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Western Klamath Restoration Partnership Website

Karuk Tribe, Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan, Karuk Tribe, 2019
Excerpted, p. 42-45

The exceptional biological diversity of the mid-Klamath River region Northern California has emerged in conjunction with sophisticated Karuk land management practices, including the regulation of the forest and fisheries through ceremony and the use of fire. Karuk management practices have been interrupted by genocide and ongoing presence of non-Native land management practices. In particular the exclusion of fire has led to radical ecological changes including high fuel loads, decreased habitat for large game such as elk and deer, reduction in the quantity and quality of acorns, and alteration of growth patterns of basketry materials such as hazel and willow. Across California the increasing frequency of high severity fire points to the need to re-examine human relationships with fire.

Karuk People have historically used fire for millennia. While fire can be incredibly dangerous, it is an inevitable part of natural ecosystems, especially in lightning-prone forested areas such as the mid-Klamath. Forested areas in northern California have become adapted to frequent occurrence of relatively low intensity fire from human and natural ignitions for more than the past 1,000 years (Perry et al. 2011, Taylor et al 2016).
Karuk use of fire has been central to the evolution of the flora and fauna of the mid- Klamath (Anderson 2005, Lake 2007 and 2013, Lake et al. 2010, Skinner et al. 2006).

These fire adapted forests burned in smaller overall areas in mosaic patterns with patches of high intensity fire (Mohr et al. 2000, Skinner et al. 2006, Perry et al. 2011). Fire has long been an important tool to manipulate landscape to patch-scale fire necessary for Karuk cultural sustenance and well-being (Lake 2013). Indeed, Karuk culture is directly dependent on mixed fire severity regimes (Lake 2007, Norgaard 2014). Karuk fire management practices include burning at a specific season, frequency, and intensity at a variety of severities. This frequent, low-intensity fire is linked with various fire-adapted vegetation communities and it necessary for the maintenance of cultural resources. Fire is especially critical for restoring grasslands for elk, managing for food sources including tanoak and black oak acorns, maintaining quality basketry materials, producing smoke that shades the river for fish, and more.

The passage of the Weeks Act in 1911 following the Big Burn of 1910, made cultural uses of fire essentially illegal and for the many decades following, less and less burning occurred while more and more vegetation grew. Over a century of policies of fire suppression have created the conditions for the catastrophic, high-intensity wildfires we are seeing today. Warming temperatures and summer droughts further exacerbate these conditions.

In the context of climate change, Karuk tribal knowledge and management principles regarding the use of fire are being utilized to reduce the likelihood of high severity fires. 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 particular, there is increasing recognition of the importance of indigenous burning as an ecosystem process and restoration technique.

Video Transcription:
Text: For thousands of years the landscapes of North America have been intensively managed and shaped through the use of traditional fire.

Leaf Hillman: Fear of fire is what brought us to this place where we are at today, where we really have reason to fear fire.

Text: The Karuk Tribe of northern California is one of many Indigenous nations that use fire traditonally as a tool.

Analisa Tripp: Prescribed fire can be a tool, perhaps the most powerful tool, to combat the impacts of high severity fires.

Text: Prescribed fire clears out the dense brush that would fuel high severity fires.

Leaf Hillman: We have to re-establish a positive relationship with fire. Our knowledge of this landscape and the use of fire to protect our communities, to enhance the resources that we need to survive—it’s here.

Text: Fire suppression is extremely costly and actually leads to more massive wildfires. Climate change is making this problem worse.

Analisa Tripp: People are seeing the benefits of prescribed fire more now than they have in a long time, over a hundred years. When you see it, you realize, ‘oh, it’s gonna be OK.’

Leaf Hillman: The more time goes on that we don’t put fire back on these landscapes at the time and at the scale that we need to, then it’s gonna do it—not on our terms. Fire suppression has failed. Our first response has to be, ‘manage it.’ Not suppress it, but ‘manage it.’

Video Credits:

Video by: Jenny Staats, Bruno Seraphin, Kari Norgaard

Additional video: Deer Creek GIS, ABC News, Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative, The Press Democrat, Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Department, Mid Klamath Watershed Council

Music: Brian Tripp

Leaf Hillman, Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy, Department of Natural Resources, Karuk Tribe
Analisa Tripp, Cultural Technician III, Department of Natural Resources, Karuk Tribe

Financial support provided by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Works Cited:

Anderson, M. Kat. 2005. Tending the wild: Native American knowledge and the management of California’s natural resources. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lake, Frank. 2007. “Traditional Ecological Knowledge to Develop and Maintain Fire Regimes in Northwestern California, Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion: Management and Restoration of Culturally Significant Habitats.” PhD diss., Oregon State University.

Lake, Frank; Tripp, Bill; Reed, Ron. 2010. “The Karuk Tribe, Planetary Stewardship, And World Renewal On The Middle Klamath River, California.” Ecological Society of America Bulletin. 147–149.

Martinez, D. 2011. “Indigenous Ecosystem-Based Adaptation And Community-Based Ecocultural Restoration During Rapid Climate Disruption: Lessons For Western Restorationists.” (June 27, 2012)

Mohr, J. A.; Whitlock, C.; Skinner, C. N. 2000. Postglacial Vegetation And Fire History, Eastern Klamath Mountains, California, USA. The Holocene. 10:587–601.

Norgaard, Kari M., 2014. “The Politics of Fire and the Social Impacts of Fire Exclusion on the Klamath.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 36(1): 73-97.

Perry, D.A., Hessburg, P.F., Skinner, C.N., Spies, T.A., Stephens, S.L., Taylor, A.H., Franklin, J.F., McComb, B. and Riegel, G., 2011. “The ecology of mixed severity fire regimes in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.” Forest Ecology and Management, 262(5), pp.703-717.

Raygorodetsky, G. 2011. “Why Traditional Knowledge Holds The Key To Climate Change.” United Nations University. (December 13, 2011).

Skinner, Carl N., Alan H. Taylor, and James K. Agee. 2006. “Klamath Mountains Bioregion.” In Fire in California’s Ecosystems, eds. Neil Sugihara, Jan W. van Wagtendonk, Kevin E. Shaffer, Joann Fites-Kaufman and Andrea E. Thode, pp. 170–194. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Taylor, A., Trouet, V., Skinner, C., & Stephens, S. 2016. “Socioecological transitions trigger fire regime shifts and modulate fire–climate interactions in the Sierra” Nevada, USA, 1600–2015 CE. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,113(48), 13684.

Vinyeta, Kirsten; Lynn, Kathy. 2013. “Exploring The Role Of Traditional Ecological Knowledge In Climate Change Initiatives.” Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-879. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 37 p. (September 1, 2016).

Whyte, Kyle Powys. 2013. “Justice forward: Tribes, climate adaptation and responsibility.” In Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples in the United States, pp. 9-22.

Wildcat, D. 2009. Red alert!: Saving the planet with indigenous knowledge (Speaker’s corner books). Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum.

Williams, T.; Hardison, P. 2013.“Culture, law, risk and governance: contexts of traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation.” Climatic Change (special issue). (August 19, 2013).