AMY GOODMAN: Governor Newsom said 57% of California’s forests are on federal land, compared to just 3% that is owned by California, the rest privately owned. Today we look at California’s history of forest management and how a century of fire suppression has made the current climate fires even more destructive. Fire is a natural part of life in California. For thousands of years, Native American tribes would regularly burn the landscape to steward the land. But colonization led to the suppression of these tactics and decades of misguided policy.
For more on this history and how a return to Indigenous stewardship of the land could foster greater climate resiliency, we go to Chico, California, where we’re joined by Don Hankins, a pyrogeographer and Plains Miwok fire expert. He is a professor of geography and planning at California State University, Chico.
Can you talk about what’s happening in California now, Trump saying it’s just two words, it’s forest management, and then Gavin Newsom saying, “We also have to weigh climate change in this, but forest management is a major issue.”
DON HANKINS: It’s not just a one-piece solution. Forest management is definitely a part of the problem, although climate change is something that’s happening, and we have to recognize that. I would say that it’s going on 20 years of drought. We’ve had some punctuated time periods with some rain that has come in, but the rain is not enough to saturate the ground and allow for the groundwater recharge that is so important for our landscape to thrive. When we add to that the accumulation of fuels, and the inability to put fire at the scale that it really needs to be, it is a huge part of this problem.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor Hankins, could you talk about the difference between federal policies, on the federally owned lands, and state policies? As Gov. Newsom mentioned, most of the forest is federal land. In fact, almost half of California is federally owned, and 53% of Oregon. How is the federal government dealing with its own policies of managing these forests?
DON HANKINS: When we think about that ownership, that land, that state ownership is not really owned by the state, but a lot of that’s privately owned land. We have a lot of different landowners who are there on those lands. And within the state responsibility area, the SRA, CAL FIRE, under the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, is that entity that has the ability to steward over it. On the federal lands, obviously, Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, etc., all are part of that piece.
There’s different policies in terms of the way that fire is allowed to be used in those places. So, when we think about the federal fire policy aspect, the National Wildland Coordinating Group and other entities within the federal government allow for the integration of policies. Some of those policies include let-burn policies and allow for wildland fire use, whereas within the state, when fires happen, CAL FIRE is mandated to put those fires out.
The bottom line is coming down to the amount of acreage that we’re allowed to see burn on an annual basis. Nowhere are we getting close to the scale of being able to put the type of fires that historically have occurred back into this landscape to mitigate the effects of climate change and make the landscape more resilient.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the history of fire suppression as a tool of colonization? There was a piece in The Guardian where Susan Cagle wrote, “The Spanish were the first California colonizers to prevent indigenous people from burning the land. In 1850, the US government passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which outlawed intentional burning in California even before it was a state.”
DON HANKINS: When we think about the early Spanish colonization beginning in 1769, we have missions that are established along the California coast, and those missions forbade people from setting fires. They saw it as a risk to their infrastructure and their way of life. And put really harsh penalties, upwards of death, to Indian people who were setting fires. That is a way that people have lived in this landscape for millennia. And that began to be removed from the tool box of Native people.
When we add to the [U.S.] colonization, we had policies that also forbid the use of fire by Indigenous populations, and the same kinds of penalties were applied. So, reluctantly people would not be able to set fires if their life was on the line for it. So we see a real decline in the use of fire, and the inability for people to access land to tend to those, which had gone on for many thousands of years, through past climate change events.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what has to happen right now, Professor Hankins? Talk about how you’ve seen the land change with regard to stewardship, and what you want to see happen.
DON HANKINS: Ecosystems that are here have a relationship with fire. If we put that same type of fire that those systems had evolved in back into them and we’re stewarding them in the exact same way, then we’re able to ensure that climate resiliency in those landscapes, but also ensure the biodiversity, the carbon capture and all the other attributes of what we maybe call ecosystem services as part of that, to make those beneficial.
So, in terms of the Delta region in San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, we have a lot of landscape change that has happened. We’ve got a lot of areas under that time period of 1850 to the present that was turned under the plow. So, wetlands, riparian forest, emergent marshes, grasslands, vernal pools, chaparral ecosystems, they all are part of those landscapes, but a lot of those places have been very heavily impacted.
So, one thing that I particularly focus in on in my research is how we can use fire as a conservation tool, which is part of that Indigenous set of ways of burning. California’s valued woodlands, where there’s only like 2% remaining throughout the entire state, that’s an endangered ecosystem. And with small pockets of 100 acres here or 200 acres there, if fire gets into those places, we lose the diversity of those forests. We lose those forests, and we lose the carbon that’s captured in them. So, those are the places that I tend to focus in on in a lot of my work, but that work also then extends from those wetland areas all the way to the tops of the Sierras and the mountains that feed into the system. So, it’s an interconnected and interrelated relationship with fire.
AMY GOODMAN: You have Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, the worst air in a major city in the world. And especially the Native American tribes, what are people doing on the ground?
DON HANKINS: Yeah. Well, it’s a lot of people having to stay indoors at this point. I will say that on my drive down to Chico this morning, I was happy to look up and see the stars. So, the constellations are out there. But I will also point out that within our Native ways of thinking about it, there’s benefits to smoke that we have to be aware of, as well. That includes fumigation. That includes cooling of our streams for salmon, and other things like that. So, while we are dealing with a very toxic load of smoke right now, this is not what our Indigenous fires would have created. This would have been spread throughout the year. So, I think, as a society, we need to get used to a little bit of smoke, but not the level of smoke that we’re experiencing right now, and hopefully never get to this toxic level again.