Forest Service rekindles burn practices with local tribes

Tule River Indian Tribe, Wukchumni, North Fork Mono Tribe, Tachi Yokuts Tribe and more engage in a cultural burn demonstration at Long Meadow on the Western Divide Ranger District. Photo by Tule River Tribal Council Chairwoman Charmaine McDarment. (Submitted by the U.S. Forest Service.)(Submitted by the U.S. Forest Service.)

Forest Service rekindles burn practices with local tribes

SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST – In the early morning on Dec. 19, 2023, in the Long Meadow section of Sequoia National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service joined with members of the Tule River Tribe (Tule) and members from other local tribes to take part in a Tachi Yokuts Tribe (Yokuts) cultural tradition that had not been performed on Forest Service land for over 100 years.

Tule Elder Harold Santos and retired Forest supervisor Teresa Benson piled branches, leaves, grass, shrubs and pine needles and lit the pile on fire, ushering in a new era of relations between the Forest Service and tribal members. The two were assisted in the Yokuts Cultural Burn demonstration by more than 150 members of the Wukchumni, North Fork Mono and Yokuts tribes along with Forest Service employees.

In 2022, the Forest Service and the Tule signed a co-stewardship agreement that incorporated certain tribal practices, including cultural burns. Prior to the agreement, cultural burns took place solely on tribal-owned land in the forest.

Santos said he did not know why the Forest Service stopped the practice on government lands.

“It stopped a long time ago before our time. We know it existed because my father and his father used to do it with the Forestry,” said Santos.

In 1873, the Tule arrived where they currently reside. The Tule River Tribe Reservation was established that year. President Benjamin Harrison established Sequoia National Park on Sept. 25, 1890. Walter Fry was appointed the first civilian administrator of the park in 1914. Two years later, the Forest Service’s predecessor, the National Park Service, took over the administration of the park.

Santos said the Tule inhabited a large portion of the land. He said the Tule extended into the 325,000 acre Sequoia National Monument area. The Monument is in two areas, including the Long Meadow Grove which is south of the Park.

“Our people were way back in the hills taking care of all that area, and when the Forestry took it all over, they fenced us off. So that’s probably when it (cultural burning on government land) quit,” Santos said.

Santos said he did not know how much land the Tule lost after the National Park Service parceled out the property.

“It was a lot,” he said. At present, the Tule maintain about 90,000 acres on their reservation.

Relations between the Tule and the Forest Service began to improve in the late 1990s. Santos attributed this to the two working together to protect the forest.

“We’ve been working together instead of working against each other,” he said.

CULTURAL AND PRACTICAL

William Garfield served on the Tule River Tribal Council and is a tribal relations specialist. Garfield said that while different tribes have different reasons for burning, there is a shared belief among tribes that fire and smoke have a spiritual foundation. There is also a general belief among tribes that fire is medicine.

“There is a cultural belief that fire and smoke open a spiritual connection with our ancestors who watch over the land,” Garfield said.

Santos said burning is both spiritual and practical. The Tule burn in areas where they grow medicinal plants and the plants they use in baskets. He said harvesting the plants requires a slow burn.

“We burn the whole area but don’t burn it hot so we don’t burn the dirt or the roots,” he said. “We bring some other soil and mix it together. In the spring, the growth comes up double.”

Santos said the Tule burns when they need it. He said there are burns in meadows. By burning vegetation, they increase the size of the meadows. But as important are the cultural aspects of burning, Santos added that there are very practical reasons for the practice.

“It’s really important for us to save our redwoods,” he said. “To save our forests from burning. One of the reasons we wanted them (Forestry Service) to do it on the outside, too, is we don’t want a fire to start on their land and come over here.”

He added, “If we all try to do it and try to combat it, then there won’t be big forest fires like in the past.”

Lightning started the 2021 KNP Complex fire in the park. Between 1,200 and 2,400 giant sequoias were destroyed in the fire. In the highest intensity areas of the fire, 100% of vegetation and trees were destroyed.

According to the National Park Service, between 2015 and 2021, six fires burned across groves in the Sierra Nevada. These fires burned over 85% of giant sequoia grove acreage.

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