What Was Lost in the Fire: A Conservation Memorial

On the all too rare mornings when the Central Valley’s dirty air has been cleansed by a winter storm—and before the Tule fog has set in—I find myself fortunate enough to be gazing out upon the snow-topped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains from my office window, my view bracketed by two amazing National Parks: King’s Canyon (with Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states of the US) at the southern edge, and Yosemite to the north. As a hiker and rock-climber in my youth, I spent many hours poring over photographs of these places in books checked out of the American Center Library in Bombay. I dreamt of visiting Yosemite, a mecca for rock-climbers, imagined myself walking through the fantastic landscapes captured on film by Ansel Adams, feeling the granite under my fingers. Rock-climbing gave way to bird-watching as I grew into an ecologist and a conservation biologist, and Yosemite assumed even more significance as one of the holiest places in any conservation pilgrimage of the US, indeed the world. What a model for nature conservation this National Park was, is. How wonderful the wilderness I could picture in these places in the writings of John Muir and others. And how lucky I am now to be living so close to such places. When I gaze out at the mountains, or visit Yosemite as part of the throngs of millions that flood its beautiful valley every year, I try to imagine what the place might have looked like a century or two ago—a fantasy we all share, those of us who despair over the state of the natural world. In my dreams now, though, I don’t see it as a “pristine” wilderness untouched by humans, but a home to a community of native people, the Ahwahneechee who once thrived there, but whose existence has been sought to be erased from our collective memory and imagination, as a centerpiece of the still prevailing notion of a National Park as pristine wilderness, a place where human beings don’t belong (and therefore never did), except as visitors who may be allowed to look and to listen, but scarcely to touch anything.

Today, I am pleased to share with you the following essay by Eric Michael Johnson, who reminds us of the human history of Yosemite, and what we in the conservation community have lost in seeking to airbrush humans out of our imagination of what Nature is supposed to look like, “unspoilt”. We must reclaim that history too if we are to reconcile our existence on this planet—not apart from, but as active participants in, Nature. This guest post is part of Eric’s Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or by following Eric on Twitter.

The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California’s San Joaquin river. Soft orange light had just begun to spill over the craggy peaks of the eastern Ahwahnee mountains causing the jagged minarets to ignite like still burning embers from the Indian campfires below.

All remained still inside the wigwams of the Ahwahneechee camp. But an attuned ear would have noticed that the early morning trills of the hermit thrush were strangely absent. A disturbed silence had entered the forest, broken only by the occasional clumsy snap of twigs as if from an animal unfamiliar with its surroundings. There was also the faint smell of smoke.

Suddenly, fires roared to life throughout the camp as multiple wigwams were engulfed in flame. White men quickly scattered from the light and into shadow. A party of vigilantes in the company of Major John Savage had used smouldering logs from the Indians’ own campfires to set the shelters ablaze. It was a tactic that those with experience in the Indian Wars knew to inspire panic and the crucial element of surprise. Dozens of Ahwahneechee fled their burning wigwams as the fire rapidly spread to the surrounding forest. Thick plumes of smoke were bathed in the same searing glow that was now descending from the rocky peaks above.

“Charge, boys! Charge!!” bellowed the gravelly voice of Lieutenant Chandler. A heavy drumbeat of foot falls now joined the sound of crackling pine. Thirty men, many wearing identical red shirts and crude suspenders purchased at the mining supply depot, dashed from the surrounding bushes with their rifles.

“So rapid and so sudden were the charges made,” wrote the chronicler Lafayette Bunnell, “that the panic stricken warriors at once fled from their stronghold.” Savage’s men fired indiscriminately into the Ahwahneechee camp, a people who had called this valley their home for centuries.

“No prisoners were taken,” recalled the witness to these events, “twenty-three were killed; the number of wounded was never known.” All in all, it was a successful mission. However, the author noted that even more “savages” could have been hunted down and murdered had the fire not raged so out of control as to spread down the mountainside endangering their own camp. As the ragtag militia fled downhill to rescue their supplies the Ahwahneechee survivors escaped further into the mountains, little knowing that they would never be able to return home.

One month later, on January 13, 1851 by order of the governor and through a special act of Congress, the Savage militia received federal and state support to “punish the offending tribes” in the region now called the Yosemite Valley. For the leadership of California’s newly established government the approach for dealing with the native population had become a “war of extermination.” For more than a decade afterwards the land between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers remained under permanent military occupation until it became the first state park in US history to be ceded by the federal government.

I was raised in the mountains of Northern California and walked the trails near the site of this tragic massacre as a child. But I had never heard of John Savage nor the terrible events that lay behind the formation of Yosemite National Park, a picturesque symbol of the conservation movement and a vacation resort for millions. Rather it was John Muir, that noble wanderer and founder of the Sierra Club, whose name was synonymous with this national treasure. When my brothers and I climbed out of the family station wagon to witness the majesty of this glacier carved valley, it was Muir’s name that adorned the signs along the manicured trails and the celebrated volumes in the gift shop. If the indigenous population was mentioned in any of the brochures or trail guides I have no memory of it and I left with no indication that the region had once been inhabited. The impression I received was that Yosemite had always been a pristine wilderness, as sparse and pure as the Ansel Adams portraits that hung on my family’s wall for years afterwards.

But it was this skewed interpretation of wilderness that John Muir had successfully promoted, a vision that has haunted the conservation movement ever since. In his famous nineteenth century travel writings in the Sierra Nevada mountains Muir described Yosemite, not just as a picturesque marvel of nature, but as something divine that was beyond human frailties. The landscape of the “Sierra Cathedral Mountains,” was a “temple lighted from above. But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” he wrote. It was a place that was “pure wildness” and where “no mark of man is visible upon it.”

[T]he main canyons widen into spacious valleys or parks of charming beauty, level and flowery and diversified like landscape gardens with meadows and groves and thickets of blooming bushes, while the lofty walls, infinitely varied in form, are fringed with ferns, flowering plants, shrubs of many species, and tall evergreens and oaks.

It’s not that Muir didn’t encounter native peoples in his travels, he did, but he found them to be “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.” For a wilderness as pure as his holy Yosemite “they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” But, ironically, these “strange creatures” as Muir described them were the ones responsible for many of the features that gave Yosemite Valley it’s park-like appearance, the “landscape gardens” that Muir so valued. It is this forgotten legacy that has undermined many of the successes in the global conservation movement today, one that traces directly back to John Savage and John Muir and the first protected wilderness site that later became the model followed around the world.

Yosemite Valley / Image: Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t only Muir who was struck by the ordered beauty of Yosemite Valley. Lafayette Bunnell, the New York physician who accompanied Savage on his exploits in 1851, recalled that “the valley at the time of discovery presented the appearance of a well kept park.” Likewise, Galen Clark who was the state guardian of the Yosemite Grant after it was ceded to California, remembered similar conditions when he first visited in 1855.

“At the time,” Clark wrote, “there was no undergrowth of young trees to obstruct clear open views in any part of the valley from one side of the Merced River across to the base of the opposite wall.”

However, these conditions didn’t stay that way for long. Forty years later he found that Yosemite’s open meadow land had all but disappeared, estimating that it had been “at least four times as large as at the present time.” The reason for this, known in the nineteenth century but little appreciated until recently, were the many ways that Yosemite’s first inhabitants had transformed their environment over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Chief among these was the strategic use of fire.

“Native Americans’ uses of fire pervaded their everyday lives,” explains UC Davis ecologist M. Kat Anderson, whose research appears in the edited volume Fire in California’s Ecosystems. These ranged from setting fires to keep the land open and aid in travel, a wildlife management tool to burn off detritus and increase pasturage for deer, as well as for fire prevention purposes.

“Native Americans thoroughly understood the necessity of ‘fighting fire with fire,’” Anderson says. “Their deliberately set fires were often designed to preclude the kinds of catastrophic fires that regularly devastate large areas today.”

These fires may also have played an important role in promoting biodiversity. In 1996 Anderson wrote the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project’s final report to Congress (pdf here), co-authored with CSU, Fresno archaeologist Michael Moratto. In their report the authors state that most plants useful to the tribes of the Sierra Nevada were shade-intolerant varieties that required regular burning in order to thrive. These species included deer grass for use in basketry, edible native grasses, as well as a variety bulb, corm, and tuber species. By setting intentional fires throughout the forest “gaps or grassy openings were created, maintained, or enlarged within diverse plant communities,” the authors wrote. “The result was that plant diversity was maximized.”

However, for Muir, as it was for many conservationists in the nineteenth century, these fires were “the great master-scourge of forests” and extinguishing their fury would be his divine mission. “Only fire,” he wrote in 1869, “threatens the existence of these noblest of God’s trees.” It wasn’t enough to simply keep loggers and shepherds from degrading the forest. They needed strict and unyielding protection. To that end Muir would advocate federal forest protection and fire suppression measures with every politician and government official who might listen.

At times, as friends noted, Muir’s zeal to protect forests overshadowed all other concerns. In a revealing moment described by his close friend Mary Louise Swett, written to Muir’s fiance four days before their marriage, Mrs. Swett impressed upon the young woman her future husband’s intensity.

“I hope you are good at a hair splitting argument,” she wrote. “You will need to be to hold your own with him. . . He told Colonel Boyce the other night that his position was that of champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was in regard to Indian extermination.”

In contrast to Muir’s advocacy of exclusion and suppression, Yosemite Park officials praised the logic of regular controlled burns “when the Indians were Commissioners” and stated that “absolute prevention of fires in these mountains will eventually lead to disastrous results.” But, for Muir, “the best service in forest protection — almost the only efficient service — is that rendered by the military.” Without enforcing the power to seal off protected forests from encroachment Muir feared that his ultimate goal of preservation would fail.

“One soldier in the woods, armed with authority and a gun,” he wrote, “would be more effective in forest preservation than millions of forbidding notices.”

In the end Muir’s position won out, supported as it was by such figures as then-New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, General William Jackson Palmer, and Captain George Anderson, the military official recently charged with protecting Yellowstone National Park. For those critics who still maintained that Indian-style fires should be employed in Yosemite, Muir had an alternative solution as he made clear before a meeting of the Sierra Club on November 23, 1895.

“Since the fires that formerly swept through the valley have been prevented,” he said, “the underbrush requires much expensive attention that will call for the services of a skilled landscape artist.” However, these funds never materialized to the extent that Muir imagined. As a result, the once park-like expanses of the Yosemite he had heralded soon became overcrowded through unchecked growth. At the same time, the United States was saddled with the high costs of suppressing every fire that ignited because the build up of fuel on the forest floor now threatened to wipe out the entire region.

Yosemite Valley in 1866 and 1961.

The conservation decisions of the nineteenth century have left a lasting legacy that is still felt today. In a study that appeared in the March, 2010 edition of Ecological Applications (pdf here), Penn State researchers Andrew Scholl and Alan Taylor published their analysis of how successful this fire suppression policy ultimately was. The authors sought to test the claim that intentional fires had been a widespread feature of Native American stewardship. To accomplish this they collected data throughout a 2,125 hectare region of the Yosemite National Park including the number of different species, the density by which trees were packed together, and their age as revealed through boring into trees to remove core samples.

These core samples that Scholl and Taylor collected revealed the environmental history of every tree in their survey. Because tree ring shows evidence of environmental conditions at the time that section was exposed to the outside world, by analyzing these tree cores they were able to identify both when a fire took place and how widely it had spread based on the fire damage recorded in the rings. Furthermore, if one region contained significantly younger trees than another, it would indicate evidence of a serious fire that had wiped out entire sections of forest. In the end, the researchers were able to construct a map of forest change between the years of 1575 – 2006 and the impact that fire had on forest biodiversity.

The results of this analysis were highly significant (p < 0.01) and found that shade-tolerant species such as White fir and incense cedar had increased to such an extent that Yosemite Valley was now two times more densely packed than it had been in the nineteenth century. These smaller and more highly flammable trees had pushed out the shade-intolerant species, like oak or pine, and reducing their numbers by half. After a century of fire suppression in the Yosemite Valley biodiversity had actually declined, trees were now 20% smaller overall, and the forest was more vulnerable to catastrophic fires than it had been before the United States expelled the native population.

However, based on the rotation of historic burn sites throughout the forest, it left no question that the fires had been intentionally set rather than the result of random lightening strikes or other accidental burns. Native American groups had profoundly altered the landscape of the Yosemite Valley in ways that were both advantageous to them as well as to the local ecosystem as a whole. They were successful stewards of the forest, not because they had no impact on the environment, but because the forest was their home and they relied upon it for every aspect of their lives. In support of these findings two additional studies, one also in Yosemite and one along the California coast, came to similar conclusions. Despite John Muir’s passionate desire to protect Yosemite’s magnificent trees, after 100 years of conservation the overall density among the 14 most abundant large-diameter species had declined by 30%.

For Muir and his nineteenth century contemporaries, conservation meant “government protection should be thrown around every wild grove and forest on the mountains.” This continues to be the standard model for conservation around the world. However, as in Yosemite, the global conservation effort has focused their attention on the idea of pristine wilderness to the exclusion of all other concerns, including those of the people who have lived there for centuries.

In 2003 the harmful effects of these policies were denounced by indigenous delegates from around the world when they presented a joint declaration before the Fifth Parks Congress then being held in Durban, South Africa.

“The strategy to conserve biodiversity through national parks has displaced many tens of thousands of very poor park residents, transforming them into conservation-refugees,” they announced. “First we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors, later in the name of state development, and now in the name of conservation.”

However, just as there could have been for the Ahwahneechee in 1851, there is also an alternative today. Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, along with her colleague Tanya Hayes at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, conducted a study in 2007 (pdf here) that compared vegetation patterns throughout 84 forests in 15 separate countries, only half of which were under national protection. In a direct rebuff to the claims of conservationists, they found no significant differences in vegetation density between forests that were protected and those that were not. However, there was one criteria that made a difference: the direct involvement of local and indigenous populations. Those regions where local groups were able to define the rules for how their forest was managed had significantly higher vegetation densities than those that didn’t, regardless of their protection status.

Vegetation Density Associated with User Group Right to Make Rules.
From Ostrom and Hayes, 2007.

“The above findings clearly contradict the belief that protected areas are the only way to conserve forests,” they wrote. In so doing they offer an opportunity to change course on a policy, well intentioned though it may have been, that led to the expulsion of native peoples and the commitment to an expensive conservation strategy that has had little result. In other words, it’s time for the exclusionary approach of John Savage and John Muir to be tossed on the fire.

In July, 1929, seventy-eight years after the Ahwahneechee people had been driven from their homeland, a frail, elderly woman quietly processed acorns on the valley floor. Her weather worn face appeared thin, yet firm like crumpled paper. She was a living record of the trials her people had suffered ever since they were herded into open air prisons at the point of a bayonet. As she sat, pulling back broken shell from acorns like damaged fingernails, a curiosity-seeking tourist offered her a nickel if she would serve him. I can only imagine the lifetime of rage she must have felt in that moment.

“No!” she cried. “Not five dollars one acorn, no! White man drive my people out–my Yosemite.”

Her name was Maria Lebrado, but she had once been known as Totuya. She was the granddaughter of Ahwahnee Chief Tanaya, a revered leader who had attempted to shield his people from harm only to witness the murder of his son and the loss of everything he held dear. Now the last remaining member of her tribe, Totuya had returned home in order to die.

During her brief stay she was interviewed at length by a Mrs. H.J. Taylor and given a tour of the lands she had not seen since she was a child. However, as she looked out upon what her beloved Yosemite had become, she cast her glance down in disapproval. What had once been a wide open meadow used for games by her entire village was now an overgrown field, pockmarked with thin trees and scrub brush.

 “Too dirty, too much bushy,” she explained sadly. After centuries of care the land she cherished had been allowed to lay dormant and unused, the fire needed to bring this valley to life having been extinguished long ago. Her beloved Ahwahnee was lost.

3 thoughts on “What Was Lost in the Fire: A Conservation Memorial

  1. Anonymous

    Forest density is important… but forest diversity is really the critical component, along with the Quality of that diversity. There are good studies from both Oregon & Washington concerned with indigenous peoples' uses of the land. Good references can be found on the pages of the native plant societies from both States (WNPS & NPSO), as well as the research of Kat Anderson. I spoke at length at a conference with Dennis Martinez, who was very knowledgeable about these issues, probably 12 years ago… and Linda Storm (an EPA employee & PhD candidate at U. Wa in fire ecology) also added a great deal to my understanding of this subject.Years ago I found a copy of a 1924 “Survey Graphic”- a magazine published by the New School in NYC. The cover had a picture of a Cali (Hoopa? Pomo?) native with a headline “Waiting 75 years for their day in court”. Very moving (& telling)…Thanks for this article. There are a lot of nuances to this… & opportunists who would support having “people” living in “wilderness areas” (in order to extract wealth, under whatever guise possible), because it was “natural” to do so. It's way more complicated… but the fire has an intrinsic place in these landscapes… unless “we” don't care to maintain the ecology that controlled fire supports and maintains. ^..^ John Browne

  2. Eric Michael Johnson

    You're absolutely right John, forest diversity is the more important component. Ostrom and Hayes point that out in their paper but vegetation density was the best variable for an international comparison between very different environments. The primary argument they were making is that the management of wildlife from a distant bureaucracy was not achieving any significant results. If people are serious about conservation it's probably more important to reach out to local and indigenous groups to be directly involved in forest management.

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