Historian addresses impact on Native use of fire on Pacific N.W. forests

Dubbed, “The Magical Flame,” a case history of ancient ecological practices drew an audience of a hundred to Medford’s Library on Feb. 6 at noon. Branch Director, Suzann Harrison, greeted spectators, including a contingent from Pioneer Village to the lecture presented in partnership with S.O. Historical Society.

Advanced degrees, including a Master’s in archaeology, and PhD. in history, and three plus decades’ experience as a US Forest Service archaeologist, well-equip the presenter. Dr. Jeff LaLande, a Rogue Valley resident for forty years, has authored several books and articles on his thoroughly researched topic. He maintains that information currently emerges to convince residents of America’s West that Native-set fires of past centuries served beneficial results to forests and grasslands.

LaLande began his one-hour slide show presentation with surprising news for anyone who grew up influenced by Smokey the Bear. While the speaker didn’t imply that the lovable, fuzzy icon wrongly decried carelessness regarding matches, cigarettes and campfires, he sought to dispel some common myths. With friendly acknowledgment that fire scientists also graced the audience, LaLande stated that Smokey was “not right in all cases and places.” “Because of the ‘Smokey good; fire bad’ mindset, we’re now presented with a major problem resulting from so much fire suppression. This wouldn’t plague us if we’d followed the Native way (of forestalling excessive forest overgrowth.)”

He noted that the debate spawns opposing groups. Some authors and historians see Native set flames as having profound effects on landscape and ecology. “One far-out faction,” he said, “believed that lightning was hardly ever a factor.”

Among eye-witness accounts, history has preserved journals of “the Wilkes Expedition.” Before the Gold Rush, members of this group reported observing a Native American woman burning vegetation in the hillside near present day Ashland. “Some guys had cursed the smoke as impeding their way to Yerba Buena, (San Francisco today.)” Conversations with French trappers lent credibility to their having witnessed similar burning habits in the Willamette Valley. “An American settler named George Riddle, after whom Riddle, Oregon is named, reported watching Cow Creek Indians ignite large areas of acreage.”

Scholars conducting interviews for historical accounts in the early 20th Century failed to pose the definitive questions about these ecological practices, LaLande said. One of the slides he flashed on the screen showed the current plight of California black oaks unable to compete with taller conifers for photosynthesis.

Studies of tree rings attest to the human involvement aimed at driving large game from extensive areas. Strategic planning, and timing factored into the Native’s actions. Deer would return after the burns had subsided, and thick, lush grass had regrown. The Natives set fires around Crater Lake after September, following berry harvesting.

Humans set flames probably as the aftermath of prolonged blights, LaLande surmised. “An elderly Takelma woman said the bear grass lilies’ fibers (used for basket weaving) grew back taller and stronger the year after a crop had been burned.”

For more information about the free lunchtime “Windows in Time” series, please phone Jackson County Library Services at 541-774-6996 or the S.O. Historical Society at 541-899-8123, or visit www.jcls.org.


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