2018 People, Fire and Pines

People, Fire, and Pines in the Border Lakes Region of North America

Organizer: Evan Larson, University of Wisconsin-Platteville


Initial Working Group Members: Jessica Atatise, enrolled member of the Lac La Croix First Nation; Brian Jackson, Biologist, Quetico Provincial Park; Lane Johnson, Research Forester, University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry; Lee Johnson, Heritage Program Manager and Archaeologist, Superior National Forest; Robin W. Kimmerer, Distinguished Teaching Professor, Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation; Kurt Kipfmueller, Associate Professor of Geography and Director of the Center for Dendrochronology, University of Minnesota; and Jeff Savage, Director, the Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum and enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

Wilderness has traditionally been thought of as a place untouched by people. Of course, archaeologists know that such a conception bears little resemblance to the truth. Human activities have been shaping nearly all of the Earth’s landscapes for thousands of years. As a result, it is does not make sense for management of wilderness areas to use a mythical pristine condition as its goal. But treating humans as an integral part of the environment has enormous implications for wilderness management, particularly with respect to the longstanding relationship between people and fire.

First Nation communities that spanned North America prior to the arrival of Europeans had a long-term relationship with fire, using it more as a tool than perceiving fire as an adversary. This relationship changed with the coming of Anglo-American pacification and settlement. The explosive fire regimes of the last century are the unintended consequence of the separation of people and land, the removal of traditional landuse practices, and a century of fire suppression all occurring at a time of massive change to the global environment.

Charred and dead trunks of once-open grown pines

Charred and dead trunks of once-open grown pines burned in the severe fires of the early 2000s after a century without fire. This foreshadows a different forest emerging from the ashes and a departure from historic-period forests that developed in close relationship with human land use.

Today, prescribed fire is a key tool in contemporary conservation efforts. Yet, are we using fire effectively to manage wilderness and natural resources? To understand where and when to burn, managers must first understand the drivers of historical fire regimes. Did people fundamentally alter patterns of fire activity in the past through their intentional use of fire? If so, should wilderness managers consider using prescribed fire to maintain the resilience and ecological integrity of protected areas? The project will bring together a team of archaeologists, First Nation community members, land managers, scientists, and those with traditional environmental knowledge to synthesize existing archaeological, ethnographic, and tree-ring data in the context of traditional histories to understand the long-term relationships among people, landscape, and fire in the Border Lakes Region of North America.

Grove of red pine trees

An open grove of ancient red pine trees, bearing the mark of passing fires that burned during the 1700s and 1800s. This grove represents a fading legacy of historic land use.

This is an area where the human influence on historical fire regimes is just now coming to light, and where the role of that influence in preserving biological diversity may be substantial. The results of this synthesis will directly inform revision of the fire management plan of a federal wilderness area and holds the potential to transform the basic understandings of nature and wilderness for a substantial population while laying a foundation for further work to evaluate the dynamic relationships between human communities and their environments.

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