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Native American Tribes Help Preserve California’s Forests


The state of California is reaching out to Native American tribes for help with controlled burns.

Due to the high volume of wildfires California’s forests endure, Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced the Strategic Plan for Expanding the Use of Beneficial Fire. The plan relies heavily on Native American tribes’ knowledge of their cultural practice of controlled fires. 

Reviving Indigenous Cultural Burning Practices 

Gov. Newsom’s environmental plan requests federal, state, and local agencies team up with Native American tribes to reintroduce cultural burning. Cultural burning consists of purposefully set, low-intensity fires that serve as a fire prevention method. 

Further, these fires get rid of fire-starting debris like scrub, undergrowth, and certain grasses, which are prevalent in California forests. By performing cultural burns, the state’s forests will grow more resilient and decrease the likelihood of future wildfires. 

By 2025, Gov. Newsom aims to expand beneficial fire burning practices to 400,000 acres of California forests.

“As climate change continues to exacerbate wildfire conditions, we’re bringing federal, state, tribal, and local partners together to more effectively address the scale of this crisis,” Newsom explains. 

The History Of Controlled Fires 

Native American tribes have used controlled burning methods for thousands of years to clear debris from the terrain and lessen the impact on insects and animals occupying the land. Additionally, controlled burning protects trees and the canopy.

For Indigenous communities, the practice is seen as a way of stewarding the land. 

Also, a critical detail of controlled burning is recognizing all the people, plants, animals, fire, and water involved. Redbird Willie, a land steward assisting Gov. Newsom’s plan, explains all the elements “are members of our community, and we have to treat them with respect and honor.” 

Essentially, controlled burning is a ceremony demanding particular rituals both before and after the fire is lit. “We say prayers and good words to it, and we have good intentions as we light them, and we do the same when we’re putting out the fires as well,” Redbird Willie describes. 

But Native American tribes weren’t always allowed to practice controlled burns.

In 1911, the US government outlawed all burnings in Native American communities. Although such policies were designed to protect the land, they actually achieved in doing the opposite. Also, they stripped Native American tribes of their traditions and a piece of their culture. 

However, Gov. Newsom reviving the practice of controlled burns presents positive growth opportunities for Indigenous communities in the area. Now, their traditions are being respected, encouraged, and appreciated, which holds incredible value for Native American tribes. 

Why California Needs Native American Tribe Assistance 

Gov. Newsom calling on Native American tribes could not have come at a better time, as there is a desperate need for more preservation measures.

California observes about 8,000 wildfires every year, destroying millions of acres of land. Don Hankins, a cultural fire practitioner, says the focus of controlled burnings is conservation. 

Through conservation, California’s forests can revive their biodiversity and improve the ecosystems’ resilience, all while taking climate change into account.

So, by restoring the Native American practice of cultural burning, the Earth can “get things back to the order it once was for thousands of years,” Hankins attests. 

The Long-Term Effects 

Clearly, Gov. Newsom’s preservation plans rely almost entirely on Native American tribes, presenting several long-term positive developments. Not only does it improve the relationship between government agencies and Indigenous tribes, but it offers a chance to rectify past injustices. 

“If you want to rebuild culture and support the Indigenous community, you have to support our fires and what they do for your land,” Hankins says. Other constructive results cultural burning presents include spreading valuable knowledge and encouraging collaboration.

Essentially, Gov. Newsom displays the value of working with Native American tribes and implementing their understanding of the land to promote environmental preservation.

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