The National Park Service has an epiphany

“We were probably always wrong to think about protected places as static.” – NPS Scientist

During the Trump administration federal agencies were forced to be silent about climate change.  Behind closed doors, many federal agencies were quietly preparing for the day when they would be able to begin the process of adapting to climate change. 

Shortly after the 2020 presidential election, the National Park Service published a natural resources report that announced a radical departure from traditional conservation strategy that was based on an assumption that nature is static and evolution a historical event.  “Resist-Accept-Direct—A framework for the 21st century resource manager” acknowledged that the rapidly changing climate requires a new approach based on the knowledge that nature is dynamic and evolution is a current and continuous event.  Many other federal agencies participated in the preparation of the report, which implies that other federal agencies may adopt the new conservation strategy. (1)

In April 2021, the National Park Service published policy guidance for park managers based on the principles of “Resist-Accept-Direct.” The New York Times interviewed the lead author of the policy guidance, who described the new conservation strategy of the National Park Service:   “The concept of things going back to some historical fixed condition is really just no longer tenable.” 

Acadia National Park, Maine

An ecologist and the science coordinator of Acadia National Park in Maine told NY Times what this new strategy meant to him and his colleagues.  He said that as recently as 2007 protected areas like the national parks were still being thought about as static places that could be preserved forever with the right techniques. “We weren’t being trained on how to manage for change,” he said. “We were being trained on how to keep things like they were in the past.”  That means nearly everyone in his line of work was caught unprepared for the current reality. “You have a whole profession of people having to shift how we think.  We were probably always wrong to think about protected places as static.”

Evolution of National Park Service Policy:  From preservation to restoration

The federal law that established the National Park Service in 1916, defined its mission:

“…which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

H.R. 15522, An Act to establish a National Park Service, engrossed August 5, 1916 (1)

Preservation was the original mission of the National Park Service.  In 1963, the mission of the National Park Service was radically changed by the Leopold Report, written by A. Starker Leopold, the son of Aldo Leopold.  The Leopold Report recommended a goal for national parks of maintaining historical conditions as closely as possible to those “of primitive America.”  When the Leopold Report was adopted as official policy by the National Park Service in 1967, it committed NPS to restoring park lands to pre-settlement conditions:

“Passive protection is not enough. Active management of the natural environment, plus a sensitive application of discipline in park planning, use, and development, are requirements for today’ Simultaneously, that edition of NPS policies also described the primary management task as a seemingly simple undertaking: ‘[safeguard] forests, wildlife, and natural features against direct removal, impairment, or destruction,’ and ‘[apply] ecological management techniques to neutralize the unnatural influences of man, thus permitting the natural environment to be maintained essentially by natural agents’” (1)

In 1967, the land management goals of the National Park Service became more ambitious.  The goal of “preservation” was replaced by the goal of “restoring” historic landscapes and ecosystems.  The pre-settlement landscape of 500 years ago on the East Coast and 250 years ago on the West Coast was established as the baseline landscape that NPS was committed to re-creating.  The baseline landscape was presumed to be “pristine” although it had been actively gardened by indigenous people for thousands of years.

The new land management strategy of the National Park Service

The National Park Service calls its new land management strategy the RAD framework, an acronym that summarizes three alternative strategies:  

  1. “Resist the trajectory of change, by working to maintain or restore ecosystem processes, function, structure, or composition based upon historical or acceptable current conditions.
  2. “Accept the trajectory of change, by allowing ecosystem processes, function, structure, or composition to change, without intervening to alter their trajectory.
  3. “Direct the trajectory of change, by actively shaping ecosystem processes, function, structure, or composition towards desired new conditions.” (1)

Every land management decision will choose among these alternatives based on an analysis that will begin with a climate assessment. Instead of looking to the past for guidance, the planning process will assess current conditions and project future climate conditions.  Based on that assessment, the purpose of land management plans will be adaptation to current and anticipated conditions.  Every plan will be designed for a specific place, based on specific current and anticipated conditions.  There is no one-size-fits-all plan, only a framework for devising individual plans tailored for specific parks or ecosystems within parks. 

The new strategy also makes a commitment to monitor the project as plans are implemented and modify the strategy as the environment continues to change and the ecosystem responds to land management.  This is called “adaptive management” and it is essential in a rapidly changing environment. The project doesn’t end, because nature never stops changing.  It’s a process for which there is no end-stage.

It’s a challenging strategy, but one that has the potential to be less destructive than the “restoration” paradigm that always began by destroying plants and animals perceived as intruders without historical precedents.  Precisely what it will mean remains to be seen.  There will probably be pockets of resistance from those who remain committed to the “restoration” paradigm and those who are economically dependent on existing projects.  All the more reason to continue to watch what is being done and participate in whatever public process is available

An example of an NPS project that should be abandoned.

There are undoubtedly hundreds, perhaps thousands of NPS projects that are based on the ambitious restoration goals of the 1963 Leopold Report.  Perhaps some were successful.  My personal knowledge of NPS projects is limited to those in the San Francisco Bay Area, my home.

Point Reyes National Seashore

An attempt to eradicate European beach grass in the Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) is an example of an NPS “restoration” project that should be abandoned if the new RAD framework is implemented.  The PRNS project was described by NPS staff at the 2018 conference of the California Invasive Plant Council, a source and a setting that should be considered credible by the most ardent supporters of ecological “restorations.”

About 60% of sand dunes in the Point Reyes National Seashore were covered in European beach grass when the eradication effort began in 2000.  The goal of the project was to restore native dune plants and increase the population of endangered snowy plovers that nest on bare sand.  The project began by manually pulling beach grass from 30 acres of dunes at Abbott’s Lagoon.  The grass grew back within one year, presumably because the roots of the beach grass are about 10 feet long.  Manually pulling the grass from the surface does not destroy the roots. 

A new method was devised that was more successful with respect to eradicating the beach grass.  The grass and its roots were plowed up by bulldozers and buried deep in the sand.  The cost of that method was prohibitively expensive at $25,000 to $30,000 per acre and the barren sand caused other problems.  The barren dunes were mobile in the wind.  Sand blew into adjacent ranches and residential areas, causing neighbors of the park to object to the project.  The sand also encroached into areas where there were native plants, burying them.  The bare sand was eventually colonized by “secondary invaders.”  Different non-native plants replaced the beach grass because they were more competitive than the desired native plants. 

In 2011, the National Park Service adopted a third strategy for converting beach grass to native dune plants.  They sprayed the beach grass with a mixture of glyphosate and imazapyr.  At $2,500 to $3,000 per acre, this eradication method was significantly cheaper than the mechanical method.  However, it resulted in different problems that prevented the establishment of native dune plants.  The poisoned thatch of dead beach grass was a physical barrier to successful seed germination and establishment of a new landscape.  Where secondary invaders were capable of penetrating the dead thatch, the resulting vegetation does not resemble native dunes. 

Presentation at California Invasive Plant Council conference regarding attempt to eradicate European beach grass at Point Reyes National Seashore, November 2018

The concluding slides of the presentation of NPS staff about this project were stunning.  The slides said it is a “Restoration fallacy that killing an invader will result in native vegetation.”  My 20-plus years of watching these futile efforts confirm this reality.  However, I never expected to hear that said by someone actually engaged in this effort.  The presenter mused that such projects are like Sisyphus trying to roll a boulder up hill.

Presentation at California Invasive Plant Council conference regarding attempt to eradicate European beach grass at Point Reyes National Seashore. November 2018

Looking forward, not back

The realization—or perhaps acknowledgement—that the NPS strategy of re-creating historical landscapes is unrealistic was a long time coming.  Over the 50 years that the “restoration” strategy was attempted much unnecessary damage was done.  Useful, functional landscapes were destroyed.  Healthy trees were destroyed solely because they were planted by Europeans.  Animals were killed because they were perceived to be competitors of “native” animals.  Herbicides poisoned the soil, preventing regeneration or germination of new vegetation.  Established landscapes that had not needed irrigation were replaced with native plants that required irrigation.  Stabilizing vegetation was destroyed, resulting in erosion and drifting sand. 

The National Park Service has awakened to the failure of their “restoration” strategy because of the combination of failed projects that were based on mistaken assumptions and the impacts of climate change. NPS led public land managers into the dead end of attempting to re-create historical landscapes. Now NPS will lead public land managers out of that dead end into the reality of a changed environment with a rapidly changing future. Better late than never.

  1. Schuurman, G. W., C. Hawkins Hoffman, D. N. Cole, D. J. Lawrence, J. M. Morton, D. R. Magness, A. E. Cravens, S. Covington, R. O’Malley, and N. A. Fisichelli. 2020. Resist-accept-direct (RAD)—a framework for the 21st-century natural resource manager. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/CCRP/NRR—2020/ 2213. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.
  2. Planning for a Changing Climate: Climate-Smart Planning and Management in the National Park Service, NPS, April 2021.

Featured Photo from RAD Natural Resource Report.  Photo caption:

“Multiple federal agencies, including the National Park Service (Bandelier National Monument), tribes, and others steward the East Jemez Mountains ecosystem of New Mexico, an ecologically transforming landscape where massive forest die-off is projected to occur more frequently in the future. Piñon pines, normally evergreen, have reddish-brown foliage in October 2002 (left). By May 2004 (right), the dead piñon pines lost all their needles, exposing gray trunks and branches. The photos were taken from the same vantage point near Los Alamos, N.M. Forest drought stress is strongly correlated with tree mortality from poor growth, bark beetle outbreaks, and high-severity fire. Credit: C. Allen, USGS” (1)

What does this mean: “Nature-based solutions to achieve California’s climate change and biodiversity goals”?

In October 2020, Governor Newsom signed Executive Order N-82-20 “enlisting California’s vast network of natural and working lands – forests, rangelands, farms, wetlands, coast, deserts and urban greenspaces – in the fight against climate change. A core pillar of Governor Newsom’s climate agenda, these novel approaches will help clean the air and water for communities throughout the state and support California’s unique biodiversity.”

The California Natural Resources Agency has invited the public to tell them what you think that means.  They are holding a series of virtual on-line workshops (register here) and they are inviting the public to complete a survey (available here) by the deadline of May 14, 2021.  Recordings of workshops that have already taken place are available HERE.   Email address for feedback and questions is

Click on picture to see San Francisco Bay Area regional workshop

I attended one of the workshops and I’ve read the material available on their website.  This is what little I can tell you about the project.  There seem to be three elements to this initiative:

  • The Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy will “expand climate smart land management across California to achieving carbon neutrality and reduce climate risks to communities and ecosystems and build climate resilience across California.”
  • The 30X30 initiative establishes a state goal of conserving at least 30 percent of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030, while “safeguarding our State’s economic sustainability and food security, protecting and restoring biodiversity.” Conservation measures will focus on a “broad range of landscapes, including natural areas and working lands, in partnership with land managers and natural resource user groups while building climate resilience and reducing risk from extreme climate events.”  Projects will also “expand equitable outdoor access and recreation for all Californians.”  Approximately 22% of land in California is presently protected, but only 16% of our coastal waters. 
  • “The California Biodiversity Collaborative will bring together groups and leaders from across our state to take bold action to maintain California’s extraordinary natural richness. This Collaborative was a directive set forth in Governor Newsom’s 30×30 Executive Order and is the next generation of the State’s Biodiversity Initiative.”

I have no idea what these vague commitments mean when they are translated into specific land acquisitions and funded projects, but I know that non-governmental organizations see this as an opportunity to obtain funding for what they want. 

Only 10% of the audience for the San Francisco Bay Region workshop was the general public. Over 50% of the 280 people at the workshop (by far the largest constituency at the workshop) I attended were employees of non-governmental organizations.  The California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC) asked their members to attend the workshops and participate in them:  “This is a critical opportunity to make sure the need for invasive plant management is heard, loud and clear. We encourage you to attend to learn more about 30×30 and share your ideas.”  These are Cal-IPC’s suggestions for participants:  “Several points to consider making: (1) the definition of “protected” — and the metrics used to measure 30×30 success — need to include adequate funding for ongoing stewardship; (2) funding for the Weed Management Area (WMA) program is critical for county collaborations staying on top of high priority invasive plants across jurisdictional boundaries; (3) wildfire fuels reduction should follow best practices, including control of invasive plants, so that habitat is enhanced, not damaged.” California Native Plant Society is also asking its membership to participate in the 30 X 30 public outreach effort in support of CNPS objectives.

If you have your own priorities for how your tax dollars are used, you may want to participate in this public process as well because the projects will have an impact on land management practices throughout the State of California.  Please consider attending a workshop and completing the long, complex, and vague on-line survey by May 14, 2021.  I have no idea if the California Natural Resources Agency will take the public’s input into consideration, but I know this:  If you don’t participate, you will take whatever you get. 

What I WANT it to mean

This initiative is going to be a major public investment and non-governmental non-profit organizations see it as an opportunity to fund their projects.  The disparate goals of this initiative are often in conflict.  If climate change solutions and related wildfire hazard reduction goals conflict with biodiversity goals, addressing climate change hazards must be the top priority because all life is threatened by the consequences of climate change.  The public must understand that when the climate changes, the vegetation changes.  The ranges of native plants and animals have changed and will continue to change in response to climate change.  Native vegetation is not inherently less flammable than non-native vegetation.

On August 18, 2020, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire swept through Big Basin Redwoods State Park, burning over 97% of the land, forested in native redwood trees. (AP Photo/NicCoury published by CA State Parks)

The native plant movement is a form of climate change denial.  We cannot replicate the landscape of 250 years ago, as native plant advocates wish, because it is not adapted to the current and anticipated climate.  Biodiversity is appropriately defined as all species of plants and animals, regardless of their origins.  Forests are major carbon sinks, whether they are native or considered non-native by people with a short-term perspective of nature and evolution.

Over 160 million native conifers have died in California in the past 8 years. They were killed by high temperatures, drought, and native bark beetles. All of these factors are consequences of climate change.

The survey for this project is not user friendly.  Within its constraints, here is a sample of the specific points I was able to make:  “Do not fund projects that use pesticides, including herbicides.  Do not replace established vegetation that does not require irrigation with vegetation that will require irrigation to become established.  Do not fund projects that will require recreational access restrictions. Stop eradicating non-native spartina marsh grass with herbicides because it protects wetlands year around from storm surges.  Where afforestation is possible, plant only trees that are adapted to the current and anticipated climate. Fund projects that protect residential communities from coastal flooding and salt-water incursion into ground water. Fuels management projects must assume that native and non-native vegetation is equally flammable because flammability is unrelated to the origin of plants.  If climate solutions conflict with biodiversity goals, climate solutions should be the top priority because all life is threatened by climate change.  If fuels management goals conflict with biodiversity goals, fire safety should be the top priority.”

Land Management: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In January 2015, UC Berkeley destroyed about 25 eucalyptus trees at the top of Dwight Way, above the intersection of Sports Lane.  We visited the area shortly after the trees were destroyed and told our readers about the project.  We also reported that the project was an example of the huge gap between policy and practice in UC Berkeley’s tree removal projects.  The following is an excerpt from a letter that a member of the public sent to FEMA about this project, detailing the discrepancies between UC Berkeley’s theoretical commitments to “best management practices” and their actual land management practices:

  • Green dye is added to Garlon and sprayed on the stump of the tree shortly after it is cut down. January 2015
    Green dye is added to Garlon and sprayed on the stump of the tree shortly after it is cut down. January 2015

    “The stumps of the trees that were removed have been dribbled with green dye, indicating they were sprayed with herbicide to prevent them from resprouting.  However, no herbicide application notices were posted at the site as required by law* and as described in the Final Environment Impact Statement for the FEMA grants: “In addition to the herbicide application measures, the subapplicants would follow procedures for public notification and education, including posting the timing, location, and appropriate amounts and types of pesticides or other chemicals to be applied at least 24 hours in advance.” (EIS, page 5.10-14)

  • “The Final EIS also states that “in general” most tree removals will be done “from August to November to avoid the wet season and the bird nesting and fledging season.” (EIS page 3-34) This commitment made by UC Berkeley in the EIS has been violated by this round of tree removals in January after heavy rains.
  • “In addition to the approximately 25 trees that were recently destroyed, we counted over 100 stumps that have been destroyed in this area in the past. This area is not described in the Cumulative Impact Section (EIS 6.0) of the EIS. In other words, cumulative impact of the proposed FEMA projects is underestimated by the EIS.

Tree removals, Dwight Way and Sports Lane. January 2015
Tree removals, Dwight Way and Sports Lane. January 2015

Consequences of tree removals

One of our readers contacted us in late May 2016, suggesting that we revisit this location to see the consequences of tree removals in January 2015.  So, we went to take a look.  The scene some 18 months later is a stark reminder of why we are opposed to the destruction of all non-native trees in the East Bay Hills.

Dwight Way and Sports Lane. May 2016
Dwight Way and Sports Lane. May 2016

Where all of the trees were destroyed in January 2015, the ground is now completely covered in non-native weeds.  There are several species of thistle and poison hemlock that are over 6 feet tall.

Dwight Way and Sports Lane. May 2016
Dwight Way and Sports Lane. May 2016

In some places, the trees were only thinned and the tree canopy is still intact.  The shaded forest floor is significantly less covered in tall weeds.

Dwight Way and Sports Lane. May 2016
Dwight Way and Sports Lane. May 2016

We also saw the evidence of attempts at weed control.  In some places there was a sharp dividing line between dead weeds and green weeds, suggesting that the brown areas had been sprayed with herbicide.  In other places, the grassy weeds seemed to be have been cut down, perhaps with a weed whacker.  A sign indicated that goats were also being used to graze the weeds.

Dwight Way and Sports Lane. May 2016
Dwight Way and Sports Lane. May 2016

Misguided choices create more maintenance issues

When the tree canopy is destroyed, increased sunlight creates opportunities for weeds to colonize the bare ground.  Once the weeds take over, land managers are forced to use herbicides to reduce the weed growth.  The only alternatives to using herbicide are more costly, such as hand-operated mechanical methods or renting goat herds.  This is a man-made problem that could have been avoided by leaving the tree canopy intact.

However, we don’t want to leave our readers with the impression that we support the radical thinning of our eucalyptus forest.  We are opposed to such thinning because the herbicide that is used to prevent the trees from resprouting is mobile in the soil.  It kills the tree by killing its roots.  In a dense eucalyptus forest, the roots of the trees are intertwined.  The herbicide used on one tree travels through the intertwined roots and damages surrounding trees that were not destroyed.

The herbicide also damages mycorrhizal fungi in the soil because they are extensions of the tree’s roots.  Mycorrhizal fungi play an important role in forest health because they transfer moisture and nutrients from the soil to the tree.  Therefore, the success of a succession landscape is handicapped by the damage done to the soil.

Also, the trees develop their defenses against the wind as they grow in a specific location with specific wind conditions.  If they are suddenly exposed to a great deal more wind because they have lost the protection provided by their neighbors, the result is often catastrophic windthrow.  That is, the chance that a tree will fall down greatly increases when it is exposed suddenly to more wind than it grew in.

The idea of “thinning” is an appealing compromise to a heated controversy.  However, the consequences of thinning must be weighed against the entirely theoretical benefit of reduced fire hazard.  The cost/benefit analysis does not make a strong argument in favor of radical thinning.

The continuum from Good to Bad land management

East Bay Regional Park District began to implement its “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” in 2011, after the Environmental Impact Report for the plan was approved.  According to a presentation made by Fire Chief McCormack to the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors on June 3rd, there are 3,100 acres of park land to be treated for fuels management over the life of the plan, of which 863 acres will be done by the end of 2016 and 64 acres will be done in 2017.  The Fire Chief said, in answer to a question, that 1,360 acres (44%) of the total acres are forested with eucalyptus.

Tilden Park, Recommended Treatment Area TI001, June 5, 2016
Tilden Park, Recommended Treatment Area TI001, June 5, 2016

We went to see one of the “initial treatment” projects in Tilden Park on June 5th.  “Recommended Treatment Area” TI001 is along Nimitz Way, which is a paved road/path on the ridgeline.  About 17 acres of it is heavily forested in eucalyptus on both sides of the road.  The project apparently started recently and is not yet completed, judging by the presence of a lot of heavy equipment still on site.  So, these observations of this project should be considered preliminary:

  • The smallest trees are being cut down and those immediately adjacent to the road.
  • The tree canopy is intact. That is, the forest floor is still shaded.
  • The stumps were sprayed with herbicide, judging by the blue dye on the stumps.
  • There were pesticide application notices, but they had been wiped clean. Presumably there was information on those notices during the spraying and perhaps for some time after the spraying, then the information was removed.



We must say that we were not horrified by what we saw.  There are still a lot of trees left and we are encouraged that the forest floor is still shaded.  As we have reported, when the eucalyptus forest is clear-cut the bare ground is quickly colonized by non-native weeds, which then must be sprayed with herbicide.  Since we don’t know the tree density prior to the project and what it will be when the project is complete, we can’t say what percentage of the trees were destroyed.

We plan to visit this area again after a year or so to answer these questions:

  • Is there evidence that the trees that remain were damaged or killed by the use of herbicides on the neighboring trees that were destroyed?
  • Is there evidence of fallen trees, suggesting that increased wind in the forest caused windfall?

One of our concerns about these projects was not addressed by what we saw.  The beginning of June is still in the height of bird breeding and nesting season.  We heard the calls of many nesting birds, including quail.  We are surprised and disappointed that this project began before the end of nesting season, which is the end of July.  We also wonder if some effort was made to check for nesting birds before trees were cut down.  There is no mention in the requests for proposal that the company doing the work was required to do such nest surveys before the work began.

We are describing a project that is not yet complete.  If many more trees are destroyed, it’s possible that the tree canopy will be destroyed and the forest floor will not be shaded.  If the tree canopy is intact when the project is complete, we consider this project less damaging than the clear-cuts being done by UC Berkeley and being demanded by the lawsuit of the Sierra Club.  On the continuum from Good to Bad projects, East Bay Regional Park District is closer to Good than to Bad.  EBRPD also deserves credit for supplying more information to the public about their projects than other land managers, including posting pesticide application notices.

*Last week we reported that we recently learned that pesticide application notices are not required by California law before, during, or after the spraying of Garlon or glyphosate for non-agricultural purposes.  You can read about that HERE.

Update:  On October 18, 2016, we went to see the result of “initial treatment” of Recommended Treatment Area TI001 in Tilden Park.  We confirmed with East Bay Regional Park District that initial treatment is complete, although they reserve the right to destroy more trees “if we discover something we missed this summer.” 

Our over-all impression of the project is not substantially changed from our first visit in June 2016, shortly after the project began.  These are our observations:

  • The project is accurately described by the “prescription” for the Recommended Treatment Area TI001. The prescription is available on EBRPD’s website HERE.
  • With the exception of a few small areas at the ends of the project area, trees were thinned rather than clear-cut. The trees are on average about 25 feet apart.
  • The canopy is still intact and the forest floor is shaded, though not heavily.
  • New growth of poison oak and blackberry is already emerging from the leaf litter.

Initial treatment of Recommended Treatment Area TI001 in Tilden Park, October 2016
Initial treatment of Recommended Treatment Area TI001 in Tilden Park, October 2016

New sprouts of poison oak in TI 001.
New sprouts of poison oak in TI 001.

As we have said before, maintaining the canopy should suppress the growth of weeds and retain moisture in the leaf litter.  If so, fire hazards are not substantially increased by this type of treatment.

However, a few of our objections to these projects remain:

  • Pesticides were used to prevent the trees from resprouting and also sprayed on the understory to destroy the fuel ladder to the trees.
  • The pesticides that are used are known to damage the soil, which could damage the trees that remain as well as whatever plants remain.
  • The trees that remain are now more vulnerable to windthrow.
  • Valuable habitat has been lost and wildlife may have been harmed by the pesticides that were used and will be used going forward.

In conclusion, even radical thinning is preferable to clear cuts.  However, the benefits of thinning are questionable, particularly because of the pesticides used by these projects.

“Tending the Wild:” Implications of land management by Native Americans in California

In our last post we told our readers about the usefulness of non-native plants which are closely associated with human civilization and are therefore found everywhere, but are considered weeds.  We don’t wish to leave our readers with the impression that native plants are not at least equally useful, so we will counter-balance our last post with this report based on a book about California Native Americans:  Tending the Wild:  Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. (1)  The author, M. Kat Anderson, is the national ethnoecologist of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and an Associate in the Department of Plant Science at UC Davis.

Aboriginal societies have been categorized by anthropologists as either hunter-gatherer or agricultural societies.  California Native Americans were considered hunter-gatherer societies because they were not sedentary, tied to a specific site where they tilled the land to grow crops, and they had no domesticated animals.  Tending the Wild challenges this categorization based on an exhaustive survey of the land management practices of California Native Americans.  The author proposes a middle-ground between the dichotomous categories to reflect the many ways in which Native Americans essentially gardened wild plants to produce their food and other utilitarian objects, while also acknowledging the seasonal mobility of Native American society.

Karok basket maker, 1894.  Smithsonian photo archive
Karok basket maker, 1894. Smithsonian photo archive

Fire was the essential tool

Million Trees has reported many times that California Native Americans intentionally set fires, but until reading Tending the Wild we did not appreciate how essential fires were to their culture, nor did we understand the many purposes for which fires were set.  Here is an incomplete list of the many reasons why Native Americans set fires:

  • Fires maintained grassland by eliminating shrubs that naturally encroach on grassland in the absence of fire.
  • In the absence of fire, thatch of dried grass accumulates when grasses die back during the dry season. This thatch retards the germination of a new crop of young grass.
  • Young grass which sprouts after a fire is attractive to grazing animals which were hunted. Young grass was also preferable for basket-making because it is straight and pliable.
  • Fire reduces shrub vegetation which competes with grasses for light and water. Land cleared by fires was then seeded with the plants most useful to Native Americans.
  • Fire recycles nutrients in the soil.
  • Fire was used to smoke small mammals from their burrows.
  • Fires were used to corral grasshoppers and other insects considered edible for harvesting.
  • Fire was used to reduce insect populations that feed on the plants eaten by Native Americans. For example, the duff beneath oaks was burned before acorns fell so that acorns were not eaten by insects.
  • Fire was used to germinate seeds of the many species of native plants that require fire for germination.
  • Periodic fire was considered a means of preventing wildfires fueled by accumulated dead vegetation.

Other land management methods

Pomo gathering seeds, 1924.  Smithsonian photo archive
Pomo gathering seeds, 1924. Smithsonian photo archive

Fire was one of many management methods used by California Native Americans to foster the plants that were most useful to them.  In some cases, these practices maximized their food sources and in others they produced useful materials such as those needed to make baskets or plants thought to have medicinal properties.

Tending the Wild reports that 60-70% of the diet of California Native Americans was from plants.  Miwoks report using 48 species of plants for fresh greens compared to just a dozen salad greens typically found in a modern market.  California Native Americans ate 15 of 31 native clover species. Clover seed was broadcast-seeded onto burned ground because it improved the fertility of the soil by restoring nitrogen to the burned soil.

Miwok mortars where seeds and nuts were ground.  Smithsonian archive
Miwok mortars where seeds and nuts were ground. Smithsonian archive

Baskets were equally important to their culture.  Every family typically had 22 different types of baskets for a variety of purposes such as storage, food gathering, beating seeds from plants, cooking, water storage and transport, fish traps, small-animal traps, etc.  Seventy-eight plant species were used by California Native Americans to make these baskets.

Here is an incomplete list of the methods used to foster the plants most useful to California Native Americans:

  • The seeds of favorite plants were planted to be available close to living quarters. Native tobacco is an example of a plant found around Native American settlements, presumably planted there.
  • The seeds, bulbs, corms, rhizomes etc., of favorite plants were collected and transplanted close to settlements.
  • Bulbs, corms, roots, rhizomes were harvested selectively to preserve the plants which were stimulated by the thinning of the plant.
  • Fields of useful plants were weeded to create monocultures that made harvesting more efficient.
  • Plants were pruned and coppiced to maximize fruit production.
  • Plants were pruned to produce the straight twigs and grasses useful to make baskets and arrow shafts.
  • Plants were irrigated to promote growth and maximize fruit production.
  • Plants were treated by cooking, soaking, etc., to remove toxins so they could be safely eaten.

Impact on the landscape

Over the thousands of years that California Native Americans practiced these land management practices, the landscape was altered by them:

  • Plants that did not tolerate frequent fires died out, creating a landscape that is dominated by plants that are adapted to fire. Jon Keeley (USGS) informs us that over 200 native plant species are “fire endemics,” requiring fire to germinate and dying out within a few years after a fire. (2)
  • The Europeans arriving at the end of the 18th Century found a landscape dominated by grassland because repeated fires prevented succession to shrubs and forests. The absence of shade produced a landscape of native plant species that require full sun.
  • Forests were open and park-like with little understory, which had been repeatedly cleared by frequent fires.
  • The plants which were most useful to Native Americans were more likely to survive than those that were not useful because they were tended and competing vegetation burned or weeded.
  • The natural ranges of the plants which were useful were altered by the land management practices of Native Americans. They were transplanted and grown from seed where they were accessible to the community.

What are the implications for ecological “restorations?”

The landscape selected by native plant advocates as the goal of ecological “restorations” is the landscape that existed in 1769 when Europeans first laid eyes on San Francisco Bay.  Now we know that it was a landscape that had been altered by thousands of years of occupation and cultivation by California Native Americans.  There are at least two major flaws in the selection of this landscape as the goal of “restoration:”

  • Native ranges reflect the choices made by the Native Americans. They do not necessarily reflect the forces of nature.  The modern obsession with “where plants belong” is based on a fantasy of why plants were found where they were when Europeans arrived in California.
  • The land management practices of Native Americans are no longer being practiced, which means that the plants they preferred are no longer receiving the care that ensured their survival in the past. Humans no longer set fire to the landscape every year.  Therefore, the landscape has changed and will continue to change to correspond to changed practices:

The relationship between humans and nature has changed since California was occupied solely by Native Americans.  Consequently, nature has changed in ways that reflect how humans now use the land.  The author of Tending the Wild acknowledges that her book conflicts with the goals of ecological “restoration:”

“If restoration is aimed at returning ecosystems to the condition in which they existed before Western settlement degraded them, then that condition is surely not an entirely natural one.  As we now know, many of the classic landscapes of California—coastal prairies, majestic valley oak groves, montane meadows, the oak-meadow mosaic of Yosemite Valley—were in fact shaped by the unremitting labor of generations of native people.  Moreover, these and other communities were managed intensively and regularly by these people, and that many have disappeared or changed radically in the absence of management shows they were not self-sustaining.” (1)

In our next post, we will think about how our relationship with nature has changed and what that means for the future of the management of our remaining open spaces. Given this revised understanding of the “native” landscape, how must we revise our goals for ecological “restoration?”

  1. M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, University of California Press, 2005 (This is the source of most of the information in this article.)
  2. Jon Keeley, et. al., Fire in Mediterranean Ecosystems, Cambridge University Press, 2012