Ryan Reed grew up with a sense of loss. He watched the fish sacred to his Indigenous community grow scarce in the Klamath River and rallied for dam removal as droughts and wildfires devastated the land his family had called home for millennia.
But as a member of the Karuk, Hupa and Yurok tribes, Reed had also learned how fire could be used to restore the forest and river, improving the ecosystem for salmon, elk, oak and hazelnut trees. He became a wildland firefighter in college and has fought to help reinstate the ancient art of lighting controlled fires – both to sustain his people’s cultural identity and as a solution to catastrophic wildfires in the era of climate change.
Now, the 23-year-old graduate of the University of Oregon has a front-row seat in reshaping how federal forests are managed in Oregon and throughout the Northwest. He’s the public representative on the Federal Advisory Committee that will recommend updates to the Northwest Forest Plan, a blueprint that will guide forest management in the region through the next century. The committee launched its work earlier this month in Portland.
The original Northwest Forest Plan, approved nearly 30 years ago, stemmed from legal battles over logging-related declines of the northern spotted owl, coho salmon and other wildlife dependent on old-growth forests. The plan limited logging in old-growth reserves and ended the so-called “timber wars,” although it included loopholes for logging old trees.
The U.S. Forest Service is now developing an updated version of the plan because the original one omitted topics such as climate change, wildfire and Indigenous land stewardship, which today are seen as increasingly important to managing forests.
Various groups have different ideas on how the plan should be amended. Environmentalists hope to preserve more old-growth forests for habitat for threatened and endangered species. And organizations representing timber interests want to protect and expand logging, especially of older, mature trees. Oregon’s timber industry has spent thousands of dollars on social media promoting clearcutting as a method to reduce wildfire risks. Several studies have questioned that claim, although the idea continues to be debated and the U.S. Service still uses thinning as one of its fire prevention strategies.
Indigenous communities in the region, including Reed’s, hope in turn that the tribal approach of setting beneficial fires will become a major facet of the Northwest Forest Plan’s update – and a way for people to reconnect with the land they inhabit.
“We as humans have a responsibility to the landscape,” Reed said. “We’ve had a disconnect with the reciprocal relationship with the landscape and now we’re starting to feel the consequences.”
The practice of beneficial burning isn’t unique to Reed’s tribes. Indigenous people across North America have used low-intensity fires for millennia to remove dead vegetation, leaves, small trees and branches. Such burns reduced fuels in the forest understory, preventing larger, more intense fires. They also removed pests and noxious weeds, helped seeds of edible plants germinate, improved water quality for salmon and reinvigorated plant regrowth for basketry use and grazing animals that humans hunted.
The U.S. government prohibited beneficial fires over a century ago, focusing instead on fire suppression and clearcutting as the principal ways to combat wildfires. Indigenous fire practitioners were considered arsonists, thrown in jail, their fire-centered ways of life erased, Reed said.
But in recent years, as fuels have built up on forest floors and climate change-fueled catastrophic fires decimated large swaths of forests in the West, state and federal officials have reversed course.
They have slowly introduced so-called controlled or prescribed burns – a version of tribes’ cultural burning practice – and have asked Indigenous groups to help. In the meantime, studies have shown that Indigenous fire setting successfully shaped forest ecosystems for many generations.
For now, intentional burning is used on a small scale by the U.S. Forest Service, state forest officials and even private landowners, with the main focus on fuel reduction. Tribes also have begun to conduct more cultural burns for both ceremonial purposes and for wider ecosystem benefits.
Many barriers remain to the widespread use of beneficial burns, Reed said, including society’s fear of fire, restrictive regulations and legal barriers. For the most part, tribes and non-tribal firefighters alike must get permits from the government to conduct intentional burns and can do so only in certain months and under specific weather conditions, he said.
Climate change-induced droughts and extreme heat and the fact that forests are so overgrown – unlike those managed by tribes in past millennia – is also making it more difficult to use prescribed burns. In New Mexico last year, a controlled burn sparked that state’s largest wildfire, leading to a pause on prescribed burning. Also last year, a “burn boss” leading a prescribed burn was arrested in Oregon after the intentionally set fire jumped the containment line and burned 20 acres of a private ranch.
Reed said firefighters continue to learn how to best conduct prescribed burns and should partner with Indigenous fire practitioners to expand their knowledge.
“Fire is sacred, it’s the giver and taker of life and we need to respect it,” Reed said.
Reed talked with Beat Check about why we all should care about trees, how fire can be used to manage them and why Indigenous cultural burning practices could guide the approach.
Read more about cultural burns and prescribed fire on The Oregonian/OregonLive:
Indigenous groups say they have a better way to fight wildfires
Fighting fire with fire: Volunteers help southern Oregon homeowners remove tree debris with a permitted prescribed burn
Here’s the full podcast episode: