Indigenous tribes take control of the fire

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Usually, if a prescribed burn gets out of hand, it is because of inexperience. But among the Karuk, Yurok and Hupa the knowledge of fire runs deep and now that the laws are changing this knowledge can finally be applied. Preston attends an annual fire management training program, TREX, in his hometown of Orleans. The two-week program attracts approximately 80 to 100 participants, who learn how to spray water, create fire buffer zones, and determine safe temperature and wind conditions for managed fires. In the end, crews conduct a prescribed burn over a few hundred acres of forest. Trained youth teach their parents their new skills, bridging generational gaps where traditions have been lost (federal policies separated Karuk children from their families for “re-education” in the early 1900s).

Getting to this point took a lot of work. In 2009, a previous collaboration between the Forest Service and the Karuk collapsed when a ceremonial trail was damaged by loggers. During discussions, the Karuk emphasized the importance of this trail, but the requested protections were never included in the Forest Service’s logging contract. Resentment set in and all parties ended up in court, where the contract was ordered to be rewritten with cultural protection in place.

Around this time, Randy Moore became the Regional Forestry Officer for the area’s Forest Service. Moore grew up in Louisiana and moved to North Dakota to work with natural resources. “I was shy and reserved,” Moore recalls, and he stood out as an African American man. “I didn’t think anyone wanted to know what I was thinking. What made a difference to me was when people invited me to join the conversation.

Moore remembered this feeling when he started working in the Klamath River area. To restore confidence, he hired two Hupa members, Merv George and Nolan Colegrove, to his team. “They were both highly skilled,” says Moore, “and I really mean it.” In 2013, the Karuk and NGOs led the formation of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership, with members including indigenous peoples, the Forest Service, landowners and fire safety boards. The Nature Conservancy facilitated the mishmash of interests through public workshops, from which emerged the first pilot project at Somes Bar. He just received $ 5 million from Cal FIRE, in addition to other funding from the Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

On July 27, about 40 people gathered around a table placed at Camp Creek in the forest outside of Orleans to watch the Forest Service sign the project implementation plan. “We had elders crying their eyes. They never thought they would see that day, ”says David Medford Rubalcaba, who leads Karuk’s integrated fire and fuel management program and is responsible for the Karuk work teams that will carry out the project. “There are still people around here who think the natives are savages. But Western science is catching up. They finally realize that Native Americans had this [forest management] knowledge throughout.

One day, Rubalcaba hopes they will manage the entire 1.4 million acre area that includes the Karuk Aboriginal lands, almost all administered by the Forest Service today. But in the near future, they want to at least clean up enough brush and forest waste to be safe enough to perform the ceremonial burning for Karuk’s World Renewal Ceremony at Offield Mountain. Ceremonial burning has been absent for over a century.

American Indians across the United States are now reaching out to Tripp, Rubalcaba and others in the Klamath River, wondering what chances they have for similar partnerships. Many tribes in different parts of the country are at odds with local authorities, from state agencies controlling reserve water resources in Wyoming to oil and gas companies threatening to disrupt reserve lands in Oklahoma. Rubalcaba offers them some advice and some hope: “Washington, DC, look what’s going on here; They’re up-to-date. If you can’t get your local agencies to help you, what about Congress or your governor? If you can’t build it with them, go higher, go to Washington, go to the media. You will have someone’s ear. Talk to the other tribes, find out which ear they have. But don’t wait, don’t waste time.


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