The Indian system

Just about as prescient, and early, of a description of the California wildland fire and forest development problem as you will find:

As regards the growth of young timber—save only among the heavy redwood forests—the number of young trees which within the last decade or two has sprung up, is very great. All the open pine forests, back of the coast, are becoming rapidly stocked with young trees, and much of the open grazing land is rapidly being converted into brush or becoming covered with young saplings—generally Douglas spruce [Douglas-fir] or yellow [ponderosa] pine.

The cause of this increase is unquestionably the cessation of the old Indian practice (formerly general) of running fires through the country to keep it open to facilitate hunting, or in driving game before the flames into enclosures set with snares. Under this system about half the ground was burned over each year, in alternate halves; thereby the open lands were kept free of brush and all growth of young trees was checked in the forests. The older, well matured trees, however, suffered very little, as so little undergrowth could mature between one fire and another, that sufficient heat was not developed to hurt older trees, fairly covered with bark and with limbs some distance above the ground. In fact, the Indian system became in some sense a method of forest preservation, and to it we undoubtedly owe the noble forests which were transmitted to our hands.

We may acknowledge this debt to the red man, although his methods may no longer be available in a growing country studded if only sparsely with improvements. The Indian’s method may not have been an ideal one, but it was a better one in his day and generation than our lack of all method is in ours.

The very growth of young trees, left uncared for as at present, must be to those with the good of the forest at heart, a source of concern rather than of satisfaction. With forest fires running—often twenty in a county at one time—and public sentiment dormant to the extent that, save where individual property is at stake, few take the trouble to put out even such incipient fires as might be killed with little effort, there can be no question but that in the growth of young trees lies the certain guarantee of total extermination of much of our best forest land, within a few years, unless some effectual methods of protection are inaugurated.

Thirty years ago fires ran yearly through the woods, but forest conflagrations were unknown; the large trees standing sparsely scattered, say five to ten to the acre, were unable to transmit fire, and there was little on the ground to burn. Now thousands of young trees fill the open spaces, and a fire started not only destroys the young trees but the patriarchs of the forest also.

As yet the evil has attained no very serious proportions; but so surely as the young growth is permitted and fires not kept out entirely (which will be found a simply impossible matter) fires will occur, which will sweep everything in their path out of existence.

The longer the matter is left to find its own solution the more difficult and expensive of application remedial measures will become. As a means of protection against fires, one effectual method, and only one, suggests itself—the isolation of such forests as it may be deemed essential to preserve, into blocks of moderate area, separated by strips of waste land, wide enough to insure no spread of fire from one belt to another. This done, the forests may be left to grow up densely, if desired, without fear of extensive damage.

Topographical conditions would generally suggest the location of these waste strips. Ridge summits and canon bottoms (especially the former) are natural barriers to fire, being only crossed with difficulty by flames, when free of brush and litter. The lines of watershed on spurs are generally sparsely timbered, and could be easily maintained free of undergrowth, even if not denuded of their trees. As regards the strips which have been designated as waste, they might in many cases be capable of sodding or being maintained in grass, producing range and pasture, and for the rest, the authorized use of fire by duly commissioned persons, duly provided with adequate means of checking the spread of flames, might suggest itself as the simplest, cheapest, and most efficient method.

Of course these proposals only have reference to the public lands, private holdings must remain subject to private management, and such forests as now are held in private hands must survive or perish, as the owner elects. In any event, private holdings, when lying within the lines of districts which it might be wished to treat on the basis proposed, will always cause complication. If anything is to be done at all, it is time to do it now, while the Government owns whole districts free from settlers, and consequently, in this respect, at least, need have nothing but the public interest to consider.

First Biennial Report of the California State Board of Forestry, 1886-1888


3 thoughts on “The Indian system

  1. Very interesting find. I think the concept of the noble savage goes back that far, but it was a vision of harmony with nature, not a claim that the Natives managed something better than the Europeans. Taken to that degree, it must have been a radical claim for the period.
    Fire frequency/response is such a complicated topic! If you tried burning every other year now, all you would have is cheat grass, and everyone would starve.

    • Exactly right Matt, thanks for pointing that out. It could not literally have been 1/2 the acreage burned each year or there would of course have been no surviving reproduction. So some exaggeration there, but the basic concept is right. In fact a fire rotation is defined as the time required to burn some defined amount of land area, but not necessarily to burn every acre therein–some areas burn multiple times before others burn even once.

      I just read Stephen Pyne talking about the disconnection between “scientific” foresters of the early days, like Fernow, many of whom had a very strong German influence where “forests” were intensely managed, like tree farms, and the reality of western NA forests, which were all shaped and formed by fire to varying degrees. They were simply unable to come to grips with the whole fire issue, had no frame of reference for it, and seemingly a very black and white, moralistic attitude. All leading directly to the enormous problems we now face with fire and forest management.

      The story of people like Harold Biswell, and others even earlier, who stood up to this dogmatic crap really needs to be told. They appear to have taken a lot of abuse.

  2. This discussion takes me back to another forestry book I read years ago, “Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares.” The basic premise was that it is hubristic to think that humans can successfully manage forests in a natural state.

    Even claims about Native American forestry via setting fires is viewed through the “management” lens, typically a meme that they were better at managing natural forests than us. And a European will look you in the eye and tell you that they have figured out how to manage their forests (or else they would not have any at all), but that view seems to stem from having never seen an actual, natural forest. Nowhere will you find the simple admission that humanity has universally failed to successfully sustain any natural forest ecosystem under any top-down management approach. It doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, but if it is, we haven’t figured it out yet.

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