From snowcapped peaks down to wooded foothills, the Sierra Nevada range includes nine national forests in Nevada and California. For Native American tribes like the North Fork Mono Tribe, the Sierra Nevada is the ancestral homeland and foodshed, so the area holds great value for sustaining their well-being and culture.
“We’ve been out on the land for 8,000 years and we’ve got artifacts going back 15,000 years. So we’ve got a lot of history passed down through the generations of how to take care of the land,” said the Hon. Ron Goode, Chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe.
In 2014, the Tribe entered into a participating agreement with the Sierra National Forest to restore meadows using indigenous fire stewardship. That agreement was later supplanted by a Master Stewardship Agreement to restore meadows and oaks on the forest.
The Sierra Nevada is also important to anyone who uses its water. Much of California’s water comes from snowpack, which melts and flows through mountain streams and meadows into the lakes and rivers that supply water to farms and cities. Meadows are like sponges which soak up springtime snowmelt and then release it gradually during the dry season. Taking care of the ecosystem has many benefits including sustaining water flows for animals and people.
Fire stewardship and the California black oak
Along with meadows, the Tribe’s work with the Forest Service revolves around the California black oak, which plays an important ecological role in the Sierra Nevada. Black oak acorns are a traditional food source for Native People across California, and collecting acorns remains an important practice. The acorns are also a staple for deer, bears, rodents, and birds, while the trees themselves provide shelter for many species of vulnerable wildlife like spotted owls and fishers, who like to rest and raise their young in tree cavities.
The black oak is well-adapted to frequent fires that were common in the Sierra Nevadas: large trees have bark that protects them from less intense fires, as well as the capacity to quickly resprout new stems after more intense fires. Knowing that burning can keep forests healthy and reduce insects that feed on acorns, Native Americans have strategically lit fires in the forest to facilitate acorn harvest.
Following colonization by Euro-Americans, many black oaks were cut for fuel wood and to make way for conifers that were used for lumber. Beginning in the early 20th century, the Forest Service put out lightning-set fires, in addition to preventing Native Americans from applying cultural burning. Many meadows also became drier due to erosion as roads were built. As a consequence, more conifers are creeping into meadows where they reduce the water and light that oaks and other species need to flourish and bear fruit.
“In 2017, you were lucky to find one producing oak as you drive around a 10-, 25-, 50-mile radius. There were only a handful of trees producing maybe 100 pounds of acorns,” said Goode, adding that the oak trees should be producing 200 pounds of acorns. “Now we have close to 100 if not more seedlings and saplings, because we’ve been burning, pruning, and manicuring—we’ve been taking care of the landscape.”
Since their treatments, more deer and mountain lions have returned to the restored meadows. “The lion leaves a kill in the meadow, and you can see all the different species, from gophers to possums and whatever else is out there, nibbling on the bones and hides. And so everyone is enjoying this ecological renovation we’ve done,” said Goode.
Conservation with Native science
To restore meadows and black oaks, the North Fork Mono Tribe uses several methods. They thin overgrown areas, trim the oaks, and reduce the fuel that could lead to unmanageable wildfires and loss of mature oaks. Clearing meadows also preserves water and provides animals like deer and mountain lions with more food. They cut and pile branches and other fuels and then burn those piles, which makes oaks more likely to survive fires and produce better acorns.
“After burning the pile, we do what we call a mop up. We take all the ash, mix it, making sure to trim the stuff that didn’t burn, then put it in the final pile and burn it,” said Goode. “And then we take the ash and bring in topsoil from outside the burn, mix that, and spread it back out. Instead of gray ash, we now have a brownish looking cover. We wet it down and leave it.”
Rains patter down onto the soil, and by summer, shoots and flowers reemerge, providing long stems for making baskets, foods for insects and people, medicinal plants, and beauty. After the oaks have been treated, they can light understory burns that spread fire over larger areas. The practice of “cultural burning” is different from prescribed fires because it is designed to promote cultural values using traditional knowledge rather than being focused on reducing wildfire hazard.
“The work that’s being done through partnering with the Tribe enriches our understanding of how to care for these systems; that shared understanding is valuable to both the agency and Tribes by promoting forests that are more resilient and productive,” said Jonathan Long, research ecologist for the Forest Service. See links below for several scientific papers born out of this collaboration.
Merely consulting Tribes and trying to document traditional knowledge is insufficient for advancing the interests of Tribal communities. Instead, Tribal partnerships for restoration and research provide opportunities for today’s Native Americans to continue important cultural traditions and help our forests and grasslands flourish as they once did.
“There’ve been a lot of changes in the forests that have reduced their resilience to fires, drought, and bark beetles,” said Long. “Restoring Tribal traditional practices, especially burning, can help restore that resilience, with benefits for all”
For more information:
Long, JW; Goode, RW; Gutteriez, RJ; Lackey, JJ; Anderson, MK. 2017. Managing California black oak for tribal ecocultural restoration. Journal of Forestry 115 (5), 426-434
Long, JW; Goode, RW. 2017. A mono harvest of California black oak acorns. Journal of Forestry 115 (5), 425-425
Long, JW; Anderson, MK; Quinn-Davidson, L; Goode, RW; Lake, FK; Skinner, CK. 2016. Restoring California black oak ecosystems to promote tribal values and wildlife. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW GTR-252. Albany, CA: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station.
Long, JW; Goode, RW.; Lake, FK. 2020. Recentering ecological restoration with tribal perspectives. Fremontia. 48(1): 14-19.
Long, JW; Lake, FK; Goode, RW 2021. The importance of Indigenous cultural burning in forested regions of the Pacific West, USA. Forest Ecology and Management. 500: 119597.