Working with tribes helps oak groves and grasslands thrive as they once did

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From snow-capped peaks to forested foothills, the Sierra Nevada mountain range includes nine national forests in Nevada and California. For Native American tribes like the North Fork Mono Tribe, the Sierra Nevada is the ancestral homeland and food basin, so the region holds great value in maintaining their well-being and culture.

Tribal eco-cultural restoration efforts in the Sierra National Forest have focused on the tall oaks and adjacent grasslands by thinning conifers and restoring low-intensity fires. Photo credit: Jonathan Long.

“We have been on the earth for 8,000 years and we have artifacts dating back 15,000 years. So we have a lot of history passed down from generation to generation on how to take care of the earth,” said Hon. Ron Goode, president of the North Fork Mono Tribe.

In 2014, the tribe entered into a participation agreement with the Sierra National Forest to restore the grasslands using indigenous fire management. This agreement was later superseded by a Master Stewardship Agreement to restore the meadows and oaks of the forest.

The Sierra Nevada is also important to anyone who uses its water. Much of California’s water comes from the snowpack, which melts and flows through mountain streams and grasslands into lakes and rivers that supply water to farms and cities. Grasslands are like sponges that absorb snowmelt in the spring and gradually release it during the dry season. Caring for the ecosystem has many benefits, including maintaining water flows for animals and humans.

Fire Management and California Black Oak

Besides the grasslands, the tribe’s work with the forest service revolves around the California black oak, which plays an important ecological role in the Sierra Nevada. Black oak acorns are a traditional food source for the native peoples of California, and collecting acorns remains an important practice. Acorns are also a staple food for deer, bears, rodents and birds, while the trees themselves provide shelter for many vulnerable wildlife species such as spotted owls and anglers, who like rest and raise their young in tree cavities.

Black oak is well adapted to the frequent fires that were common in the Sierra Nevada: large trees have bark that protects them from less intense fires, as well as the ability to sprout new stems quickly after more intense fires. Knowing that burning can keep forests healthy and reduce the number of insects that feed on acorns, Native Americans strategically started fires in the forest to facilitate the harvesting of acorns.

Participants in one of the North Fork Mono Tribe cultural burns led by Ron Goode clear and pile brush around oak trees at the Jack Kirk site, while a basket weaver (right) gathers long shoots from the previous year’s burn. Photo credit: Jonathan Long.

Following colonization by Euro-Americans, many black oaks were cut down for firewood and to make way for conifers which were used for lumber. Beginning in the early 20th century, the Forest Service extinguished fires caused by lightning, in addition to preventing Native Americans from enforcing cultural burning. Many grasslands have also become drier due to erosion as roads have been built. As a result, more and more conifers take hold in grasslands where they reduce the water and light that oaks and other species need to thrive and bear fruit.

“In 2017 you were lucky enough to find one producing oak while driving within 10, 25, 50 miles. There were only a handful of trees producing maybe 100 lbs of acorns,” Goode said, adding that the oak trees should produce 200 pounds of acorns. “Now we have close to 100 seedlings and saplings, if not more, because we burned, pruned and manicured – we took care of the landscape .”

Since their treatments, more deer and cougars have returned to the restored grasslands. “The lion kills in the meadow, and you can see all the different species, from gophers to opossums and whatever is out there, munching on bones and skins. And so everyone appreciates this green renovation that we’ve done,” Goode said.

Conservation with Indigenous Science
To restore grasslands and black oaks, the North Fork Mono Tribe uses several methods. They thin out overgrown areas, prune oak trees, and reduce fuel that could lead to unmanageable wildfires and the loss of mature oak trees. Clearing grasslands also conserves water and provides more food for animals like deer and cougars. They cut and pile branches and other fuels, then burn those piles, making the oaks more likely to survive fires and produce better acorns.

“After burning the pile, we do what we call a cleanup. We take all the ashes, mix them, making sure to cut off what hasn’t burned, and then put them in the last pile and burn them,” Goode said. “And then we take the ashes and bring in topsoil from outside the burnt area, mix that up and spread it out. Instead of gray ash we now have a brownish looking cover. We wet it and leave it.

Participants in the cultural burn at the Jack Kirk site feed the burn piles under the oak trees. Photo credit: Jonathan Long.

The rains fall on the ground, and in summer the shoots and flowers reappear, providing long stems for making baskets, food for insects and humans, medicinal plants and beauty. Once oak trees are treated, they can ignite understory burns that spread the fire over larger areas. The practice of “cultural burning” is different from prescribed fires because it is designed to promote cultural values ​​using traditional knowledge rather than focusing on wildfire risk reduction.

“Working in partnership with the tribe enriches our understanding of how to care for these systems; this shared understanding is valuable to both the agency and the tribes in promoting more resilient and productive forests,” said Jonathan Long, research ecologist for the Forest Service. See the links below for several scientific articles born from this collaboration.

It is not enough to consult with tribes and try to document traditional knowledge to advance the interests of tribal communities. Instead, tribal partnerships for restoration and research offer Native Americans today the opportunity to continue important cultural traditions and help our forests and grasslands thrive as they once did.

“There have been a lot of changes in the forests that have reduced their resistance to fires, droughts and bark beetles,” Long said. “Restoring traditional tribal practices, particularly burning, can help restore this resilience, with benefits for all”

For more information:

Long, JW; Goode, RW; Gutteriez, RJ; Lackey, JJ; Anderson, MK. 2017. California Black Oak Management for Tribal Ecocultural Restoration. Journal of Forestry 115 (5), 426-434

Long, JW; Goode, RW. 2017. A mono-crop of black oak acorns from California. Journal of Forestry 115 (5), 425-425

Long, JW; Anderson, MK; Quinn-Davidson, L; Goode, RW; lake, FK; Skinner, CK. 2016. Restoring California’s Black Oak Ecosystems to Promote Tribal Values ​​and Wildlife. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW GTR-252. Albany, CA: United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station.

Long, JW; Goode, RW.; Lake, FK. 2020. Refocusing Ecological Restoration with Tribal Perspectives. Fremontia. 48(1): 14-19.

Long, JW; lake, FK; Goode, RW 2021. The Significance of Indigenous Cultural Burning in Forest Regions of the Western Pacific, USA. Forest ecology and management. 500:119597.

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