Fire–and another failure to listen to Indians

The June exhibit at the Josephy Center was about dams and fish. One of the many things I learned in researching and preparing that exhibit was the ways in which 19th and early 20th century scientists and government officials ignored Indian knowledge about the habits of salmon and all anadromous fish. The progressive white voices of the time—from roughly 1880 until 1938—submitted that Pacific salmon returned from the sea to spawn in any random stream or river that caught their swim. Natal streams were insignificant, and in any case we—progressive, scientific Americans—could better nature with hatcheries. We could more than make up for the tremendous numbers of salmon taken from the Columbia to feed the 60+ canneries that lined the river. So we built hatcheries—on the Columbia, the Willamette, and even, in the early 1900s, on the Grande Ronde and Minam rivers.

Alvin Josephy said on many occasions that the most damaging historical treatment of Indians was not the lies—although there were many, but the continuing neglect of Indians as we, as a nation, constructed the narrative of our past. Indians—their voices and their actions—are missing in the standard histories of schools and academe. And of course in discussions of natural resources.

Fire now dominates the news—and lives—in much of the West. As I write this, 35 miles of the I-5 highway at the California-Oregon border are shut down. There are still smoke warnings in Central Oregon, and we in Wallowa County wait and hope for cool nights and fall rains to beat lightening, human carelessness, and wind to the rank grass and dry forests around us.

The Indians burned, purposefully and regularly, in this country and across the West. They burned to invigorate the soil and enhance berry and root production, to make travel easier, and, we might guess, to guard against large, catastrophic fires as much as they could. I understand that agricultural Indians in the East used low slow regular burns to sequester carbon in the soil. I.e. Across the North American continent, fire was the primary land management tool of the people who lived here prior to the Europeans.

I’ve heard that early US Forest Service employees followed this Indian knowledge for a time, but their voices were soon drowned out by the German-trained foresters from Yale who dominated Forest Service administration—and emphatically discredited by the Big Fire of 1910 that raged across the Northwest. Those western Forest Service employees were denigrated as “Paiute foresters,” and the “10 O’clock Policy” came to dominate Western land and fire management for the next 100 years: All fires should be put out by 10 O’clock the morning after their discovery.

The idea that fire is part of the natural regimen of forests and necessary for forest health has been making a slow comeback, but it is difficult to embrace and implement with 100 years of ladder fuels waiting for their match. And with clear-cutting and over-cutting in some places having left a sour taste and environmental outrage in their wake, a reasonable conversation about how to get to baseline—how to reintroduce fire into the landscape—is proving hard.

So here we are with fish and fire, looking for ways to get things back to where Indians told us they should be all those years ago. But that is not right either; getting back to living with the changing world we are part of, which includes big fires and hurricanes, volcanoes and other natural “disasters”—those major events that change the mostly cyclical world we live in.

There is much talk about “white privilege”; maybe there should be more talk about white hubris.

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Fire–and arrogance

We’re engulfed in smoke in the Wallowa Valley, more smoke than I can remember in my forty plus years living here. I think there have been bigger fires—Freezeout and the Canal Fire come to mind, but there seem to be fires on all sides of us now: fires in the Imnaha country, up Hurricane Creek and the Minam, and some further west and north. Smoke made the super moon more beautiful last night—and the mountains were just a fuzzy outline over gray. This morning we awoke to smoke.
At the fair this week I heard someone say that they should have been able to put out the Hurricane Creek fire when it was five acres, what with helicopters and hand crews. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t know the particulars of that fire, but I have been up Hurricane Creek enough to know how convoluted and wild the place is. Have climbed over sprawling debris left by wind and snow driven avalanches, seen streams change their course. The place seems aptly named.
But the remark stays with me. I think about the Fishtrap session we did on fire some 20 years ago. Stephen J. Pyne told the history of the world in fire, then explained how fire policy in America changed after WW I, when we “made war on fire.” We thought we’d found a moral equivalent of the real war we’d just endured and vowed to put everything out by 10 a.m. the morning after a fire was spotted.
And I think about the University of Washington foresters (sorry I don’t have their names at hand, but can find if someone wants to follow up on this) who have pieced together a history of fire in the Wallowa country that goes back thousands of years. They work with tree rings and cored lake deposits; I recall them discovering 15-year fire cycles in at least part of the country.
We know that the Nez Perce—and most Plateau tribes and many tribes across the continent—burned regularly. They managed an open forest that facilitated growth of roots and berries and game, and later, horses. Nils Christoffersen and Larry Nall at Wallowa Resources are examining the earliest white reports of local forest conditions, trying to decipher those Nez Perce practices with an eye to species and spacing and rebuilding a resilient forest that will serve human needs and accommodate the swings of natural forces.
What was so different about Indian land use practices might not have been the details, but the attitude, theirs being one of accommodation rather than dominion, nudging the spirits and forces that bring rain and snow, wind and fire, wet and dry. As Alvin Josephy and others have said, the most destructive attitude of the Europeans on confronting the Americas was the idea of dominance, that Biblical notion that the rest of everything was put here for the benefit of and at the disposal of good humans.
It seems that scientists were not—are not—immune to that Biblical notion of dominance. The 10 o’clock policy didn’t work, but there is some kind of ingrown belief that trickles down from forestry schools through the general population, that someone, someplace, has a key to make fire policy “correct”—and to put out that five-acre flare-up on Hurricane Creek.
One might even strike a larger note—I love to generalize!—and say that our big cultural failing, our tragic flaw, is the notion that everything has AN answer, as if the world, natural and human and personal, is not one of ambiguity and constant change.

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