Exploring the Traditional Use of Fire in the Coastal Mountains of Central California

Project ID: 10-1-09-3

Year: 2010

Start Date: 10/01/2010

End Date: 09/30/2013

Project Proposal Abstract: Indigenous peoples throughout the world have employed fire as a tool to manipulate and shape terrestrial vegetation and wildlife populations to benefit human use (Bird et al 2008, Williams 2002). Research conducted in many regions has reconstructed past fire regimes with increasing resolution, but because lightning ignitions often appear to dominate the fire record, few studies have focused on anthropogenic ignitions. The Central California coast region, where the pre-colonial population density was among the highest in North America (Milliken et al 2009), provides an ideal setting for examining landscape level effects of anthropogenic fire on ecosystems because there are very few lightning ignitions but considerable evidence of frequent fire (presumed anthropogenic) prior to European settlement. Several researchers have suggested that during the mid-Holocene in this region, California Indians intentionally used fire to create the mosaic of landscape patches comprising the prairie/oak savanna ecosystem that exists today, targeting taxa and communities of cultural and/or subsistence significance, and maintained them into the historic period through frequent burning (Keeley 2002, Stephens and Fry 2005, Anderson 2006, Lightfoot and Parrish 2009). At the same time, there has been increasing recognition among land managers concerned with fire management and weed abatement that burning needs to be reintroduced into many ecosystems as a tool for ecological improvement, but knowledge of long term effects of particular burning regimes is lacking. This is a unique opportunity in thisregion to document and scientifically verify traditional Indian fire regimes, tap into the wisdom gained through millennia of using fire for vegetation management, and directly apply this knowledge as a tool for modern land management. We will bring together a team of ecologists, archaeologists, environmental historians, indigenous peoples, and land managers within a research framework combining an ethnographic investigation of traditional practices with cutting-edge paleoecological techniques to answer questions about Indian utilization of fire as an ecological and cultural landscape management tool in this region. Results will be used to formulate and implement fire management practices (particularly prescribed burning) at sites within the study area and the knowledge gained will be extensively shared with academics, tribes, land managers, and the public. Using interdisciplinary techniques of fire scar dendrochronology, phytolith analysis, and compilation of fire history/traditional knowledge of prehistoric fire, we will examine the following hypothesis: Local tribes influenced patterns of fire occurrence and resulting vegetation in the coastal mountain regions of Central California. Objectives of this research project will directly address JFSP Task Statement 9 to "document traditional knowledge and use of fire", "demonstrate applications of fire using traditional knowledge" and "disseminate knowledge as follows: 1. Estimate fire regimes for each site are determined using a combination of fire scar dendrochronology, phytoliths, historical information, and traditional ecological knowledge. 2. Formalize the methodology for using phytoliths to estimate the fire return interval and intensity in grassland ecosystems applicable throughout CA and the western US. 3. Informed by this research, a prescribed burn will demonstrate the reintroduction of fire and cultural practices to a rare deergrass field in Pinnacles National Monument. 4. All project partners (Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, University of CA system, CA State Parks, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management) will develop, document and disseminate compelling educational materials via a diversity of venues for a wide audience.

Principal Investigator: Brent E. Johnson

Agency/Organization: NPS-National Park Service

Branch or Dept: Pinnacles National Monument