Fire and Forest Management:
The following is the second part of
a three-part article about native Indian use of fire by John Salter. Salter,
who has a Ph.D. in anthropology, is a long time observer and episodic
resident of the river communities from Forks of Salmon to Orleans. In Part
I, he discussed Karuk land clearing in myth and in practice. He contrasts it
with the burning activities of the early miners and with the no-burn
policies the US Forest Service used to promote tree farming.
According to Bessie Tripp, a Karuk Indian born in1876, the Indian use of fire had a broad range of ecological and social consequences. There were many benefits. Fires cleared brush so game could be stalked silently. They killed insects that parasitize oak trees with a consequent improvement of the acorn harvest. The burning of patches of hazel bushes produced long, straight shoots for basket making. The bushes were given a year to grow and twigs were collected in the second spring following the burning. A quicker result lay in an increased and regularized yield of spring-time food plants due to the fertilizing effects of ash and the destruction of competing cover plants, while the burning of dead grass and litter in the fall encouraged a series of fire related foods such as the bear lilly. Not only the Karuk, but Indians throughout California employed fire in game drives for a broad range of animals including deer, rabbits, rats and antelope, while the nearby Hupa utilized fire in an early fall burning of the chaff remaining from the harvest of wild grass seeds (Lewis 1973:63).
Bessie Tripp recalled her grandfather telling her of an old Karuk saying that the deer lived high up in the mountains and when they came down to the river to live, the day of the Indian on the River would be gone forever. She remarked that she has lived to see this, as deer and bear are now common problems in gardens and fruit trees. In her grandfather's time (starting before the arrival of the miners), small scale frequent burning in the forest resulted in open grassy areas scattered through the forest with early succession browse plants such as ceanothis or deer brush. With the Indian population concentrated along the river taking advantage of the flat habitable land and the annual round of salmon migrations, deer tended to concentrate in the cleared upland openings where food was available rather than being more evenly distributed throughout the forest. Now, with the loss of these man made areas of browse, deer have been driven in their search for food to the same lowland areas populated by humans.
Bessieís grandson, Harold Tripp sees traditional Karuk management by fire as a spiritually informed practice benefiting the watershed as a whole.
too has to be managed. The animals rely on the Creator and humans to
provide a healthy habitat or environment for them to live in. Suppression
of fire has taken this away from them. Fire was one of the Karukís main
management tools. Fire was used to create animal habitat. Fire was used
for healthier tan oak groves. Fire was used to make stronger basket
materials. Fire was used to open certain seeds so that they could
germinate. In the old days there was not tons of fuel on the ground that
would cause fire to burn too hot. Fire would burn cool enough that the
mulch would act as a fertilizer.