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Indigenous Land Management Is the Best Answer to the Wildfire Crisis

As drought and climate change make fires worse, officials are returning to Native nations’ time-tested techniques. Returning the land would be better.

Three firefighters torch grasses in a field.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Firefighters participate in controlled burn training—a long-practiced Indigenous method of wildfire control—in 2019.

Last August, as yet another season of historic wildfires ripped through the West and sent plumes of smoke drifting across the continent, reporters and editors everywhere began asking a version of the same two basic questions: Why does this keep happening, and how did it get so bad? They published interviews with the usual suspects—firefighters, Ph.D.-holders, and park employees, many of whom offered one of two basic answers: climate change and colonization.

As the drought that’s dried out much of the West and Southwest has stretched into its second decade, lighter snowpacks in the winter have led to more arid summer seasons that are also growing increasingly hot due in large part to carbon emissions. Only around the turn of the twenty-first century, as the droughts and fires worsened, did land and wildlife managers in the state and federal governments across the country start admitting that the practices American conservationists adopted over the past hundred years—including stringent fire suppression—were likely inferior to controlled burn techniques that Indigenous nations had spent thousands of years perfecting. Few officials or media outlets, in reporting this, took the next step—of advocating not just for the return of those practices but for the return of the land as well.

At the height of the California wildfires last summer, ProPublica published an article asking why nobody was listening to people like Tim Ingalsbe, a former wildlands firefighter who has since gone on to obtain a doctorate in environmental sociology and lobby Congress to encourage the practice of prescribed burns. Ingalsbe told the outlet that overzealous wildfire prevention policies—in which agencies and communities stand against all forms of outdoor fires, including controlled burns—are actually leaving far too much foliage and organic matter on forest floors, essentially providing kindling for what would otherwise be limited wildfires.

The ProPublica article referenced tribal nations just twice throughout the entire piece and never in a modern sense, writing about “tribes” in the past tense. At one point, the piece compared the acreage of controlled burns in “prehistoric” times to the 1980s, with nary a mention of who managed the continent in the interim or how the change in management came about: “Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year.”

As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019, what happened in that vast interim is that Native communities across the continent developed burning practices that allowed for entire ecosystems to thrive. Settlers even initially followed the lead of tribal communities, maintaining the practice into the early twentieth century while dispossessing the Indigenous nations of their lands. Then, after a rash of deadly fires in Montana and Idaho in 1910, Forest Service officials abruptly attempted to snuff out all fires in the region, leading to the advent of the Smokey Bear character and the “Only you can prevent forest fires” public service announcement in the 1940s. The resulting no-burn culture was quickly adopted by landowners, local and state governments, and federal officials during this time—to the detriment of the land itself.

Speaking with KVTL in Oregon this week, Chris Chambers, the Wildfire Division Chief of Ashland Fire Rescue, said that controlled burns have only recently caught on as a regular, seasonal effort. As featured in Wednesday’s “California Today” installment in The New York Times, a recent 26-acre prescribed burn in Modoc County, tucked away in the northeast corner of California, stood out as one of the examples of American government following through and adopting the practice. Prescribed burns fell out of favor, National Forest fuels specialist Mandi Shoaf told the Times, in part because of liability. As the West has grown drier, the potential for a prescribed or controlled burn to get out of hand and cause millions in damages has only increased, which, along with the weather conditions, shrinks the available times for fire officials to conduct the burns. In Shoaf’s early years on the job, it was typical for the department to conduct burns well into June. “Now,” Shoaf said, “we are lucky to get a window late April, early May before fire season really kicks off.”

This is why tribal nations, as well as ranchers, timber companies, and conservationists, back legislation like California’s Senate Bill 332, which would provide legal immunity to state-certified “burn bosses” and private landowners whose lands are used for the burns. The bill was introduced in this year’s state assembly session and has thus far passed unanimously through both the state judiciary and appropriations committees. It is progress. But with California and other states still only burning a fraction of the lands that experts suggest, and with the end of the drought nowhere in sight, the likelihood that the coming wildfire seasons will be any less destructive than those of 2019 and 2020 is slim.

Media outlets and policymakers discussing wildfires and forest management, however, still aren’t foregrounding Indigenous values and sovereign rights. (This 2019 feature from Mother Jones, anchored by the controlled burn practices carried out by the Karuk Tribe in Oregon, is a rare exception to this principle.) They should be, not least because tribal nations that regain control over wildlife and resource management plans, including land, frequently are actually able to build up a healthy ecosystem, be it for butterflies, wolves, humans, rivers, or forests.

As highlighted by The Regulatory Review last December, there are a number of ways not just to return the continent’s forests back to Indigenous practices but to actually return the forests to Indigenous stewardship. The Tribal Forest Protection Act gives tribal nations the power to present policy ideas to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for all federal lands that are adjacent to Native-held lands or communities. Similarly, the Reserved Treaty Lands Rights program allows for tribal nations to partner with private landowners to manage ancestral areas with frequent wildfires. And then there is the extension of the good neighbor authority, or GNA, which was initially crafted to allow state agencies the ability to partner with federal agencies on forest management plans. Three years ago, a coalition of “170 tribes, Native organizations, and allies” successfully pushed for the good neighbor authority to include tribal nations through the 2018 Farm Bill. But according to the Review, as of last winter, only three tribes had entered into such agreements. (In the time since, nations like the Bay Mills Indian Community have signed GNA partnerships.)

The lack of widespread GNA participation is a two-part problem. The first part concerns the continued refusal of state legislatures to ensure their bills and policies actively include tribal nations as partners. Reporting for StreetRoots last month, Brian Oaster found that of the five bills introduced in Oregon’s 2021 legislative session concerning wildfires and forest management, just one specifically called for the inclusion of the state’s tribes—House Bill 2722, which would create a 22-person committee to advise lawmakers on land use and wildfires; the bill calls for just one Native committee member to represent all nine of the tribal nations in Oregon.

The second part of the problem is that the GNA, as currently written, does not allow tribal nations to hold onto the revenue generated from timber on federal lands, meaning that tribes have to fund the maintenance work they do on lands they have been dispossessed of. Cody Desautel, the natural resources director of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, told the Idaho Spokesman that “spending tribal dollars to do work on adjacent federal lands—when they’re funded at three times per acre what the tribes are—is a pretty tough sell to tribal leadership.”

The recent uptick in solutions journalism pointing toward Indigenous practices like controlled burns is a welcome sight, even if media outlets have a long way to go in centering the people whose practices they’re recommending. And while public officials have been slow on the uptake, there is hope that the increase in controlled burns—from Santa Barbara County, California, to Oregon to Washington to Arizona—will stave off the worst of what wildfire season has offered communities in recent years. But if the shift to a more sustainable, less engulfed-in-flames future is going to stick, the conversations that everyone needs to start having must make room for both Indigenous voices and Indigenous power.