, L. M. Curran. 2019. Effects of understory fire management treatments on California Hazelnut, an ecocultural resource of the Karuk and Yurok Indians in the Pacific Northwest. Forest Ecology and Management 450: 117517.



Before Euro-American settlement, fire was an integral part of many ecosystems in the USA. In some regions, these fires were sparked by lightning during dry periods. Elsewhere, however, indigenous peoples greatly increased the extent of burning, which they used as a tool for the management of a wide range of ecological resources. Many of these resources provided more than just sustenance; they often played key roles in tribal identity.

Starting in the 18th century in the East and the 19th century in the West, a new U.S. federal policy emerged to suppress fires, from both lightning and Indian sources. For Native Americans, long-standing fire management practices were swept away along with other fundamental elements of tribal culture. The consequences of fire suppression have become apparent over the past several decades. Especially in places characterized by frequent surface fires, fire exclusion has led to a build-up of live and dead fuels and changes in forest composition. As clearly described in the Fourth National Climate Assessment (US Global Change Research Program 2018), the combined impact of increased fuels and a hotter, drier climate has led to larger, hotter, more frequent fires, with attendant loss of resources, life, and property, in large parts of the western U.S.

One of the responses to these trends has been a newfound embrace of millennial-old Indian knowledge of fire management. Little-by-little federal and state agencies are partnering with tribes to develop fire management practices that increase the amount of burning, appropriate for particular ecosystems, as a way to combat destructive fires outside the normal ecological range (Long et al. 2018). These changes in policy include Indian efforts at using fire to promote important tribal eco-cultural resources. Tony Marks-Block, Frank Lake, and Lisa Curran (2019) report on one such effort by the Karuk and Yurok Indians in northern California.



A member of the birch family, California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta variety californica) is a multi-stemmed shrub or small tree, native to the Pacific Northwest from California to British Columbia (see lead photo above). It was traditionally used by Indian tribes for food from nuts, dyes from roots, and arrows, spoons, and baskets from stems (Young-Mathews 2011). There is a very long tradition of the construction of a diverse range of baskets from hazelnut (Figure 1). Marks-Block et al. (2019) report that basket constructions in particular “…reflect their artistry skills, cultural significance, and ancestral history and identity as well as bestow respect for these talented basketweavers…”




Figure 1. Basket (center) used for pounding acorns constructed with peeled hazelnut stems (right).  [Photo: Frank K. Lake, USDA Forest Service and Karuk Tribe] (Marks-Block et al. 2019)





Karuk and Yurok basketmakers provided Marks-Block et al. (2019) with detailed descriptions of the use of hazelnut in basketmaking and the ecological and economic changes over time. Straight, unbranched stems are especially sought after. In the past, these were produced in abundance by broadcast surface burning, killing hazelnut shoots, which would then prolifically resprout from the roots, creating many stems conducive to basketmaking. As these practices became rare during the period of fire suppression so did the supply of stems, with reports of prices as high as $1 per stem. The stem supplies for a single cradle, which are especially prized, could run as high as $300. As part of a broader collaboration between land management agencies and the Karuk and Yurok tribes, the authors of this study set out to test alternative ways to promote stem production in California hazelnut.



Marks-Block et al. (2019) collaborated with the basketweavers to test the efficacy of four treatments frequently used to generate new stems: (1) cutting to the ground to stimulate coppicing, (2) broadcast burning across the ground, (3) direct stem burning with a propane torch, and (4) pile burning, consisting of firing a pile of woody debris between the stems of a hazelnut individual. There were also control plots, where no treatment was carried out. This experimental design was informed by several years of work between the researchers and the tribes developing objectives and management plans.

The experiment was carried out in a 10-ha parcel of private land in the Klamath Mountains of northern California on ancestral lands of the Karuk and Yurok tribes in Douglas-fir and mixed hardwood forest with a large understory component of California hazelnut. Stems were remeasured after one growing season and then harvested for comparison across treatments.

Burning produced a statistically significant 7- to 10-fold increase in stem production compared to the control, whereas cutting led to a 4-fold increase (Figure 2). More high-quality stems were produced on shrubs that grew in shadier conditions than those with access to more light. As an important test of the relevance of the experiment to basket-quality stem production, the stems collected by the researchers exhibited similar distributions of stem length compared to those selected by basketweavers.


Figure 2. The number of stems usable for basketry was higher for all treatments compared to the control, especially for the three burning treatments (Marks-Block et al. 2019).


The results of the study carried out by Marks-Block et al. (2019) and their Karuk and Yurok collaborators suggest that these techniques, especially burning, is a practical and effective way to increase the supply of high-quality hazelnut stems for basket construction. Although this study focused on one eco-cultural resource important to two tribes, the result suggests the potential for increased collaboration between tribes and non-tribal land managers across the country, as we try to harness the benefits of fire rather than merely succumb to its climate-induced destructive force.

In a recent paper in the Annals of Forest Science, Marc Abrams and Greg Nowacki (2019) reported evidence that Native Americans in the past 2000 years in eastern North America used fire more than previously thought, prompting Abrams to remark that “I believe that Native Americans were excellent vegetation managers and we can learn a lot from them about how to best manage forests of the U.S.” (Science Daily 2019).



Abrams, M.D. and G. J. Nowacki. 2019. Global change impacts on forest and fire dynamics using paleoecology and tree census data for eastern North America. Annals of Forest Science 76 (1). DOI: 10.1007/s13595-018-0790-y

Long, J., F. K. Lake, K. Lynn, and C. Viles. 2018. Chapter 11: Tribal Ecocultural Resources and Engagement, In: T. A. Spies, P. A. Stine, R. A. Gravenmier, J. W. Long, and M. J. Reilly. Synthesis of science to inform land management within the Northwest Forest Plan. General Technical Report PNW-GTR-966. USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, Portland, OR.

Marks-Block, T., F. K. Lake, L. M. Curran. 2019. Effects of understory fire management treatments on California Hazelnut, an ecocultural resource of the Karuk and Yurok Indians in the Pacific Northwest. Forest Ecology and Management 450: 117517.

Science Daily. 2019. Eastern forests shaped more by Native Americans’ burning than climate change. 21 May 2019.

USGCRP. 2018. Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018.

Young-Mathews, A. 2011. Plant fact sheet for California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica). USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Corvallis Plant Materials Center, Corvallis, OR.



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Andrew Barton

Raised in the southern Appalachians of western North Carolina, Andrew Barton is a forest and fire ecologist, science writer, and professor of biology. His research focuses on how forests are responding to changing climate and wildfires in the Sky Islands of the American Southwest. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Changing Nature of the Maine Woods, and Ecology and Recovery of Old-growth Forests in Eastern North America from Island Press. Drew co-founded the Michigan National Forest Watch and the UMF Sustainable Campus Coalition, and was a key player in the Mt. Blue-Tumbledown Conservation Alliance, which protected 30,000 acres of forestland in western Maine. He teaches courses on ecology, conservation, plants, and forests, as well as a travel course on the ecology of Costa Rica. Ph.D. University of Michigan, M.S. University of Florida, B.A. Brown University

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