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Native Use of Fire

biotaNative Use of Fire

The use of fire for game, rangeland, and forest management by pre-historic Native Americans is a much-debated topic among researchers and land-use scholars. Below are some representative views:


Source: Pyne, Stephen J. 1982. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 79-80.

"The modification of the American continent by fire at the hands of Asian immigrants was the result of repeated, controlled, surface burns on a cycle of one to three years, broken by occasional holocausts from escape fires and periodic conflagrations during times of drought. Even under ideal circumstances, accidents occurred: signal fires escaped and campfires spread, with the result that valuable range was untimely scorched, buffalo driven away, and villages threatened. Burned corpses on the prairie were far from rare. So extensive were the cumulative effects of these modifications that it may be said that the general consequence of the Indian occupation of the New World was to replace forested land with grassland or savannah, or, where the forest persisted, to open it up and free it from underbrush. Most of the impenetrable woods encountered by explorers were in bogs or swamps from which fire was excluded; naturally drained landscape was nearly everywhere burned. Conversely, almost wherever the European went, forests followed. The Great American Forest may be more a product of settlement than a victim of it."


Source: Swetnam, T. W., and C. H. Baisan. 1994. Historical fire regime patterns in the Southwestern United States since AD 1700. Pages 11-32 in C. Allen, ed. Fire effects in Southwestern Forests. Proceedings of the Second La Mesa Fire Symposium. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report RM-GTR-286, Los Alamos, New Mexico, p. 29

"...[F]uel and climate were primary driving and regulating forces in pre-settlement fire regimes. It is likely that Native Americans set some of the fires that are documented in our fire-scar records, but these fires would not have burned over large areas if the fuels had not been present, and in the condition (e.g., moisture content) necessary for spread. Fundamentally, we argue that ignition sources (or amount of ignitions) were ususally not limiting--fuels and related climatic conditions were. Hence, it is unnecessary in most cases to invoke human-set fires as an explanation of cause of fire regime patterns in the Southwest. We contend that, even if humans had never crossed the land bridge from Asia to North America, historical fire regimes in most southwestern forests would still have been similar in most respects to the fire regimes that we have documented...[W]e do not deny the fact that people strongly influenced fire regimes in some places and some periods, but we emphasize that the role and importance of native Americans in pre-settlement fire regimes in the Southwest were very site and time specific, and not ubiquitous."


Source: Arno, S. F. 1985. Ecological Effects and Management Implications of Indian Fires. Pages 81-86 in James E. Lotan, et al., ed. Proceedings, Symposium and Workshop on Wilderness Fire: Missoula, Montana, November 15-18, 1983. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. p. 82-83.

"Sagebrush (Artemisia spp.)-grass communities cover a large parto of the semiarid Intermountain West...On the more productive sites--those that are relatively moist and have well-developed soils--sagebrush dominance often appears to have resulted from past grazing and fire suppression. Grassland may have dominated those areas until the late 1800's. By that time, however, heavy domestic grazing had reduced grass vigor, giving sagebrush the competitive advantage; heavy grazing also removed fine fuels and thus prevented fires from spreading. In contrast, before the introduction of livestock, fire was relatively frequent...Many of these fires were apparently ignited by Indians, and fire's effect was to havor grass relative to most kinds of sagebrush and bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), mountain-mahogany (Cercocarpus spp.), and most other shrubs...

"Pinyon and juniper woodland...sometimes occurs in a mosaic pattern with sagebrush-grass, occupying the stoniest soils, where fires spread poorly and competition from grasses and shrubs is minimal...Pinyons and junipers can survive light surface fires but are killed by wind-driven crown fires. Indian fires no doubt often spread into pinyon-juniper woodlands and also kept the trees from invading the adjacent sagebrush-grass communities...[B]efore the introduction of domestic livestock in the mid-1800's, fires may have occurred at 15- to 90-year intervals, maintaining open or patchy stands in areas where woodlands have since become very dense. Tree densities have increased in many areas and undergrowth is so sparse (as a result of shading as well as past grazing) that surface fuels do not support fire. Thus, these stands now can burn only under extreme conditions--hot dry weather and strong winds. This woodland type receives large numbers of lightning ignitions, and Indian use and travel through it was substantial, probably resulting in many fires in the past...

"Frequent surface fires...were characteristic where ponderosa pine was abundant...Indian fires were common; their frequencies probably equaled or exceeded those of lightning fires i some of these forests. Frequent surface fires kept stands open and parklike, and numerous 19th century travelers remarked that it was easy to ride horseback through them without a trail."


Source: Lewis, H. T. 1983. Why Indians burned: Specific versus general reasons. Pages 75-80 in James E. Lotan et al., ed. Proceedings, Symposium and Workshop on Wilderness Fire: Missoula, Montana, November, 15-18, 1983. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, p. 79.

"...Indians did, or course, harvest large numbers of plants and animals that they influenced with burning. It was, after all, a hunting-gathering management program, not a fire management program."


Research:

Native Americans and the Environment. A comprehensive survey of twentieth century environmental issues facing Native Americans on the Colorado Plateau and throughout the Southwest, including discussions of agriculture, logging, mining, grazing, water rights, and tourism. Adapted from a published journal article by David Rich Lewis.

Changed Southwestern Forests: Resource effects and management remedies. Over 150 years of occupancy by northern Europeans has markedly changed vegetative conditions in the Southwest. Less fire due to grazing and fire suppression triggered a shift to forests with very high tree densities, which in turn contributed to destructive forest fires. Options to deal with these changes include prescribed fire, thinning and timber harvest to mimic natural disturbances and conditions. However, there are barriers to implementing these activities on a scale large enough to have a significant benefit. Adapted from a published journal article by Marlin Johnson.

Fire-Southern Oscillation Relations in the Southwestern United States. A close linkage between fire and climate could diminish the importance of local processes in the long-term dynamics of fire-prone ecosystems. The structure and diversity of communities regulated by fire may have nonequilibrial properties associated with variations in global climate. Successful prediction of vegetation change hinges on a better understanding of climatically driven disturbance regimes and the relative contributions of regional versus local processes to community dynamics. Adapted from a journal article by Thomas W. Swetnam and Julio L. Betancourt.


References and Resources:

Anderson 1990, Arno 1985, Boyd 1986, Bowden 1992, Cronon 1985, Gruell 1985, Pyne 1982, Williams 1989, Williams 1994

Arno, S. F. 1985. Ecological Effects and Management Implications of Indian Fires. Pp. 81-86 In: James E. Lotan, editor. Proceedings--Symposium and Workshop on Wilderness Fire: Missoula, MT, November 15-18, 1983. General Technical Report INT-182. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Ogden, UT.

Aschmann, H. 1977. Aboriginal Use of Fire. Pp. 132-141 In: Environmental Consequences of Fire and Fuel Management in Mediterranean Ecosystems: Proceedings of the Symposium. General Technical Report WO-03. USDA Forest Service, Washington, D.C.

Dennis, J. G. 1985. Role of Indian burning in wilderness fire planning. Pp. 296-298 In: James E. Lotan, editor. Proceedings-- Symposium and Workshop on Wilderness Fire: Missoula, MT, November 15-18, 1983. General Technical Report INT-182. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Ogden, UT.

Dieterich, J. H. and Hibbert, A. R. 1988. Fire history in a small ponderosa pine stand surrounded by chaparral [in central Arizona]. In: Krannes, J. S., editor. Effects of Fire Management of Southwestern Natural Resources: Proceedings of the Symposium, Tucson, AZ. General Technical Report RM-191. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, CO.

Gruell, G. E. 1985. Indian fires in the interior West: A widespread influence. In: James E. Lotan, editor. Proceedings-- Symposium and Workshop on Wilderness Fire: Missoula, MT, November15-18, 1983. General Technical Report INT-182. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Ogden, UT.

Hughes, J. D. 1983. American Indian Ecology. University of Texas, El Paso.

Kay, C. Aboriginal overkill and native burning: implications for modern ecosystem management. <http://wings.buffalo.edu/academic/department/anthropology/documents/burning> 3/22/99.

Lewis, D. R. 1995. Native Americans and the environment: A survey of twentieth century issues. American Indian Quarterly 19.

Lewis, H. T. 1985. Why Indians burned: Specific versus general reasons. Pp. 75-80 In: James E. Lotan, editor. Proceedings- Symposium and Workshop on Wilderness Fire: Missoula, MT, November 15-18, 1983. General Technical Report INT-182. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Ogden, UT.

Lewis, H. T. 1991. A parable of fire: hunter-gatherers in Canada and Australia. Pp. 11-19 In: Johannes, R. E., editor. Traditional Ecological Knowledge: A Collection of Essays. World Conservation Union (IUCN), Gland, Switzerland.

Phillips, C. B. 1985. The relevance of past Indian fires to current fire management programs. Pp. 87-92 In: James E. Lotan, editor. Proceedings--Symposium and Workshop on Wilderness Fire: Missoula, MT, November 15-18, 1983. General Technical Report INT-182. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Ogden, UT.

Pyne, S. J. 1982. Fire in America: A cultural history of wildland and rural fire. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Swetnam, T. W. 1990. Fire history and climate in the Southwestern United States. Pp. 6-17 In: Krammes, S. J., editor. Proceedings of Symposium on Effects on Fire in Management of Southwestern Natural Resources. General Technical Report RM-191. U.S. Forest Service.

Swetnam, T. W. and Baisan, C. H. 1994. Historical fire regime patterns in the Southwestern United States since AD 1700. Pp. 11-32 In: Allen, C. D., editor. Proceedings of the Second La Mesa Fire Symposium. General Technical Report RM-GTR-286. USDA Forest Service, Los Alamos, NM.

Williams, G. W. References on the American Indian Use of Fire in Ecosystems. <http://wings.buffalo.edu/academic/department/anthropology/Documents/firebib> 3/30/99.

Williams, M. 1989. Americans and their forests: an historical geography. Cambridge University Press, New York.