Fighting Fire with Fire: Restoring Traditional Indigenous Practices for Ecological Stewardship

May 21, 2020 12:00 pm — 1:30 pm
Webinar Only

ELI Public Seminar

In 2018, six wildfires in California caused approximately $12 billion in property damage and tragically claimed over a hundred lives. As climate change continues to drive hotter, drier, and more combustible conditions, the fire season in the western portion of the United States is becoming longer, more intense, and costlier.

For millennia, indigenous peoples have used prescribed fires – intentionally setting precisely timed, low-intensity fires to clear biomass – as a means to manage forest ecosystems as well as being an important cultural practice. Historically, as non-indigenous people expanded westward, state and federal authorities effectively banned tribes from this practice. Even today, tribes must obtain approval before employing prescribed burns and at times continue to face resistance to such activities by state and federal government officials. This resistance can hinder the abilities of tribes to use and pass down traditional ecological knowledge.

Yet given the extent of these devastating wildfires, attitudes have begun to shift. State and federal authorities are reconsidering indigenous prescribed fire policies, especially as cultural tolerance increases, and funding, availability, and experience of fire management resources and personnel is limited.

What are the opportunities for empowering tribes to collaborate with state, local, and federal stakeholders to return prescribed burning practices to indigenous communities? What legal and pragmatic obstacles remain? How can stakeholders address the challenges of collaborating across jurisdictions as well as limited funding and other resources? How can this serve as an opportunity to address historical injustices committed against indigenous peoples, and support tribes in regaining lost traditional ecological knowledge? Our panelists explored these questions and more.


Cynthia R. Harris
, Director, Tribal Programs; Deputy Director, Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programming, Staff Attorney, Environmental Law Institute, Moderator
Michael Connor, Partner, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP 
Frank Lake, Research Ecologist, US Forest Service
Matthew S. Reischman, Assistant Deputy Director, Resource Protection, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
Bill Tripp, Deputy Director of Eco-Cultural Revitalization, Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources

ELI members will have subsequent access to any materials/a recording of this session (usually posted w/in 48 hours). If you are not an ELI member but would like to have access to archived sessions like this one, go HERE to see the many benefits of membership and how to join.