The Wildfire Epidemic: Solutions from Data, Tech, & Ancestral Knowledge

Co-hosts Anna & Paloma speak with Dr. Beth Rose Middleton Manning, a Professor of Native American studies at UC Davis, about the importance of cultural burning and Indigenous land stewardship.

The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here

[Dr. Beth Rose Middleton:] My name is Beth Rose, and I am speaking to you from Patwin homelands, at UC Davis, in Central California. I was born and raised about an hour and a half east of here, in Miwok country, up in the Sierra foothills. I myself am Afro Caribbean and Eastern European. 

I’ve been faculty in the department of Native American studies since 2010, so about 11 years now. I graduated from UC Berkeley with a PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, and my focus is on conservation tools, processes, and initiatives that are led by and support Indigenous objectives— self-determination, decolonization, and sovereignty— through a variety of ways. One has to do with conservation easements, Indigenous applications of conservation easements and land trusts. I also work on Indigenous leadership in dam removal and river restoration projects, and on a variety of environmental health related projects that deal with addressing contaminants in the local environment. 

I also have projects and ongoing interest in cultural burning. I just feel very grateful to have been able to learn about cultural burning from North Fork Mono Chairman Ron Goode; from Diana Almendariz, who’s a Nisenan and Wintu elder; and others. They have really been teachers for me about the relationship to fire and the application of fire. They’ve been very generous with our students as well. We’ve developed an initiative together called Keepers of the Flame, whereby students and community members are able to learn more about cultural burning. 

I see a need for more support for cultural burning in California. We have so many forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems that need to be made more resilient. For thousands of years prior to colonization, fire was a key land stewardship tool. After the burn, plants come back stronger and healthier. It introduces students, and all of us who are participating, to an ethic of relationship and care that’s not necessarily communicated elsewhere.

[Anna:] Cultural burning definitely needs more support, and for a long time the practice was banned. How does that attempted erasure play into the wildfire epidemic we’re living through today?

[Dr. Beth Rose Middleton:] I see it as a matter of racism and colonialism. California has endured three waves of colonization: Spanish, Mexican, and American. Each of those waves has involved takeover of Indigenous homelands, and bending those lands to the purposes that Europeans saw fit to impose in those spaces: large agricultural forced labor colonies associated with the missions; broader ranchero agriculture associated with the Mexican period; or, in the California period, both ag and hydro development, along with aggressive mineral extraction with the Gold Rush. 

Throughout all of those periods, there’s a lot of violence toward Indigenous people, dismissal of Indigenous ways of knowing, and really, attempts to remove and eradicate Indigenous people. 

I was recently looking at one of the first laws, if not the first law, passed when California became a state, the 1850 law for the Government and Protection of Indians, and it explicitly outlaws burning in one of the sections. Right from the beginning of the statehood of California, not only is there explicit discussion of eradication of Indigenous people by the first governor, Peter Burnett, but there’s also outlawing of Indigenous stewardship practices that are essential to the maintenance of relationships between peoples and between people and all the other beings in this place.

Ecocide alongside genocide got institutionalized into the laws. We are still trying to undo the layered violence that’s in policy. Without fire, and with a focus on growing species for profits— agricultural species, timber species—  there’s a lack of attention to the way the landscape works, and the way humans fit into the landscape. We see that lack of attention coming back now to hurt us, with climate change and environmental disaster and disappearance of species. 

In another project I’m working on, on dam removals and river restoration, it’s incredible to look at the decisions that were made to reroute river systems, de-water systems, or place barriers and dams, without any attention to Indigenous peoples and to diverse ecology. Certain species of fish no longer even populate the upstream area. 

With restoration, though, we can achieve bringing species back, and part of that restoration is cultural burning. And part of cultural burning is related to raising the water table— in some of these upstream meadows, reducing the amount of vegetation which creates increased fire danger. 

[Paloma:] There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in order to bring nature back into balance. 

[Dr. Beth Rose Middleton:] We need to find as many ways as possible to support Indigenous leadership in restoration. In northern Australia, they are doing some really interesting work in which Aboriginal cultural burning is recognized as contributing to sequestering soil carbon. It is funded through private and government mechanisms, so that Aboriginal rangers are paid to implement cultural burning as a carbon sequestration strategy. It struck me that I wonder if there are opportunities to think about cultural burning as a carbon offset strategy here in California, as it’s thought about in Australia. I am working with a couple of students and we’re in the process of investigating that right now.

[Anna:] I want to clarify something I’ve seen in the broader land management space. There seems to be a lot of talk about prescribed fire, but not necessarily cultural fire, how are they different? And what roles do they each play in land stewardship?

[Dr. Beth Rose Middleton:] Both are extremely important. With the scale of the problems that we face ecologically in California right now, we need both prescribed fire and cultural fire. There are also some areas of overlap between them— like, there are Indigenous led prescribed fire initiatives and crews. It’s really exciting work that’s happening. 

My colleague and mentor Chairman Goode, with the North Fork Mono tribe, he’ll often talk about the deep cultural basis of burning. It could be burning specifically for basketry materials. It could be burning for medicines. It could be burning to restore a cultural place. It could be burning that always starts and ends with a prayer. 

Cultural burning is very relationship-based. It’s a place that you’re caring for, that you’re preparing for fire, then you’re implementing fire for a particular cultural purpose and in a cultural context, and then you’re returning to and stewarding after the burn, and preparing for the next burn. It’s an ongoing relationship. It’s very personal. 

With prescribed fire, it can be agency-led. It can be very broad, large landscape areas, kind of a Western science treatment perspective— applying a certain type of fire to achieve various objectives on the land. You might apply the fire and then never necessarily return to that place depending on funding and cycles and employment, etc. 

I think cultural burning is not something that can be replicated by someone who’s not part of that culture, whereas prescribed fire can be done— and be very beneficial— by local community organizations, agencies, landowners, citizens groups, etc. 

But it’s really getting elevated and getting a lot more attention in state policy. The Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan that came out last January specifically mentions cultural burning. There were two bills that passed in September and October that addressed some liability issues facing prescribed fire practitioners. There’s a lot of good work happening. 

There’s a lot of Indigenous leadership. Amah Mutsun Land Trust, and their work on cultural burning on the Central Coast area, is getting a lot of attention. Fire scientists are collaborating with different Native Nations— I’m thinking of Scott Stevens, in particular, at UC Berkeley. There’s definitely good work happening, more than any other point. 

That said, there’s still a lot of work to be done: at any of these state roundtables or in the agreement between CalFire and the Forest Service to treat one million acres, always ensuring that there is collaboration with the tribes within the homelands that they’re proposing to work within; that native fire crews are implementing that work; that cultural practitioners have the opportunity to develop cultural burn plans in areas where they’re going to be working; that they’re not barred from coming on to those lands— whatever jurisdiction they’re in— to do stewardship and harvest, post-burn. These are all really important.

[Anna:] How does the revival of cultural burning fit into Land Back?

[Dr. Beth Rose Middleton:] I think it’s central. Land Back is about addressing colonial context and history, and the way it’s been institutionalized and glossed over, in how we think about natural resources and conservation policy, in particular. 

It’s about reintroducing that relationship of Indigenous peoples to their homelands. They’ve been pushed out of these areas, but there are lots of culturally important plants here. Oftentimes, people can’t access these plants, or if they do, they have to do so in kind of a sneaky way, because it’s not within tribal jurisdiction. So, how can we change that? Why shouldn’t people be able to have access to the medicines and foods within their homelands? 

And it’s not just about access. In order for those important plants and those whole landscapes to exist, they have to be cared for, they have to be burned, they have to be trimmed, they have to be visited, they have to be sung to. 

To me, that’s what Land Back is about: the ability to continue to have those relationships. Obstacles were created for people to have those relationships, so that needs to be addressed. 

I want to recognize Pam Gonzalez, who’s a Wintu elder, who has been working not only with our department, but also with Davis Joint Unified School District and other local educational institutions to really advocate for Homeland History. Students are not learning, at all levels— K-16 and beyond— about whose homeland they’re in. There’s a lot of disrespect and dishonor involved in the fact that that is happening. We’re involved in initiatives in collaboration with local Native nations to work to address that. 

I think of Sogorea Te Land Trust, which is an urban, Indigenous women- led Land Trust headquartered in the East Bay. I really appreciate their work so much, because it centers Indigenous leadership and yet at the same time it’s also very inclusive of the diverse peoples— Indigenous and non-Indigenous— who live within the East Bay, to educate people about settler history and context and the fact that Indigenous peoples are still here, and still doing all of this important work, and how others can be part of that. Whether that’s through paying the Shuumi Land Tax to local Indigenous peoples, or through participating in protecting culturally important places by stopping development that would desecrate sacred places and ancestral sites. Also, they’re contributing to growing healthy urban spaces and spaces of resilience and connection in urban areas. I really see a lot of potential, future, and strength in that.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is that we really need fire education, from early on in the educational system. Primarily what I learned about fire in the school system growing up, and from the media, was often fear-based: how to make your home protected against fire, how to prepare for an evacuation, etc… Not thinking about fire as a part of this landscape. 

Fire has always been a part of California’s landscape, Indigenous cultural fire, as well as lightning fire. Some species only regenerate here in California if there is fire. We need to be thinking about how we plan— city planning, urban planning, community planning— with fire in mind, so that we’re not building communities in areas that should burn. And if we are living in areas that should burn, how we prepare for and conduct those burns in a way that protects homes. 

When I think about fire today, and I drive through the Sierra foothills and up into the mountains, and I see these densely forested areas and layers of leaf duff on the ground— areas that haven’t burned in years and that have dispersed communities within them— I think, “Gosh, there’s a lot of work to be done.” Because you can’t just apply fire. Any fire that hits those communities now is going to be catastrophic. The vegetation is dry, and there’s so much of it. 

Some of the education needs to be training people, even as young as kids, to be stewards, in terms of raking, piling, and burning— trying to make the landscape more resilient to fire, ready for fire, rather than living in fear of fire.

[Anna:] I feel like your class Keepers of the Flame embodies that spirit. How did Keepers of the Flame come about? What has the experience been like? 

[Dr. Beth Rose Middleton:] Well, I really have to give credit to Chris Adlam, who’s a UC Davis Ecology grad and now a professor in Applied Fire Science. 

I was teaching California Indian Environmental Policy, which is one of my courses. It’s a survey course of various environmental policy issues that Native nations in California are dealing with in a variety of ways. 

One unit was about burning, and I invited Chairman Goode from Northfork Mono to come and speak to the class about his work with cultural burning. He instead invited us to come down for the weekend on his family property near Mariposa to participate in a cultural burn. 

We went, and Chris, who was one of my advisees, came with us and assisted with the class. After that, he said, “We need to make a whole class focused on burning that’s much more field-based,” and I thought, “Wow, that sounds like a lot of work.” But he really moved it forward. 

We were able to develop this course, which now will go into its third year, as a recognized course, Native American Studies 165. It’s garnered a lot of interest— I have probably gotten over 40 inquiries from students for the class this quarter. But I keep it a small group, for the comfort of the practitioners that spend time with the students, especially in this COVID context, and also for safety because we’re working with fire. 

Another student that was involved from the beginning of the Keepers of the Flame project is Deniss Martinez. She’s a PhD student in Ecology, and we’ve been working together for several years. She does work on forest policy, particularly Indigenous engagement with forest policy. She and Chris were really instrumental in the first year of the class and have continued to work on the class. 

She was the lead instructor last year working with Melinda Adams, who’s a PhD student in Native American studies and a soil ecologist. The two of them did a wonderful job leading the class last year and are still involved in the burns and in various aspects of their research as it relates to Keepers of the Flame

It’s grown beyond the class, with support from the Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, to include public-facing workshops on cultural burning. We are able to invite participants from other tribes, from agencies, local landowners, and the public to come and learn about the application of fire. It has really been transformative, very empowering. We’ve had students often come in really steeped in the fear of fire— because that is the culture we have been taught— to really transition to more of an understanding of fire and the colonial history of exclusion of fire and Indigenous land stewardship, and yet the power of Indigenous knowledge today and the generosity of the teachers who have spent time with us, and seeing the way the land has responded.

One of the special aspects of our work has been engaging with the tending and gathering garden at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve, within Patwin homelands in Central California. Because it’s close to campus, the last couple of years we’ve been able to go out there with Diana Almendariz, Pam Gonzalez, and other weavers who are part of the Tending and Gathering Garden Steering Committee, which is an Indigenous-led project growing native plants. 

We’ve been able to go out there and prepare the area for burning and be part of implementing the burn, cleaning up after the burn, doing plantings— being part of a whole cycle— and seeing the positive impacts of low intensity carefully planned and implemented fire. 

I also have to give credit to my husband, Danny Manning, who is also a fire practitioner. He shared with our students how he actually can start a fire with local materials, like some duff from cottonwood, and different sticks. It was pretty neat for all of us to see the way fire can be started, not necessarily with a drip torch or tool like that, but right from the local landscape. 

[Paloma:] Circling back to carbon credits, how did you first get involved in this type of research, and what have you seen as far as involvement or leadership from native tribes?

[Dr. Beth Rose Middleton:] I began investigating carbon credits as much as 15 years ago, when it was an emerging idea that there could be a way to offset impacts of pollution by sequestering carbon elsewhere. I remember presenting about it to a group of high school students who were visiting Feather River College up in the northeastern Sierra. 

We talked about this idea, and they said, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense,” and I thought to myself, “Yeah, it is pretty bizarre, in many ways, to think about the fact that pollution can happen in one area, sickening the residents who live close to whatever the source of pollution is— a refinery, or a factory— but that those gases can be absorbed by certain types of plantings and scale of plantings in another area.” 

I still think there are lots of questions around carbon offsets, particularly environmental justice aspects. Many Native people don’t agree with them as a strategy. Indigenous Environmental Network, which is an incredible organization that I have a lot of respect for, they talk about carbon credits as privatizing the sky, as making the air into a saleable commodity. There are a lot of people— Native people and others— who are opposed to that. It’s certainly not accepted broadly. But there are definitely initiatives, and there are definitely tribes that are participating, and leading and setting a standard for more ethical approaches to carbon offsets. 

As I got a little more into research on offsets, I hosted a meeting with a colleague of mine, back in 2015 at UC Davis, that asked whether or not it was possible to approach the carbon market from Indigenous perspectives and priorities. The Yurok tribe, along with partners in a conservation organization, co-presented about their work to develop carbon offset projects up in Yurok homelands in northwestern California. 

I really wanted to work with them and find out more about how their project works. That started about a four-year process of communication, learning, collaboration, and listening, mainly with their legal office and their forest management side, as well as Western Rivers Conservancy, their main partner, and various other partners that they worked with to develop the project. 

My student at the time, Caitlin Reed— who’s now a professor at Humboldt State University— and I wrote an article, with a lot of support and collaboration from all those partners, and it was published in Stanford Environmental Law Review, about the Yurok tribe’s carbon project. That really gave us a chance to learn about a tribally-led carbon offset project and how it can work.

There are many unique aspects to that project, but there’s something unique about the California market. I think it’s more effective than some other markets in that we have a decreasing cap. Pollution has to already always be going down. It’s not like there’s an unlimited amount of pollution that can be offset; there’s a decreasing cap on total pollution, and then only eight percent under that cap can be offset through these different carbon offset projects. There are a lot more protections in the California system than there are in other places, where I’ve seen willy-nilly offsetting happening without a decreasing cap on pollution, and without attention to what are the impacts where offsets are being sequestered. 

Another really neat thing about the Yurok project is that I feel like the tribe is really in the driver’s seat. They really led the way for tribes being able to participate in generating offsets on California’s market, and then they designed the project— working with a variety of partners, but it’s within their homeland, it’s based on their objectives for land stewardship. So from what I learned about the project, it seemed like a strong example of an exercise of tribal sovereignty.

[Anna:] Carbon sequestration is definitely necessary as a way to mitigate climate change and also to restore the health of the soil, and who better to do it than the people who know the land best. The work that you’re doing, Beth Rose, to advance these efforts is so critical, and I also want to thank you for all you’ve shared with us today.