Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/Fighting Fire with Fire by the Karuk Tribe: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Wildfire Management in California, USA
- 1 Summary
- 2 Background
- 3 Tenure Arrangements
- 4 Administrative Arrangements
- 5 Social Actors
- 6 Power Analysis
- 7 Assessing the Successes of Indigenous Forestry and Recommendations
- 8 References
- 9 Author's Note
The Karuk Tribe has been occupying its traditional, ancestral and unceded land for centuries in the middle section of the Klamath River in California. The Karuk People see themselves as part of the land and have used prescribed fires in the past as part of their cultural practices and as a way to enhance the growth of desirable vegetation such as acorns. They have shaped the land as much as the land has impacted them. However, like most Indigenous Peoples in the United States, they have also experienced oppression from white settlers and had their land stolen without signing legitimate treaties. To move towards post-colonial forest management, the Karuk Tribe has to work with the U.S. Forest Service in a co-management scheme to bring back the cultural practice of using prescribed fires.
In this case study, I take a look at the history of Indigenous Peoples and the Karuk Tribe in the United States. The focus of the case study is on the power struggle between the U.S. Forest Service and the Karuk People as the Tribe tries to reintroduce its management practices over its traditional territory.
A brief history of Native Americans in the United States
To comprehend the current relationships between the United States and Indigenous Tribes, it is important to look back and have a better understanding of the historical events that led to existing tensions. Most of the information in this section comes from the book American Indians, American Justice by Deloria and Lytle. 
When Europeans arrived in the United States at the beginning of the 16th century, they had small settlements and posed little threats to the Indigenous Peoples. As the colonies grew in size and officially became the United States, settlers entered into more than 600 treaties with the American Indians. More often than not, the Tribes were at a disadvantage when negotiating those agreements since the documents were written in English, and the US Senate would later even amend the documents before ratifying them. From there on, relationships between Indigenous Peoples and settlers have been fraught.
In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed, which was a policy to remove American Indians from areas east of the Mississippi River to reservations in the west. The policy aimed to avoid contacts between Indigenous Peoples and white settlers. The new policy led to massive forced migrations of Tribes to the western plains, events that are now referred to as the “Trail of Tears” due to the inhumane removal of Peoples from their traditional and ancestral land.
However, in the following decades, due to ever expanding colonisation, contact between white settlers and American Indians was inevitable. At the time, the new approach was to assimilate Indigenous Peoples since it was impossible to avoid them. In 1887, the General Allotment Act was passed which aimed to teach American Indians farming and business and to ultimately allot Indians lands as private property. Those allotments were made to individuals who would thereafter become citizens of the state they resided in. Ultimately, almost 100 million acres of Aboriginal Land was lost by 1934.
Slow to realize their mistakes, Congress adopted the Citizenship Act of 1924, declaring American Indians to be citizens of their Tribes and the United States. then the Indian Reorganization Act was passed in 1934, which ended the policy of allotment and provided funding for tribal governments. With this Act, a non-Indian form of government was also imposed upon the Tribes. The Act was criticized as yet another way to impose settlers’ institutions upon the Indigenous Peoples.
The years after World War II led to the loss of more land and loss of customs and traditions when the federal government transferred its responsibilities to the states. In 1975, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act was passed in an attempt to give more control to individual Tribes. As with previous pieces of legislation, it has not allowed Indigenous Tribes to manage their land as sovereign entities and has limited their ability to move towards full self-determination.
As the international community is recognizing the importance of Aboriginal rights, the United States still lags in recognizing those rights. Indeed, the United States has not ratified either of the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Conventions that were key in changing the discourse around Indigenous rights.  Furthermore, in 2007, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by all but four countries including the United States. Although, President Obama announced that the U.S. would endorse the Declaration in 2010, the official position of the U.S. rejects many articles of UNDRIP that are related to self-determination and “Free and Prior Informed Consent” (FPIC) which is a key component of the declaration. The following is an excerpt from the announcement of U.S. support for UNDRIP:
"... the United States recognizes the significance of the Declaration’s provisions on free, prior and informed consent, which the United States understands to call for a process of meaningful consultation with tribal leaders, but not necessarily the agreement of those leaders, before the actions addressed in those consultations are taken."
It can be argued that this statement is inconsistent with the concept of FPIC, and therefore all the Articles that include the said concept. Moving forward without the agreement of Tribal Leaders on their land goes against the right of Indigenous Peoples to be sovereign on their land.
Simply put, UNDRIP has technically been adopted, but U.S. laws are not on par with it.
The Karuk Tribe
With this history in mind, I will now focus on the issues faced by the Karuk Tribe regarding the management of their traditional, ancestral and unceded territory and the use of their traditional ecological knowledge.
The traditional land of the Karuk People is situated in the diverse and mountainous middle section of the Klamath River in California. The diverse fauna and flora in the region can be attributed in part to the Karuk management principles. The Karuk People see themselves as stewards of their land and as a critical component of their ecosystem. The Tribe embraces a local World Renewal spiritual and cultural philosophy that promotes a sustainable economy and increases ecosystem resilience. Karuk traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) values all species, habitats and their relationships. Therefore, the Karuk Tribe uses TEK and prescribed fires to decrease undesired consequences of wildfires and enhance desired understorey vegetation . Karuk People understand the relationships between fire, vegetation and other ecosystem components at the landscape-scale. 
The long relationship that the Karuk Tribe had had with the land was disrupted by settlers in the mid-Klamath during the 1850s. A short-term resource extraction style and single-species management replaced the World Renewal philosophy that had allowed sustainable use of the land. Since then, Karuk TEK has been at risk of decline due to factors such as forced assimilation, lack of recognition of TEK by non-Native management agencies, insufficient tribal management capacity and changes in ecosystems themselves. 
The Karuk Tribe negotiated treaties that were never ratified by the U.S. Senate due to massive land grabbing during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. The Tribe is federally recognized but does not have a reservation, and therefore very little tangible land base. In 1905, most of the Kacruk territory was designated by the U.S. federal government as what is now a National Forest.  Since the traditional and ancestral territory of the Karuk Tribe was never ceded and no treaties were ratified, the Karuk People dispute the legitimacy of federal ownership over their territory.
Nowadays, the Karuk culture is threatened by the climate emergency because of the negative effects on the presence, use, and management of cultural use species.  Since the Karuk Tribe recognizes the impact of climate change within its territory, it has released in March 2019 a comprehensive Climate Adaptation Plan, which focuses on the restoration of fire regimes. They believe that prescribed fires have the potential to mitigate climate change through the restoration of regional low-moderate severity fire regimes that would have lower emissions than high severity fires. 
As stated above, since treaties have never been ratified between the Karuk Tribe and the U.S. government, the U.S. has claimed sovereignty over the Tribe’s traditional land. The area has been designated as a National Forest (Klamath National Forest), which means that it is protected and managed by the federal government and owned by the American people. The land is actively managed by the United States Forest Service, which is a division of the United States Department of Agriculture.
This tenure arrangement means that the bundle of rights is greatly reduced for the Karuk People. However, Forest Service policies acknowledge that Indigenous Tribes have laws and government that existed before the U.S. constitution. Tribes that are recognized federally hold special use rights within federal forests such as the right to gather non-timber forest products for non-commercial use without the need to seek a permit.
That being said, conflicts have emerged regarding the protection of sacred sites from logging, the use of prescribed burns to maintain cultural resources and the access to harvesting sites. As an example of blatant disregard for Indigenous rights, the Karuk People have sued the United States over their right to earn compensation for the taking of their land, but the Federal Court has argued that American Indians living on a reservation created by executive order have no right to the land on which they reside. The Karuk People, therefore, have a right of occupancy but no rights to compensation.
A positive achievement of some of the conflicts mentioned above has been the establishment of the "Management Area 8" land use designation for Cultural Management Areas (CMAs), which include Karuk ceremonial sites. Management activities within these areas need to be approved by the Karuk Tribe and to be respectful of their customs and culture. This designation is in agreement with the FPIC principle.
The nature of the relationship between the United States and the Indigenous Tribes is one of federal trust. This trust responsibility is not suited for the time of self-determination and still feels cumbersome for many Tribes. Based on the Report of the Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform, the United States government considers that they have a sovereign-to-sovereign relationship with Indigenous Tribes, which is simply not accurate due to their lack of enforcement of FPIC. A sovereign nation would have the power to manage its land as it pleases, which is not the case of the Karuk Tribe.
Regardless of limited organizational and legal resources, the Karuk Tribe has been persistent in increasing its access to its traditional territory. As an alternative to complete sovereignty over its traditional land, the Karuk Tribe has been trying to establish concrete co-management mechanisms to work with the Forest Service across its territory. In a co-management relationship, the management is shared between government agencies and local people, or a Tribe in this case, through a formal agreement. The concept highlights the importance of local knowledge and interests in decision-making processes. Even though co-management can produce desirable environmental outcomes, it has also been viewed as a tool for the co-optation of Indigenous interests  that lacks sufficient levels of legal accountability and dispute resolution capacity.
In the past, a co-management plan, the Ti Bar Demo Project, was signed and authorized between the Karuk Tribe, the Forest Service and the USDI Bureau of Indian Affairs. The project was short-lived and ran from 1996 to 2000.
Faced with little partnership opportunities with the government, the Karuk Tribe sought the help of NGOs, in 2013, to form the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership that aims at bringing stakeholders together to identify areas in need of restoration. This partnership led to the development and approval of the Some Bar Project which has the following purpose:
"The purpose of the Somes Bar Project is to demonstrate how prescribed fire restores and maintains resilient ecosystems, communities, and economies to revitalize balanced human relationships with our dynamic landscape. The project would also reinstate the use of TEK fire integrated with emergent restorative fire practices at the landscape scale..."
The project was awarded funding from multiple governmental organizations such as Cal FIRE, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 
An affected stakeholder is any person, group or entity whose long-term welfare is likely to be dependent or subject to the effects of the activities on the claimed forest area or who has a lived or emotional connection with the forest area.
In this case, I would argue that the only affected stakeholders are the People of the Karuk Tribe who have been on this land for centuries. They have a deep emotional connection with the land and well-being depends upon activities that take place in the forest area. The effect of fire exclusion is well encapsulated in this quote by Ron Reed, a Karuk Cultural Biologist, dipnet fisherman, and spiritual leader:
"Without fire the landscape changes dramatically. And in that process the traditional foods that we need for a sustainable lifestyle become unavailable after a certain point. So what that does to the tribal community, the reason we are going back to that landscape is no longer there. So the spiritual connection to the landscape is altered significantly. When there is no food, when there is no food for regalia species, that we depend upon for food and fiber, when they aren’t around because there is no food for them, then there is no reason to go there. When we don’t go back to places that we are used to, accustomed to, part of our lifestyle is curtailed dramatically. So you have health consequences. Your mental aspect of life is severed from the spiritual relationship with the earth, with the Great Creator. So we’re not getting the nutrition that we need, we’re not getting the exercise that we need, and we’re not replenishing the spiritual balance that creates harmony and diversity throughout the landscape." 
However, calling Indigenous Peoples stakeholders can be reductive, and the term "right holders" is preferred because of the protected rights they have as sovereign Nation.
On the other hand, interested stakeholders are any person, group of persons or entity that is linked in a transaction or an activity relating to a forest area, but who does not have a long-term dependency on that forest area.
In the context of fire management in the Klamath basin, there are multiple interested stakeholders:
- The U.S. Forest Service: The U.S. Forest Service is the main managers of the Klamath National Forest where the Karuk traditional territory is located, and is the agency responsible for wildfire management. Contrary to the Karuk that believe that their management practices and their philosophy are inseparable from the world in which they live, Norgaard states that the U.S. Forest Service have an anthropocentric view of the natural world. This has led to a long-held tenet of suppression and exclusion of wildfire as part of the Forest Service’s land management policies. These practices have led to high fuel loads, decreased habitat for large game like elk and deer and the reduction in the number of acorns, an important source of food for the Karuk People.  The policy of fire suppression technically infringes Article 8 of UNDRIP that states that Indigenous Peoples "have the right to not be subjected to the destruction of their culture." Without prescribed fires, the Karuk have not been able to perform World Renewal Ceremonies, which has contributed to the "destruction" of their culture. This being said, the Forest Service now recognizes that fire plays an important role in maintaining healthy ecosystems and prescribe fires are now allowed to play their roles.  Nonetheless, due to the high severity and size of the fires in recent decades and the budget necessary to fight those, the funds available for prescribed burns have declined from 2013 to 2018. 
- Local landowners: Rightfully so, landowners have a vested interest in the properties they own around the forest area. Wildfires, although necessary for forest succession, have become an increasingly important problem in the last few years. Megafires are the new normal, and they have destroyed entire towns (11,000 homes) such as Paradise during the 2018 Camp Fire. Landowners do not want to see their homes negatively affected by these large wildfires. However, the idea of controlled burns can be worrisome for some of them. In the end, homeowners usually come around to the idea of prescribed when benefits are explained and they are reassured that buffers will be dug to protect their private lands. Ultimately, landowners are not affected stakeholders because they do not have the same kind of live connection as Indigenous People and can potentially rebuild their life in a different place.
- NGOs: The Nature Conservancy facilitated public workshops from which emerged the pilot project that led to the most recent agreement between the Karuk and the Forest Service.  They believe in the power of prescribed fires and have worked with Indigenous communities to increase awareness and help projects come to fruition. 
- Fire safety councils: They are involved in the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership.
- Cal FIRE: Provides funding for the new Some Bars management plan.
- U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs: Provides funding and is the main entity dealing with Indigenous affairs for the U.S. government.
Although the United States have endorsed UNDRIP and state that they have a sovereign-to-sovereign relationship with Indigenous Tribes, they also have said that they do not necessarily need the approval of Tribal Leaders to perform actions on Indigenous Lands. Therefore, the U.S. Forest Service is the stakeholder with the most power in the case of fire management in the Klamath National Forest, but they also have a high interest in the region. Although their interests might not be aligned with those of the Karuk Tribe, they are a governmental organization that should be in principle working for the good of the American people. This can mean economic growth through sustainable harvesting but it can also mean the protection of ecosystems and fire management.
The Karuk Tribe is the other main right holder in this case. They have a very high interest in the area, as explained above, but do not have as much decisional power as the U.S. Forest Service. Nonetheless, they can bring their concerns into the court systems, a process that can be long and costly. However, the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court of the United States have a history of denying constitutional rights to Indigenous People, which has impeded their pursuit towards self-determination.
A factor that has helped increase the power of the Karuk Tribe is the change in the discourse around Indigenous issues that were highlighted that by the signature of international processes like the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Conventions and UNDRIP. With the support of the international community, the Karuk People can have more leveraging power in if detrimental decisions are taken by the U.S. Forest Service. Support from international NGOs like the Nature Conservancy has similar results.
Regarding landowners in the area of interest, their power resides in the enforcement of their bundle of rights. Contrary to the Karuk Tribe, they have clear rights related to their private properties, rights that the Tribe does not necessarily have.
The funding partners in the project have varying levels of power depending on the money they invest in the projects. Money is power and since these partners can threaten to pull funding, they hold a great deal of power.
Assessing the Successes of Indigenous Forestry and Recommendations
The Ti-bar Demonstration Project mentioned above was a turning point for the relationship between the Karuk Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service even despite the shortcomings due to a leadership change at the Forest Service around 2000. The weakness of the formal agreement between the Karuk Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service ultimately led to the unraveling of the project.
At the time, the project's aim was to apply TEK to management techniques and develop processes that would nurture co-management.  As explained by Diver, "Karuk managers applied a new eco-cultural approach to land management that included prescribed burning..." to manage and increase fauna and flora that are important for subsistence and cultural practices. During the project, Karuk Tribe members were able to take the lead on the ground in implementing and adapting restoration treatments depending on site-specific conditions.
The lessons learned from this project should be applied to the new Some Bar project. Some important challenges highlighted by Diver  are listed below.
Sharing decision-making authority: Decision-making authority should be clearly outlined at the beginning of the project, and anchored in de jure rights. The U.S. Forest Service should be ready to interact with the Karuk Tribe as a sovereign nation, and not as another interest group. Moreover, to balance the power relationships, weak stakeholders should be engaged and empowered early in future projects, such as in the case of the management conflict in Clayoquot Sound, to strengthen cooperation and prevent confrontations.
Acknowledging tribal expertise: The Forest Service needs to value the Karuk Knowledge, although it is unconventional from a western perspective. As Leanne Simpson says, "The land must once again become the pedagogy." Indeed, Karuk People hold local expertise that was gained over centuries of living on the land and with the land, and such expertise should be valued by the Forest Service.
Negotiating knowledge and values: Karuk law's and management principles should not be overlooked. The values of the Forest Service that do not align with those of the Karuk Tribe should not be a de facto priority. For example, profits from harvesting should not be prioritized over cultural resources.
Here are some final recommendations to establish a successful partnership between the Karuk Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service.
- Partnerships should be strengthened through formal agreements and agreed management projects should have formal mechanisms in place for dispute resolution.
- Partnerships should have open channels of communication to facilitate informal checks and balances.
- Tribal capacity should be enhanced by providing stable funding to enable greater staffing.
- Eliminate clause for mandatory disclosure of TEK for grants and partnership applications.
- Follow Guidelines for Considering TEK in Climate Change Initiatives during collaboration.
- Increase training on cross-cultural communication to inform Forest Service workers about the legacy of colonization.
Additionally, at a broader scale, the U.S. Forest Service should work to develop a long-term fire management strategy with local communities in order to face threatening wildfires that are becoming more common with climate change.
Furthermore, the U.S. Forest Service should implement all Articles of UNDRIP in their daily activities on Indigenous Lands, which includes a strong commitment to the concept of "Free and Prior Inform Consent". I want to highlight Article 27 from UNDRIP that goes as follow:
"States shall establish and implement, in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process, giving due recognition to indigenous peoples’ laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems, to recognize and adjudicate the rights of indigenous peoples pertaining to their lands, territories and resources, including those which were traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used. Indigenous peoples shall have the right to participate in this process."
With this in mind, all management decisions should be made with and approved by Indigenous leaders of the Karuk Tribe.
As an outsider, I believe that the Karuk Tribe knows its priorities regarding the management of its land and is open to having a government to government relationship with federal agencies. The recent Karuk Climate Change Adaptation Plan shows the commitment of the Tribe to implement management activities that would help mitigate climate change impacts on important ecosystems. As mentioned in their plan, they should continue their cooperation with federal agencies and NGOs as well as with academic partners to promote research and monitoring. Furthermore, the Karuk Tribe needs to seize the political moment as leaders such as presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren are finally bringing attention to the use of prescribed fire as a tool to mitigate climate change. They have a true strategic opportunity to finally bring back their cultural practices to the land.
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To be transparent, I am a white settler and tried to remove any bias I might have acquired through a western style education. I apologize if it was not the case. Finally, I want to acknowledge that I wrote this project on the traditional, ancestral and unceded land of the Musqueam People while studying at the University of British Columbia.
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