Using native Californian land management in current California

By Lauren Lewis

Last year I wrote a post describing the work of M. Kat Anderson, who has delved deep into the ways that native Californians managed the land for their survival, and I suggested that the land management practices of native Californian tribes should be used to address contemporary problems. So now I want to look at whether that’s actually happening, and how. In what ways is modern California using or relearning native land management techniques?

The main issue that comes to mind is fire. Due to decreased precipitation and hotter weather, wildfire season in California has essentially lengthened to be year-round as opposed to concentrated in the summer and early fall. And the fires are bigger, and therefore more destructive, and likely to stay that way as the climate changes and as more people move into fire-prone regions (almost all fires in California are started by human activity). But before the Spanish settled in California, fire was arguably the most important land management practice used by native people. They used regular burns to increase soil fertility, maintain grassland for the plant and animal life it supported, promote growth of important basketry plants along riparian corridors, deter pests, and more. Can we use fire now, like native Californians did, to protect against the highly destructive fires we’re battling?

The idea of using prescribed burns to prepare the land for wildfires is indeed gaining traction, but slowly. Ecologists have begun doing prescribed burns on land preserves, such as the Pepperwood Preserve in Sonoma County, a nonprofit which uses a Native Advisory Council to bring native land management techniques into their natural land protection work. Recent research has shown that using prescribed burns can decrease the destructiveness of wildfires and also may decrease the toxicity of the smoke from wildfires. But the practice faces significant hurdles: forests often need underbrush management first to prevent burns from getting too hot, conditions have to be just right for safety, and wildlands are more and more populated by people who could be put in harm’s way.

As for other kinds of native land management, of which there were many, those techniques have been made unnecessary from a survival perspective by modern farming and manufacturing, but they still hold great value from the perspectives of cultural heritage and species preservation. The reemergence of these plant-focused techniques could be an antidote to the problems of nature deficit disorder and insufficient community connection. The Amah Mutsun Relearning Program at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden is working to build traditional ecological knowledge and test traditional plants and techniques for modern uses. In a much more informal way, we at Small Spot Gardens love to learn about the life-sustaining uses for plants that we now use purely for beauty in the gardens we design. It’s one way we place our gardens in the much greater context of time in the Bay Area.


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