Thinking like a Paiute

I first heard about “Paiute forestry” twelve or fifteen years ago, when we spent a Winter Fishtrap weekend at Wallowa Lake talking about fire. Paiute foresters were Westerners who had picked up on the Indian practice of regular, low level burning of forestlands to keep shrubs and dense regeneration under control.

Indians had learned over millennia that regular fire ensured abundant grasses and root crops as well as easy travel. After the Plateau tribes got horses, about 1730, the grasses were especially welcome. But by 1920 the Forest Service, dominated by European and Eastern, Yale-trained foresters, thought the practice “wasteful,” and derisively dubbed its advocates who worked for the Forest Service “Paiute foresters.”

The Forest Service emerged as a separate entity in 1905. The new agency would manage “forest reserves,” land that had already been withdrawn from the public domain in 1891, eventually to be supplemented by other lands—mostly Eastern forest remnants—purchased from the private sector for erosion control and stream protection.

The first Chief of the newly named Forest Service was Gifford Pinchot, whose wealthy family had endowed Yale University’s Forestry Department with great attention to European forestry practices. Pinchot advocated scientific forestry and strong public private partnerships in managing forests for the long-term health of all forests. My reading is that he envisioned a kind of Jeffersonian usage by yeomen foresters of public forestlands. Small and local loggers and mills would manage public timber for their own and the public’s long-term benefit. Pinchot was Chief from 1905-10.

But in August of 1910, a huge firestorm blazed across three million acres of Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The “big burn” and WW I would impact Forest Service and fire policy for decades.  The burn’s role is obvious; the War and all its horrors led many to see in firefighting a “moral equivalency” to war, a way for young testosterone to be made useful as boys became men.

There was another change in the Forest Service stance as well.  After Pinchot—and his White House advocate for sustained natural resources, Teddy Roosevelt, moved on, economic utilitarianism became its guiding principle. In 1920, the third Chief, William B. Greely (also a Yalie) wrote in “’Paiute forestry’ or the fallacy of light burning” that

“If surface burning is not stopped, the end is total destruction just as complete and disastrous as       when a forest is consumed in a crown blaze that kills everything at once… If the only solution lies in the uninterrupted destruction of young growth by light burning, we had better harvest our mature stumpage without more ado and then become a wood-importing nation.”

I.e., The Big Burn had been an economic disaster, and even light burning was wasting a natural resource which sustained the forest industry. That view held the fore for over half a century; in 1978 the Forest Service finally abandoned “fire exclusion” in favor of mixed management techniques, including the Paiute practice of light burning.

Today, with the Malheur siege ended, as we think about the Burns-Paiute calm call for the long term health of their millennial homeland, and look over their shoulders at the Malheur Refuge and the vast Harney County landscape, what else might we see?

The birds, fish, and wild four-leggeds throughout the region who need and often share land comfortably with domestic agriculture and ranching; in Harney County, the ranchers, BLM employees and Tribal representatives who are searching for long-term solutions to use and management of resources;

In Klamath Country, another group of ranchers, utility managers, and tribal members working towards compromises on fish, farming, and economies;

And we see the water in Flint, Michigan, where children are reeling with lead poisoning as bureaucrats chase blame for a cheap budget fix that resulted in contaminated water—water being the resource that sustains almost all natural resources;

And the water quality in the state of Iowa, where lead and agricultural contaminants make much of the water in the entire state unsafe, and lobbyists find more value in corn and ethanol than in community health;

And prisons and camps for refugees run for profit—directly and in the building and staffing of government facilities—rather than as parts of systems that make safety, rehabilitation, and immigration fairness state and national goals for the entire body-politic;

And the school buildings in Detroit that are crumbling as teachers, students, and parents struggle to educate a next generation of Americans;

And other school buildings, roads, and bridges that are not roads to riches for the entrepreneurial class.

Maybe it’s time to listen to the Paiutes—and to Indian voices across the land that still speak for fish, water, air, space, and a notion of property as something other than profit center;

Maybe Malheur and Paiute forestry will become symbols for listening to the land and each other, Indian and non-Indian, city and country, young and old, farm and factory, rich and poor. We are all in this together.

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