Ongoing and future ecological outcomes of climate change in the Mid Klamath region of California include changes in precipitation patterns, increasing droughts, increasing frequency and severity of wildfires, and more significant disease and pest outbreaks (Butz et al. 2015, Garfin et al. 2014, Mote et al. 2014). Among the most pressing of the local dimensions of climate change taking place within Karuk ancestral territory is the increased risk of high severity fire (Lenihan et al. 2008). For the last thousand years, forested areas have become adapted to frequent occurrence of relatively low intensity fire from human and natural ignitions (Perry et al. 2011). These fire adapted forests burned in smaller overall areas in mosaic patterns that contained patches of high intensity fire (Mohr et al. 2000, Skinner et al. 2006, Perry et al. 2011).
The Klamath Basin has experienced a progressive increase in high severity fire in recent years as a result of both climate change and past and present federal land management practices that have led to increased fuel loads (Odion et al. 2004, Miller et al. 2009 and 2012, Taylor and Skinner 2003). Taken together, climate change and past management activities have created landscape conditions that have the potential to transition much of Karuk ancestral territory to an early seral condition that has a tendency to repeatedly burn at high severity (Odion et al. 2010, Cocking et al. 2012). Such circumstances would mean the potential loss of many culturally significant species, in turn causing a domino effect through the entire ecosystem.
While fire is a central component of Karuk management and culture, increased fire severity and frequency poses particular and unique risks to specific Karuk tribal foods and cultural use species on the one hand, and to broader Tribal programmatic goals and activities on the other. As Karuk people we are fortunate to retain relationships with hundreds of species we consider our relations (Lake et al. 2010). These foods, medicines and fibers are embedded within cultural, social, spiritual, economic and political systems, and daily life (Lake 2013, Norgaard 2014). Impacts to culturally significant species in the face of climate change have thus more direct impacts on Karuk people than for communities who no longer retain such intimate connections with other beings and places in the natural world. Yet part of the increased vulnerabilities Karuk people face as the climate changes are a direct result of the strength of these connections. For example, the loss of acorn groves that have been family gathering sites for generations is much more than an economic impact.
We, the Karuk Tribe are working to prevent these circumstances. We are evaluating the potential impacts of climate change in our region and preparing responses to mitigate possible losses (Karuk Tribe 2012, Norgaard 2014a and b,). Changing patterns of fire behavior affect specific Karuk tribal traditional foods and cultural use species, create infrastructure vulnerabilities to Karuk tribal programs and pose broader implications for the Tribe’s long term management authority and political status (Norgaard 2014 a and b). Not only is climate change the result of human activity, humans are integral components of the Klamath ecosystem. Humans have shaped the ecology, fire behavior and species composition of Karuk ancestral territory through tribal traditional management, and since 1910, through the activities of the US Forest Service. Understanding climate-induced vulnerabilities for particular species therefore requires an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates biological and fire science with sociological understanding of human factors. Discussions of habitat zones and species profiles reflect this intersectional dimension to vulnerability.
Vulnerabilities faced by the Karuk Tribe in the context of high severity wildfire do not occur in a vacuum. These vulnerabilities must be understood in the context of existing susceptibilities, as well as the past, present and future management actions of Tribal and non-Tribal land managers. Not only does high severity wildfire hold the potential to negatively affect some species more than others for biological reasons, species with already compromised ecological niches that may have more difficulty in adapting will be at greater risk in the event of large scale, high severity fires. Furthermore, past management actions such as logging, road building and fire suppression interact with fire events to influence the level of eco-cultural vulnerability, as do management actions taking during a fire and those that may follow in the long term. As such, our analysis also considers how past management actions, management actions taken during a high intensity wildfire event, and those that may come in the future may create vulnerabilities for a given species.
Another major dimension of vulnerability related to jurisdictional recognition and its results for tribal management authority and sovereignty. Responding to the impacts of increased high severity fire both during and after the fires requires coordination across jurisdictions with multiple federal and state governmental entities that may or may not understand their consultation responsibilities, carry them out appropriately, have conducted their own climate planning, or included the Karuk Tribe in their climate planning efforts. The resources and actions (or lack thereof) of federal agencies, from the U.S. Forest Service to CalTrans, can impact Karuk tribal vulnerabilities as much as climate change itself. Responding to high severity fire in the context of unrecognized jurisdiction is enormously time consuming for Karuk tribal staff. Unrecognized jurisdiction impacts tribal program capacity and management authority, leading to further unequal burdens for tribes.
Not only is climate change the result of human activity, humans are integral components of the Klamath ecosystem. Humans have shaped the ecology, fire behavior and species composition of Karuk ancestral territory through tribal traditional management, and since 1910, through the activities of the US Forest Service (Crawford et al. 2015). Climate change vividly reveals the flaws of Western economic and environmental principles and practices at the global scale. Western capitalist economies have prioritized profit over well-being, and individualism over community. Many proposed climate change solutions protect the status quo by prioritizing profit and individual responsibility, yet there is also an increasing realization that solutions must be found elsewhere, in alternative, community-based models that prioritize long-term social and environmental wellbeing (Whyte 2013, Dunlap and Brulle 2015). Recognizing tribal knowledge, leadership and management at this juncture allows forward movement at multiple levels.
Fortunately, in the face of the changing climate, many ecologists, fire scientists and policy makers, Native and non-Native alike have turned to indigenous knowledge and management practices with renewed interest and optimism in the hope that they may provide a much needed path towards both adaptation and reducing emissions (Williams and Hardison 2013, Martinez 2011, Raygorodetsky 2011, Vinyeta and Lynn 2013, Whyte 2013, Wildcat 2009). In the context of climate change, Karuk tribal knowledge and management principles regarding the use of fire can be utilized to reduce the likelihood of high severity fires and thereby protect public as well as tribal trust resources (Norgaard 2014). In particular there is increasing recognition of the importance of indigenous burning as an ecosystem component and restoration technique. Fire is especially important for restoring grasslands for elk, managing for food sources including tan and black oak acorns, maintaining quality basketry materials, producing smoke that can shade the river for fish, and more. Karuk fire regimes generate pyrodiversity on the landscape by extending the season of burn and shortening fire return intervals. The multitude of foods, materials and other products that come from Karuk environments are in turn evidence of the profound diversity of fire regimes that are required to maintain relationships with hundreds of animal, plant, and mushroom species (Lake 2007 and 2013, Anderson and Lake 2013). As Karuk Director of Natural Resources Leaf Hillman puts it, “Fire is a cultural resource.”
Tribes have been key leaders in responding to climate change through both so-called mitigation —efforts to stop further climate change— and adaptation — developing responsive measures for coping with the unfolding ecological and atmospheric changes. Tribes can often be found leading the way in climate change policy, strategy and resistance by participating in the political process, engaging in sustainable land stewardship, and being at the forefront of many climate change activism efforts. This Climate Vulnerability Assessment is a first step towards climate adaptation planning. The vulnerability assessment we have developed here is unique in that it holds the potential to inform both adaptation and mitigation efforts, given that wildfires themselves generate emissions (McMeeking et al. 2006, Langmann et al. 2009), and a reduction in high severity fires could result in a reduction in forest emissions. While a detailed Climate Adaptation Plan is needed in follow up to this Climate Vulnerability Assessment, the conclusion nonetheless includes a number of preliminary recommendations.