Fire and Forest Management:
Casting Light on the Paradigms

by John Salter, Ph.D.

 Anthropologist John Salter has come to the river communities since the late 60’s as observer, resident and friend. He has written extensively about our communities. In this monograph, which we will publish in three successive parts, he contrasts the different approaches to fire by two sets of land managers -- Native Americans for millennia and more recently the Forest Service. Since the beginning we have treasured his visits because they helped us see our own river lives through new perspectives.           --   Editor

 While it is impossible to date with precision, the millennium brought the beginning of the second hundred years of conflict in the forests of northern California.  As is the case throughout the world, the conflict between western concepts of “scientific forestry” and aboriginal forestry continue to be played out on the ground.  When the first white miners arrived on the Salmon and Klamath rivers in 1851 Karuk Indians had lived along these same rivers for thousands of years.  In this time the Indians had developed intricate strategies for managing the forest and for producing in sufficiency the products of the land and rivers. Within a decade of contact by Euro-Americans, Karuk villages had been burned, sometimes repeatedly.  Fire, which the Indians had used benignly to manage the land to their benefit, was now used by powerful invaders to eliminate entire villages. By the early 20th century policies were in place which made outlaws of those practicing traditional land management strategies.

 Throughout the twentieth century, locals, both Indian and nonIndian have commented on the declining quality of the forest. Traditional forest management utilizing fire was replaced with enforcement of the Forest Service no-burn policy of land management. As is always the case in unresolved conflicts resulting from contending values and disparities in power, disagreements between government agencies and the locals have produced a longstanding conflict between what is called scientific forest management and of what makes sense to local people observing the state of the forest. 

 Along the rivers and throughout the world, managing agencies such as the Forest Service hold as their primary objective in working with indigenous people and local communities, a minimal and perfunctory surrender of power and cooperation as may be required by larger impinging political contexts.    In the National Forests of the United States, residents, Indian and nonIndian, have been labeled by federal regulations and strategies as encroachers and, with the first modest signs of resistance, as deadly enemies.  

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