By Spencer Lachman, Collaborative Forestry Management Apprentice
On a recent, brisk October morning, members of the Maidu Summit Consortium, the Sierra Institute, and the US Forest Service gathered just west of Lake Almanor on property recently returned to the Mountain Maidu community. After socially distant introductions, the group gathered around a large sugar pine and listened as forester John Nickerson explained how to establish permanent monitoring sites across the property. Marking the locations where we make measurements, and returning to those spots to re-measure forest attributes helps us monitor changes and understand the effects of forest treatments like prescribed fire.
This 164 acre parcel, now known as the Maidu Forest Property (MFP), is within the boundary of the West Shore Community Wildfire Protection Project. This is a fuels-reduction initiative cooperatively planned by the Sierra Institute and the Lassen National Forest as part of the South Lassen Watersheds Group. The goal of the project is to work across private and public land to reduce wildfire risk and improve forest health. On the MFP, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) will guide land management and facilitate the use of cultural practices like burning debris on the forest floor.
The MFP was previously owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) but in 2003 PG&E agreed to transfer ownership of 140,000 acres of its watershed land holdings throughout the state in exchange for financial bankruptcy relief (Stewardship Council, 2019). These ownership transfers also required the enhancement of ecological and economic benefits derived from the lands and ensured that the new owners would prioritize long-term stewardship.
Realizing the possibility of re-acquiring a portion of their ancestral homeland, nine Mountain Maidu groups and tribes from across Plumas and Lassen counties unified their voice and resources by forming a nonprofit; the Maidu Summit Consortium (MSC). The MSC provided an official legal channel through which the Mountain Maidu community were able to negotiate with PG&E, striving to ensure preservation of Maidu heritage and cultural perspective (Maidu Summit Consortium, 2019).
In September of 2019, this vision was realized and ownership of the nearby Humbug Valley, known to the Maidu as Tásmam Koyóm, was transferred to MSC; followed soon by the MFP. This historic moment represented the culmination of nearly fifteen years of collaboration. It took time to identify common goals for restoration and land management but the properties are now held in a conservation easement between MSC and the Feather River Land Trust (FLRT).
A conservation easement is a legal contract requiring landowners to manage the property for the conservation of cultural and ecological qualities without impeding public benefit or value. Conservation easements restrict certain activities which may significantly modify the character of the landscape, but these terms are defined within the specific agreement. Easements can consider the owners’ values, management goals, and historic uses of the area; facilitating compromise and collaboration.
Conservation easements form the foundation of the work between MSC and FRLT today and are allowing for a legacy of Maidu land acquisition throughout the Feather River watershed. The Maidu Forest and nearby Maidu Trail properties stand out as the latest additions to a growing network of Maidu owned lands in the area which provide spaces for education on Maidu culture and history and restoration of historic forest conditions (Stewardship Council, 2019; Maidu Summit Consortium, 2019).
By utilizing cultural burning practices to restore historic qualities and reduce wildfire risk, the Maidu Forest Parcel will demonstrate how TEK can be integrated into the paradigm of contemporary forest management. We can start by looking to cultural burning for guidance on the expected outcomes of prescribed fire and different means of maintaining forest health. Studies of historic forest composition and fire patterns in the northern Sierra Nevada attribute the diversity in grassland and forest habitat observed by Euro-American settlers of the region to the cultural burning practices of indigenous communities (Fry and Stephens, 2006; Stephens et al. 2007). To re-establish these conditions will not only mean realigning ecological trajectories, but intentionally managing forest resources for the benefit and safety of local communities. Consideration of community impact may also allow land managers to plan more equitable projects which address diverse outcomes for diverse groups of stakeholders.
Here, cultural burning practices can again provide guidance because historically, fire was used to achieve specific outcomes. Indigenous peoples could shape the intensity and severity of fire by considering how fire behavior would respond to seasonal weather patterns, woody fuel density, and fire history. Intentionally lit fires were used to manage forage for game species, clear riparian areas, and fireproof homesites (Fire Management Today, 2000). By reintroducing prescribed fire to the MFP an important step can be taken towards reuniting people with their land and culture. We hope that by integrating TEK into landscape level fuels-reduction projects, fire-threatened communities can also learn to blend ecology with culture and consider the needs of the ecosystems around them while caring for their communities.
- Fry, Danny, and Scott Stephens. “Influence of humans and climate on the fire history of a ponderosa pine-mixed conifer forest in the southeastern Klamath Mountains, California.” Forest Ecology and Management, vol. 223, no. 1-3, 2006, pp. 428-438. ScienceDirect, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112705007620.
- Maidu Summit Consortium. “Tásmam Koyóm.” Maidu Summit Consortium, 2019, https://www.maidusummit.org/new-page. Accessed 02 11 2020.
- Perry, David, et al. “The ecology of mixed severity fire regimes in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.” Forest Ecology and Management, vol. 262, no. 5, 2011, pp. 703-717. ScienceDirect, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378112711002672.
- Stephens, Scott, et al. “Prehistoric fire area and emissions from California’s forests, woodlands, shrublands, and grasslands.” Forest Ecology and Management, vol. 251, no. 3, 2007, pp. 205-216. ScienceDirect, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112707004379#bib12.
- Stewardship Council. “STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL TAKES PART IN MEANINGFUL CELEBRATION AS THE MOUNTAIN MAIDU RECLAIM ANCESTRAL LANDS THAT WILL NOW BE CONSERVED IN PERPETUITY.” Stewardship Council: Land Conservation, 2019, http://www.stewardshipcouncil.org/Users/rwhite/Desktop/SC_Maidu%20Summit%20Press%20Release_FINAL.pdf. Accessed 02 11 2020.
- US Forest Service, editor. “Introduction to Aboriginal Fire Use in North America.” Fire Management Today, vol. 60, no. 3, 2000, pp. 8-11. U.S. Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/legacy_files/fire-management-today/060-3_0.pdf. Accessed 02 11 2020.