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Good Fire: A Yurok Tribe Response to Climate Change

Melodie R Meyer


  • Addresses how the Yurok Tribe is now attempting to use traditional fire practices as part of their climate change response.
  • Analyzes how prescribed fires are utilized to increase climate resiliency by aiming to prevent uncontrollable wildfires that put Yurok communities at risk.
  • Delves into the complex jurisdictional hurdles that tribes must navigate when attempting to complete fire prevention projects.
Good Fire: A Yurok Tribe Response to Climate Change
Jose A. Bernat via Getty Images

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Several tribes have adopted adaptation plans and mitigation strategies in response to the climate crisis. These responses incorporate traditional ecological knowledge that seamlessly blends the most current scientific methods with time-honored cultural practices and ceremonies. Due to climate change, wildfires have increased across North America and have significantly impacted the unique landscapes of the Pacific Northwest that support temperate rainforests and coniferous forests. The Karuk Tribe, Yurok Tribe, and Hoopa Valley Tribe of this region have long utilized cultural burning to protect their lands. Despite historical and ongoing legal obstacles to cultural burning, the Yurok Tribe has continued to use traditional fire practices and is now attempting to use it as part of their climate change response. The Yurok Tribe continues to push for legislative and regulatory changes to expand cultural and prescribed fires in California. Community-based, grassroots programs in partnership with the Yurok Tribe serve as a model of tribal sovereignty being exercised to protect indigenous communities from disproportionate impacts of climate change.

Climate Impacts in the Pacific Northwest

The forests of the Pacific Northwest have always benefited from and adapted to fire. The benefits of fire include thinning forests, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor, allowing new saplings to grow, clearing out clutter to prevent dry kindling from building up over time, breaking down nutrients for richer soil, clearing out invasive species or diseases, and grassland maintenance that supports elk and deer populations—further adding to biodiversity. Indigenous people have been using fire to interact with and care for their environments since time immemorial. Climate change threatens these balanced ecosystems by increasing the frequency and magnitude of wildfire.

Out of the 20 largest wildfires in California, five of the six largest burned during 2020. Top 20 Largest California Wildfires, Cal. Dep’t of Forestry & Fire Prot. (Cal Fire) (Jan. 13, 2022). Not only is the average wildfire season longer than it used to be, but the number of annual large fires in the West has tripled—burning twice as many acres. Although human activities are usually responsible for sparking the fires, three climate change–related impacts have led to drier forests that are more susceptible to uncontrollable wildfires: rising temperatures, earlier snowpack melt, and less rain. Rising temperatures, a key indicator of climate change, evaporate more moisture from the ground, dry out the soil, and make vegetation more flammable. Winter snowpacks are melting about a month earlier, meaning that the forests are drier for longer periods of time. Shifting meteorological patterns, a phenomenon linked to human-made climate change, can drive rain away from wildfire-prone regions. It is also important to note that increased wildfires are due to not enough prescribed or cultural burning. When a forest goes too long without fire, it becomes too dense with little local variation in forest type or age. Forests that are dense and uniform are more vulnerable to large, high-severity fire and insect outbreaks. Climate change can act as an amplifier, increasing wildfire frequency and extent.

For tribes, too much wildfire and uncontrollable burning cause negative health and environmental impacts. Homes and entire communities can be burned down within a matter of hours. Significant amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere, and the smoke causes severe air-quality issues. Poor air quality is a major concern for tribes as reservation communities are already at a higher risk of disease and cancer. Anecdotal information of Yurok Tribal elders and Tribal members with health complications passing away abound after each fire event. Yurok Tribe Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Water and Aquatic Resources 2014–2018, at 7.27. At the very least, these excessive particulate releases are contributing factors to some of the adverse health effects reported during and after wildfire events.

In the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, where summers rarely produce extremely hot temperatures and winters are exceptionally wet, frequent wildfires destroy the delicate ecosystem balance. Warmer temperatures brought on by increased sunlight support the expansion of invasive plants and insects and tree diseases into forest areas that may already be stressed because of drought and other climate-induced changes. Normally, a healthy forest ecosystem has a chance to bounce back after a wildfire; with the increase in wildfires and other stressors, these ecosystems do not have a chance to recover. Wildfires can also damage important riparian vegetation, which in turn increases erosion and turbidity in the Klamath River and its tributaries. This leads to poor drinking water and conditions that are unsuitable for salmon, sturgeon, lamprey, and other aquatic species. If a wildfire destroys trees in a forest, this also increases temperatures, which in turn worsens drought and quicker snowpack melting.

It is easy to see the cycle of negative impacts to forests caused by climate change–induced wildfire, but for non-indigenous people it can be harder to see the correlation between the historical displacement and genocide against indigenous peoples and these environmental impacts. Like many indigenous nations, the Yurok Tribe’s culture and survival involve stewardship of and connection to its lands, waters, and other natural resources/relatives. The Klamath River, the Pacific Ocean, and Yurok’s ancestral lands provide the Yurok people with traditional aquatic and harvestable foods. The Yurok Tribe also depends on Redwood trees, Guardians for the Yurok people, to build dugout canoes and homes. All these resources/relatives are negatively impacted by climate change. Facing climate change, Tribal members are primarily worried about loss of culture. For indigenous peoples, the fear of losing culture, including a healthy relationship with plant and animal relatives, is terrifying and overwhelming.

The Yurok Tribe and Cultural Burning

Research confirms what tribes have known all along: Low-intensity burns on designated parcels, under the right conditions, reduce the risk of out-of-control wildfire by consuming dead wood and other fire fuels within forests. Cultural burning and prescribed fires are long-established management traditions for the Yurok Tribe. these kinds of burning are prime examples of indigenous stewardship that result in rich biodiversity. Cultural burning ensures a healthy supply of basket-weaving materials, keeps hazelnuts and acorns free from pests, and rejuvenates grasses consumed by large game like elk and deer. Prescribed fires are utilized to increase climate resiliency by aiming to prevent uncontrollable wildfires that put Yurok communities at risk. Twentieth century suppression of cultural burning and prescribed fires in general have contributed to forest that are overstocked with trees and overgrown with brush, leading to decreased water yields from forests to streams. By decreasing the fuel loads and helping prevent small fires from becoming larger, devasting ones, cultural burning and prescribed fires could increase the climate resilience of ecosystems and people. Grassroots community organizations led by Tribal members have been leading the reintroduction of this traditional practice, which was once banned. Thus, for the Yurok Tribe, the resurgence of cultural burning is also about reclaiming a way of life violently suppressed with the arrival of white settlers in the 1800s.

The Cultural Fire Management Council

The stated mission of the Cultural Fire Management Council (CFMC) is “to facilitate the practice of cultural burning on the Yurok Reservation and Ancestral lands, which will lead to a healthier ecosystem for all plants and animals, long term fire protection for residents, and provide a platform that will in turn support the traditional hunting and gathering activities of Yurok.” Cultural Fire Mgmt. Council, (Dec. 16, 2021). The CFMC is partnered in its efforts with the Yurok Tribe, the Karuk Tribe, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, Terra Fuego Resource Foundation, Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, Cal Fire, and The United States Forest Service. Another of the CFMC’s key partners is the Nature Conservancy. Together the CFMS and Nature Conservancy lead TREX, short for Training Exchange, which is a program sponsored by the Nature Conservancy’s Fire Learning Network (FLN). TREX is described as “a novel program that provides training and learning opportunities for wildland fire professionals while at the same time furthering the long-term objectives of FLLN landscapes. . .[E]vents include daily burning and give trainees a concentrated dose of prescribed fire experience as well as exposure to new people, places and techniques.” The CFMC utilizes TREX to bring good fire back to Yurok land in a way that emphasizes cultural resource management and healthy communities. Although CFMC;s goals are to return to traditional tribal land management strategies, TREX is an avenue that builds local capacity to return good fire to the landscape in a way that operates within the current legal framework.

An Abbreviated Timeline of Cultural Burning Policy in California
1850 The U.S. government passes the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which outlawed intentional burning in the territory of pre-statehood California. Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, Cal. Stats. ch. 133 (1850).
1920s California bans all forms of traditional burning practices, mainly to preserve timber profits.
1968 After realizing that no new giant sequoias had grown in California’s unburned forests, the National Park Service changes its prescribed fire policy. The Forest Service follows suit in 1978.
2013 The Weitchpec/Wo-tek Local Organizing Committee revitalizes traditional burning practices by organizing a five-acre cultural burn to revive a source of hazel sticks for basket weaving.
2014 Six Rivers and Klamath National Forest partner with the Karuk Tribe and nonprofits to release a plan endorsing prescribed burns.
2015 The Cultural Fire Management Council is established and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection approves a small cultural burn on Yurok Land. The Cultural Fire Management Council later allies with Karuk and Hoopa Valley Tribal members and the Nature Conservancy to create the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, which has expanded into Oregon, Minnesota, and New Mexico.
2021 California’s Climate Adaptation Plan calls for Cal Fire to establish a direct funding program for tribal governments to support cultural burning.

Legal Landscape and Obstacles to Tribal Hazardous Fuels Reduction

There are currently several legal and social obstacles to not only cultural burning, but any type of fire prevention on behalf of tribes in California. One obstacle to fire prevention is the complex jurisdictional hurdles that tribes must navigate when attempting to complete fire prevention projects. A key document that governs fire management of any kind in California is the Master Cooperative Wildland Fire Management Agreement (Agreement). This is a negotiated agreement between federal agencies and Cal Fire and is meant to efficiently distribute resources and responsibilities for fire management across California regardless of jurisdictional boundaries. This is an important process, as wildfires cannot be expected to stay within one jurisdiction’s boundaries and it is more helpful to assign a geographic area to an agency ahead of time. The Agreement allows for the creation of Direct Protection Areas that can be managed by any agency, but each agency still has to comply with federal and state law. There are several laws that uphold the Agreement, but the key ones include the Reciprocal Fire Protection Act of May 27, 1995, and the National Indian Forest Resources Management Act of 1990.

Collaboration between federal and state agencies on fire protection is a positive effort, but the federal government maintains strict default oversight for forest planning that encompasses fire management on tribal lands. The Reciprocal Fire Protection Act provides that federal agencies that provide fire protection for federal lands may enter into a reciprocal agreement with any fire organization (private or public) for mutual aid in fire protection. 42 U.S.C. § 1856(a). Thus, this is the primary statute that encourages federal agencies to collaborate with Cal Fire. The National Indian Forest Resources Act applies to tribal trust and tribally owned fee lands and was originally enacted to protect tribes from trespass and unauthorized logging on tribal forest lands. 25 U.S.C § 3202. The Secretary of Interior is charged with management of Indian forest lands, either directly or through grants under the Indian Self-Determination Act. 24 U.S.C. § 3104. “Indian forest land” means Indian lands, including commercial and noncommercial timberland and woodland, that are considered chiefly valuable for the production of forest products or to maintain watershed or other land values enhanced by a forest cover, regardless of whether a formal inspection and land classification action has been taken. 25 U.S.C. § 3103. The National Indian Forest Resources Act and its implementing regulations at 25 C.F.R. § 163.11 require that forest management plans are created for all Indian forest lands and approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). It is interesting to note that while BIA consults with tribes on the creation of forest management plans, these plans are not created by tribes themselves and require BIA approval. In contrast, tribes may submit an integrated resource management plan that covers fee lands, but these must also be approved by BIA. Indian Forest Management Handbook 15. Prescribed fire is prohibited unless approved under a forest management plan, even if a fire management implementation plan already exists. Although not referenced under the Agreement, National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act review are required for any forest management plans on federal and state land, respectively, and can apply to individual cultural or prescribed burn projects as well.

Under the current Cooperative Fire Protection Agreement between BIA and Cal Fire, Cal Fire is responsible for fire suppression on Indian trust lands (except where tribes have agreed to take on this responsibility), including the Yurok Indian Reservation, but not fire prevention measures such as hazardous fuels reduction. BIA also does not provide direct funding for tribes to develop fire prevention programs. Under the National Indian Forest Act, there is still a requirement for BIA-approved forest management plans before a cultural or prescribed burn is conducted. With this much oversight, there is little incentive for Cal Fire to perform fire prevention on tribal land and little room for tribes to be involved in negotiations on fire planning. Tribal capacity to engage in fire planning at the government-to-government level depends on staff and funding, and tribal involvement is not mandated by law. Thus, there is virtually no funding or resources to complete hazardous fuels reduction on tribal lands in California.

The state of California has no official policy of working directly with tribes on hazardous fuels reduction, and the current California regulatory process for cultural burning is not clear. In general, a tribe or an individual must obtain a permit from Cal Fire to burn on private property located on tribal land. The process becomes less clear for cultural burns on state-owned lands or federal lands that may trigger environmental review or greater regulatory oversight—which can be cost prohibitive and time consuming. Cal Fire can also shut down cultural burns if it deems there is a wildfire risk, even if burn practitioners believe conditions are suitable for the burn. Another hindrance to prescribed burning and cultural burning is the amount of training time required to be certified by Cal Fire as a State Certified Prescribed-Fire Burn Boss, as there should be increased culturally integrated training and mentorship for these positions so that more indigenous trainees can earn the certification. Finally, local opposition to cultural and prescribed burning presents an additional obstacle. Many non-native residents living within a tribe’s ancestral territory have an ingrained fear of fire and smoke that inhibits the widespread use of cultural burning.

What the Future May Hold: Legislative and Regulatory Solutions

The legislative and regulatory solutions that would increase the success of cultural burning programs, like the one CFMC has, revolve around increasing the exercise of tribal sovereignty through participation in current fire management programs on a government-to-government level and providing direct, nongrant funding to tribes to increase culturally integrated fire management planning.

To increase tribal participation in current federal fire prevention programming, federally recognized tribes should be invited to participate in the negotiations between BIA and Cal Fire for any Cooperative Wildland Fire Management Protection Agreement. Direct Protection Areas (DPAs) are intermingled and adjacent lands delineated by boundaries regardless of jurisdictional agency. Wildland fire protection responsibility in these areas is negotiated, created, and agreed to by the administrative units of either the federal agencies or the state. For areas not identified in a specific DPA, protection of those lands reverts to the landowner. Every acre in California requires a responsible authority within the statewide DPA designation, including the designation of responsibility areas for entities not part of a Cooperative Wildland Fire Management Agreement. There should also be more collaboration between BIA and Cal Fire to provide direct funding to tribes for fire preparedness and prevention programs and to assume responsibility over DPAs. Currently, neither tax dollars nor direct funding is allocated to preventing fires on private lands within tribal reservations. Funding should be allocated based on a tribe’s projects and land base. Giving tribes more authority over fire prevention is critical to making communities safer and ecosystems healthier.

Tribes need to be able to have full authority to implement fire prevention, fuels reduction and vegetation management, and prescribed and cultural fire projects on tribal lands, including on- and off-reservation tribal co-managed lands, and other state, federal, and private lands within the ancestral territories. Due to the landscape-scale needs of most tribes, the amount of required funding, resources, technical support, and personnel cannot be overstated. States should directly fund tribes to develop culturally integrated spatial fire management plans on tribal lands and adjacent federal, state, and private lands within their historical ancestral territory. Based on the success of its Geospatial Information Technology department and all the support it offers to the Yurok Tribe’s projects, the Yurok Tribe will be utilizing geospatial information systems technology to produce spatially prioritized, strategic objectives and management requirements for wildfire suppression and prevention on its Tribal lands. In what appears to be a move to support tribes and rectify California’s past bias against cultural burning, the draft California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan (a part of the 2021 Climate Adaptation Strategy) proposes to provide direct funding to tribal governments to support cultural burning programs.

To be able to develop fire management plans, tribes also require more streamlined state, federal, and tribal regulatory processes over cultural burning. Currently, laws such as the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Endangered Species Act impede restoration projects and cultural burns and infringe on tribal sovereignty in the process. One potential solution would be to develop exemptions in federal and state law for tribal governments to conduct burn projects and clarify the current regulatory process applicable to cultural burns, as well as the ability for tribes to conduct cultural burning outside their reservations to protect resources and communities within ancestral lands. Cal Fire Burn Boss training that is inaccessible to tribal members due to the complexity and length of the time it takes to become qualified could be remedied with education on and support of cultural burn training that could supplement existing trainings. To further implement cultural and prescribed burning within and outside the current regulatory framework, the Yurok Tribe plans to assemble the guiding principles and lessons learned by the CFMC on burning practices and integrate these lessons into the Yurok Tribe’s natural resources planning.

Research to study the impact of prescribed and cultural burning on riparian and forest resources is necessary. Tribes may seek to incorporate cultural burning more seamlessly into their management plans by utilizing the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act, and specifically the Indian Trust Asset Management Demonstration Project. Under the Demonstration Project, tribes engaged in forest land management on trust lands may apply to participate. If selected to participate, tribes may submit an Indian Trust Asset Management Plan (ITAMP) for the management of tribal trust assets. An approved ITAMP allows tribes to develop tribal forestry regulations and assume certain approval authority that is currently held by the secretary of the Department of the Interior. This would allow tribes to deal with environmental laws internally and decide if their actions have an impact on the environment, allowing more flexibility with cultural burning and less state and federal intervention.

Cultural burning (utilizing good fire) is just one step towards adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change. Luckily, the Yurok Tribe’s members have fought to keep it alive. For cultural burning to be effective, it must be implemented on a consistent basis and larger scale. If tribes partner together to push the state and federal government to recognize the tribal sovereign authority to do more cultural and prescribed burning, the result will be healthier ecosystems and climate resiliency for all parties impacted by climate change–induced wildfires. Tribes must continue to take the lead in California, and across many states, on cultural and prescribed burning by asserting sovereign authority to steward their tribal ancestral landscapes.