By Rob Jordan
It costs more than a new iPhone XS, and it’s made out of hazelnut shrub stems. Traditional baby baskets of Northern California’s Yurok and Karuk tribes come at a premium not only because they are handcrafted by skilled weavers, but because the stems required to make them are found only in forest understory areas experiencing a type of controlled burn once practiced by the tribes but suppressed for more than a century.
A new Stanford-led study with the U.S. Forest Service in collaboration with the Yurok and Karuk tribes found that incorporating traditional techniques into current fire suppression practices could help revitalize American Indian cultures, economies and livelihoods, while continuing to reduce wildfire risks. The findings could inform plans to incorporate the cultural burning practices into forest management across an area one and a half times the size of Rhode Island.
“Burning connects many tribal members to an ancestral practice that they know has immense ecological and social benefit especially in the aftermath of industrial timber activity and ongoing economic austerity,” said study lead author Tony Marks-Block, a doctoral candidate in anthropology who worked with Lisa Curran, the Roger and Cynthia Lang Professor in Environmental Anthrolopogy.
“We must have fire in order to continue the traditions of our people,” said Margo Robbins, a Yurok basket weaver and director of the Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council who advised the researchers. “There is such a thing as good fire.”
The study, published in Forest Ecology and Management, replicates Yurok and Karuk fire treatments that involve cutting and burning hazelnut shrub stems. The approach increased the production of high-quality stems (straight, unbranched and free of insect marks or bark blemishes) needed to make culturally significant items such as baby baskets and fish traps up to 10-fold compared with untreated shrubs.
Reducing fuel load
Previous studies have shown that repeated prescribed burning reduces fuel for wildfires, thus reducing their intensity and size in seasonally dry forests such as the one the researchers studied in the Klamath Basin area near the border with Oregon. This study was part of a larger exploration of prescribed burns being carried out by Stanford and U.S. Forest Service researchers who collaborated with the Yurok and Karuk tribes to evaluate traditional fire management treatments. Together, they worked with a consortium of federal and state agencies and nongovernmental organizations across 5,570 acres in the Klamath Basin.
The consortium has proposed expanding these “cultural burns” – which have been greatly constrained throughout the tribes’ ancestral lands – across more than 1 million acres of federal and tribal lands that are currently managed with techniques including less targeted controlled burns or brush removal.