A Pleasure to Burn

A Story of Good Fire on the Six Rivers and Klamath National Forests

By Lauren Burton

Photo: Kimberly Baker

The Eclipse Complex was still smoldering when a crew set fire to the understory of a nearby forest in early October 2017. The crew was part of the Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX), and they were learning how to safely manage prescribed fire on a landscape that depends, as many California forests do, on frequent low to moderate-intensity fire as part of its natural regime. It was a testament to the trust that the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP) had built within the community that TREX was able to burn at all after such a destructive wildfire season, and now WKRP is moving forward with plans to put much more fire on the landscape.

In 2013, members of the Karuk Tribe, Mid Klamath Watershed Council, the United States Forest Service (USFS), local Fire Safe Councils, and environmental and community organizations gathered to form a collaborative to focus on forest health and fire safe communities. The WKRP effort was born out of the ashes of a previous collaborative effort to plan the Orleans Community Forest Health and Fuels Reduction project (OCFR), which failed spectacularly when the Karuk Tribe and environmental groups- all collaborative participants- sued the Forest Service after a contractor desecrated a ceremonial trail.

Photo: Will Harling

This time, things would be different. After recognizing the mistakes made with OCFR, the Forest Service hired Nolan Colegrove and Merv George, two Hoopa Tribal members native to the area, as Orleans District Ranger and Six Rivers National Forest Supervisor, respectively. Having these high ranking positions filled by tribal members with intimate knowledge of the ecological and cultural history of the forest was a bold move- one which facilitated a renewed trust in the Forest Service and opened the door for true collaboration. The collaborative that would later become the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP) is community and tribal driven, with co-leads and a core team nominated by participants. Both George and Colegrove are active in WKRP, which demonstrates a sincere commitment to collaboration on the Six Rivers National Forest.

Collaboration wasn’t easy in an area with a volatile history of timber harvesting, Spotted Owl conservation, fire exclusion, and suppression of tribal management practices. Building trust has been an iterative process of constant communication and engagement among the members of WKRP. Skilled third party facilitation was crucial to the collaborative’s early success, and eventually the group came to an agreement around shared values, collective vision, and strategies for returning good fire to the landscape in accordance with traditional cultural practices.

Photo: Western Klamath Restoration Partnership

To implement that vision, WKRP is now in the final planning stages of its first big project as a collaborative. The Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management Project is a 5,570 acre pilot project that includes multiple stages of treatments and large scale prescribed burning on unhealthy forests that haven’t seen fire in over 100 years. This project is entirely within the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), which means that WKRP is proposing to set fire to forests in close proximity to homes and communities. That in itself is extraordinary, but it’s not the only thing that makes the Somes Bar project unique.

The Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management Project will be implemented through a Supplemental Project Agreement (SPA) under the umbrella of a larger Master Stewardship Agreement (MSA) between the Six Rivers National Forest and the Karuk Tribe. With the MSA/SPA, the Karuk Tribe will retain oversight of the project, including selecting contractors and administering timber sales. This is crucial, because the Tribe has been burned in the past. It was the malpractice of an ill-advised contractor hired through a stewardship contract that led to litigation during the OCFR project.

In addition to maintaining oversight, the Karuk Tribe will also be able to retain the receipts and reinvest the money generated from timber sales into future restoration projects in the project area. To the knowledge of those involved, an MSA/SPA allowing for commercial removal of timber has yet to be implemented in California, and this innovative approach has definitely garnered attention. It’s a new business model, and it will take some getting used to, as well as some additional training for the Tribe to learn how to administer timber contracts.

WKRP has garnered significant support from the community- they wouldn’t be able to bring fire into the WUI without it. It took years of community outreach to make this project possible. Compared to other communities, however, the use of prescribed fire was a relatively easy sell. There is a large indigenous population in the area, so the community already had a deeper understanding of traditional fire management, and there have been large fires in the area every year for the last four years. It was clear to community members- even those who may be wary of the idea of fighting fire with fire- that the current system was not working. It was into this climate of concern over increasing fire severity that WKRP introduced the Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) in the fall of 2014, and they have burned every year since.

Photo: Western Klamath Restoration Partnership

Klamath River TREX brings together participants from Federal, Tribal, and state agencies, as well as fire safe councils, NGOs, fire departments, and tribal and community members to build skills to perform prescribed burns safely. About half of the 80–100 participants in each crew are from the Klamath area, and the local capacity to burn has quadrupled. Each year, TREX implements some much needed prescribed fire on private and tribal land, but Will Harling, of the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council, says that the most important part of TREX is the opportunity to burn together. Through TREX, WKRP has practiced planning and implementing small-scale prescribed burns, which has allowed them to grow as a collaborative in preparation for the much larger burns prescribed through the Somes Bar project. Over the course of several years, the program built up enough trust among the community that by 2017, according to Harling, there was “virtually no resistance to putting smoke in the air after an extreme wildfire season. Intensive outreach to nearby residents and issuance of commercial in home HEPA air filters to smoke sensitive residents have turned vocal opponents into supporters.”

It was important to WKRP for the Somes Bar project- their first big project as a group- to be a collaborative process from start to finish, and they wanted to participate in the planning and preparation of the NEPA documents. When the NEPA process commenced, the Forest assigned Corrine Black as the Interdisciplinary (ID) Team Leader, in part because she had over ten years of experience working closely with the Karuk Tribe. The assembled ID Team was comprised of specialists and line officers from the Six Rivers National Forest, as well as four members of the Karuk Tribe, who were able to join the team as employees supplied by a cooperating federal agency. There were nearly 30 additional contributors that were involved every step of the way, including WKRP members from the Karuk Tribe, Mid Klamath Watershed Council, Salmon River Restoration Council, EPIC/Klamath Forest Alliance, and additional expertise from the Six Rivers National Forest. The collaborative ID team developed the purpose and need, proposed action, and no action alternatives for the Somes Bar project. Such public involvement on an ID team is almost unheard of, and introduced unique challenges, mainly the time and training required to afford such a high level of participation.

The draft Environmental Assessment (EA) was released in late February 2018 after three years of collaboration and planning. Completing the EA collaboratively took longer, but those involved are hopeful that the extra time spent on this document will benefit WKRP and the Forest in the long run. Many of the parts that took the longest to prepare can be easily applied to other projects- the fire history, cultural context, a clear-eyed description of the “No Action” alternative, and proposed treatments are consistent throughout the WKRP and Six Rivers area- and those that contributed to the EA are now trained in the NEPA process.

The Somes Bar project could be a turning point, providing a new framework for project planning, collaboration, and incorporating traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) into forest management. For members of WKRP, the success of this project is rooted in process. It’s the process of collaboration: continuing to build trust within WKRP, strengthening relationships, and ultimately getting through implementation without the collaborative dissolving. It’s the process of incorporating traditional fire management and knowledge alongside western science. It’s restoring the natural ecological processes of small and frequent fires on the landscape. By some accounts, this project is already successful: says Corrine Black, “we got a draft [EA] out and we still like each other.” This is largely due to the work of WKRP, a collaborative effort that has been, says Will Harling, “even better than we could have hoped for.”

Photos: Will Harling (left) and Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (right)

If all goes well with the Somes Bar project, similar treatments will be planned throughout the WKRP boundary. The end goal is to return the 1.2 million acre landscape to historic fire regimes, and ideally this project would have covered over 50,000 acres. But Bill Tripp, Karuk Department of Natural Resources, knew that they wouldn’t get the “social license to go that big that fast.”

The success of this project could have significant and far reaching influence. Already there are a number of interested parties waiting to see how the project unfolds, including the adjacent Klamath National Forest, where WKRP is already planning two pilot projects and is interested in securing agreements. The hope is that this project, and the process used to develop it, can be used as a framework for increasing collaborative participation in the NEPA process. If the project is successful, it will demonstrate that investing in collaboratives like WKRP is the best strategy to advance landscape scale restoration.

Most importantly, this project can provide a model for the Forest Service to work more closely with tribes. The Karuk Tribe has featured prominently throughout this story, but this level of tribal involvement is rare in modern land management planning. The use of an MSA/SPA with timber receipts, the collaborative NEPA process, and prescribed fire treatments in the WUI are all innovative, but it’s the participation of the Karuk Tribe and other community stakeholders from start to finish that is truly groundbreaking. The incorporation of Karuk knowledge and fire management practices underlies the entire project. Traditional ecological knowledge was woven into every aspect of the Environmental Assessment, and valued equal to, or at times even greater than, western science.

Photo: Western Klamath Restoration Partnership

On what this means to the Karuk, Bill Tripp says that this is something that they have always strived for, but weren’t sure they would ever achieve. This project “started from a concept on a government to government level and on a collaborative level and we have agreed to work all the way through implementation, monitoring, and adaptive management together.” After years of watching tribal concerns and indigenous knowledge consistently left out of management discussions, it was important for the Karuk to finally have a prominent seat at the table.

The Tribe’s participation in the planning process is evident in the language of the draft Environmental Assessment, which incorporates Karuk cultural and social considerations throughout, including provisions for food security, subsistence gathering, cultural resources, traditional economies and living-wage jobs.

Written into the purpose and need of the Somes Bar Environmental Assessment is the Karuk story of Coyote stealing fire, prefaced thusly: “The time has come to listen to echoes from our land… the wisdom and teachings of Native American Indians. Their words are simple and their voices are soft. We have not heard them, because we have not yet taken the time to listen. Perhaps now is the time to open our ears and our hearts to the words of wisdom they have to say…”

Perhaps this time, we will.

Collaborative partners and community members. Photo: Western Klamath Restoration Partnership

This story was written by Lauren Burton for the Sierra Institute to highlight successful collaborative forest restoration projects in California as part of the SCALE project.