Fire/ Forest management
Margo Robbins Bio:
Margo Robbins is the co-founder and president of the Cultural Fire Management Council (CFMC). She is one of the key planners and organizers of the Cultural Burn Training Exchange(TREX) that takes place on the Yurok Reservation twice a year. She is also a co-lead and advisor for the Indigenous People’s Burn Network.
Margo comes from the traditional Yurok village of Morek, and is an enrolled member of the Yurok Tribe. She gathers and prepares traditional food and medicine, is a basket weaver and regalia maker.
She is the Indian Education Director for the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School district, a mom, and a grandma.
-Global Earth Repair Foundation
Transcript of Audio:
My name is Margo Robbins, I am the co-founder and executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council. I am also a co-lead of the Indigenous peoples burn network. I am a Yurok tribal member from the traditional village of Moreck, along the lower Klamath River. I am a cultural practitioner, a mom, and a grandma. Traditional ecological knowledge is part of who we are as native people. For thousands of years, our ancestors have tended this land that we live on, and one of the ways that we do that is with fire. The knowledge of our ancestors is written in our DNA. I'm sure many of you have heard about epigenetics. It is a new, semi-new, discovery by scientists that on our DNA is another layer that they talk about holding our trauma, and that's true. But in addition to holding the trauma, it also holds all the memories of all the good things, and all of the knowledge of the generation, generations that have gone on before us. And so this knowledge of how to take care of the land comes down through our bloodlines, we have never left our home place. We are intimately familiar with the lay of the land, the plants and animals that grow here, the flow of the water, the wetter weather patterns, the wind patterns - what the land needs to be healthy - and the water. This could all be considered traditional ecological knowledge. It's important because it's our past to help. I feel like the things that the non-native people have brought on to our land, and the management practices that have been going on, -often, against our will - has not been healthy for us as native people. It has not been healthy for the land, the plants or the animals. For thousands of years we lived in balance with the natural world around us, and that balance has been severely disrupted. One of the ways it's been disrupted is with the suppression of fires, and taking fire out of the forest, and fire is supposed to be a part of the forest. We have used it for generation, upon generation, upon generation to keep the land in balance. And when the Europeans came, they were afraid of fire. They excluded it from the forest, and they have disregarded the knowledge that thousands of years of caretaking had kept this place healthy. So we need to reinstate that way of managing the land, to make it healthy again. And it's so critically important because everything is so out of balance. Controlled burns are a way of using a fire as a tool to manage the land, and you use it in a controlled way so that it stays within the confines of the boundaries that you want it to stay in. And to do that, there are certain things that you need to do to make sure that it stays under control. One of those things is that you need to clear the perimeter around the area that you want to burn. The land is so overgrown with brush that this is a critical piece in order to keep the fire under control. So you want to cut the brush 10 feet, a slot of 10 feet all the way around, around the area that you intend to burn. And then within that 6 to 10 feet, you need to scrape, scrape down to mineral soil, so there's nothing growing. Just scrape it down to the dirt. And that way, once you start burning, when it gets to the place where there is no woody debris or grass or leaves or anything like that, there is no fuel for it to go any further. So that's one way that you keep a burn under control. Another part of a controlled burn is how and where you light it: So in our country we live in a really, really steep country. And it's very important to start your burn at the top of the slope that you plan to burn on. And so you have your (line), the line scraped down to the dirt. And then you start just below that, and you run a line of fire across there, so that the top gets black. And then you can drop down 10 to 12 feet, and you run another line of fire with the torch. And that just burns up the hill to meet the black that's already been burned. And then it stops. So that's how you control. It's also important to be aware of the wind, and how hot it is, how dry it is, where the moisture is in the air. And you of course don't want to burn in really windy weather, because wind will really drive the fire. So you have to be aware and only burn after just certain conditions, the wind can't be too high. And also, you need to be aware of how dry the things are around it, because of course when you burn there might be some leaves that will - you know - go up into the air and float someplace. And so you need to be aware of where they land, are they going to start something on fire there. So another part of keeping it under control and contained in the area is to look outside of the area that you're burning, to make sure that nothing is landing someplace and starting a fire, outside of the area that you intend to burn. And if something does start and you notice it, quickly, you just go over and quickly tamp it out. So those are the components of a controlled burn, otherwise known as a prescribed burn.
So one of the ways that we take care of the land is the fire, and it has just so many good things about it, it truly restores the land. At this point in time, it is a land restoration tool that, at one time, maintained the health of the land because the land was healthy. Right now, the land is very unhealthy. It is choked out with brush, and there are a lot of invasive species, and the plants and animals that we rely on, to continue our cultural life ways are disappearing fire benefits. The animals restore their habitat. We used to have - about half of our land here - used to be prairie. Now it's only 3%. The prairies are only 3% of what they once were because of fire exclusion or suppression. And we don't have deer out here on our reservation anymore. And so we can use fire to restore those prairies, and bring our home, because then they will have good habitat, a place that they want to live, nutritious food for them to eat, and a place for them to raise their babies, the places that we have burned, we see deer, and all of those places. Before we burned. The land was so thick with brush that deer couldn't walk through there, nothing could walk through there, except like the wood rats and little bunnies. And so after we burned and got rid of all the brush, then nutritious growth came up that the deer like to eat. And so they come - and really sometimes the ashes are barely cold when you do or come rolling them in the ashes and the ticks off their body, and then they come back when the new growth comes up, and then they just really enjoyed that habitat that we created for them. Also, it makes room for native plants to grow. When there is so much brush ruling the native plants, they kind of get choked out, and they don't really reach the sunlight, and also the water is sucked up by all the other plants. And so when we burn the hillsides, that allows those native plants to come back in, they get more sun, they have more water. And so that's a really good benefit of the cultural burns as well. The burns increase the health and availability of our traditional food sources like acorns, and berries, and mushrooms, it increases the health and availability of medicine plants. Like wormwood and different kinds of teas, the places we see a lot more wild Iris which is what we use to make string. And then there's things like the pine cones, that they need to have heat, in order to open new pine trees. So all of those things that we rely on as Yurok people are becoming more healthy. In addition to those benefits. The burns also are a protection against wildfire, because fire requires fuel, fuel meaning woody debris, small brush, trees, dead leafs, things like that. So when we burn large areas and reduce the woody debris, it impacts the severity and impact of a wildfire. Also, it leaves biochar on the ground, and biochar of course, is a purifier of water, another word for it is charcoal. You stop and think about, you know what, “What do people have in their water purifiers?.” It's charcoal. We're leaving charcoal on the ground on the landscape level. And so it was purifying the groundwater level.
So, the charcoal improves the soil, makes it more healthy and productive. Some of the plants that we rely on for basket weaving are actually fire dependent. We use Hazel as the frame of our baskets. And it has to be burned in order to send up new shoots, and those new shoots are what we use for the frames of our baskets. They are single. They grow up straight and long, and that's what we use in the Hazel is not burnt, it's just the bushes with all kinds of limbs, we can’t use those for weaving. Another basket material is bear grass that grows up in the new growth. And so the bear grass is the white overlay that we use on the designs of our baskets. There are several other basket materials that are not fire dependent, but they benefit from fire. There is the woodwardia fern for the maidenhair fern and big role in wet places. And like I said that fire increases the quantity of water. So if we don't burn on the hillsides near the wet places, the brush will suck up all the water and those moist places that burn don't exist. So they definitely benefit from fire. I first learned about traditional burning… When did I first learn about traditional burning? I remember when I was a kid, and sometimes there would be fires by the road, then we would go pick sticks there. I don't know who started the fires, but sometimes when people started fires, they would be in places where there were hazel and so we would go pick. Other than that, I never grew up really around any kinda cultural burns or anything like that, because they had been outlawed, - if you start a burn and go to prison-. There was a time in the 60s when the government agencies realized that fire was beneficial. And so there was a short period of a few years when it was acceptable to burn, and a guy from Cal-fire would come in and help people burn their Hazel patches. But then that guy, he retired. then and whoever came in next was not interested in controlled burns, and so it went back to: No, no fire or no land. So I did not grow up either practicing or seeing cultural burns. So, a long time ago, in I believe it was the very early 1900s, Prior to 1911 around in that area, that they used to actually shoot movies and people for taking care of the land with fire. And then after that, then they made formal laws that people could be imprisoned for burning. And so there were heavy penalties for trying to take care of the land with fire. And it resulted in what we're faced with today. Huge mega fires continuing to get bigger and bigger, and gobbling up more and more forests, and more and more homes and businesses. It has contributed to overgrown landscapes that must feed these mega fires, which has contributed to species that are mismatched to the place that they're growing, that has contributed to global warming, because when a wildfire are gobbling up the forest, the forest is harder than ever to get the carbon dioxide out of the air. And so the wildfires are putting up all this smoke, not only with smoke, but toxic smoke, which is contributing to global warming. And then it's also wiping out the forest that would normally help that. So taking fire out of the ecosystem has been very, very detrimental. Traditional ecological knowledge should be considered as equal to, or more than, scientific theories that drive decision making. That those that Western science is really what brought us to where we're at today, that if you're not from a place that really understands what it takes to care forest to keep it healthy, and those people who have been on our homelands for thousands of years. We know what it takes to this land. And so, if people want to change the trajectory of this course that we're on, climate change, ecosystem imbalance, then we need to really take into consideration traditional ecological knowledge, because that's what's going to lead us out of this place we're at now. [Transcribed by Sierra Gerber].