Growing up, I went on a lot of road trips. These road trips typically spanned across rural America everywhere west of Illinois. There were feelings of awe and wonder as I wound through the mountains along the Lewis and Clark trail or stood on the prairies trying to imagine an Indian bison hunt. The colorful brilliance of a sunset or the beauty of a wildflower meadow also tend to foster this feeling of amazement at the intricacies of nature.
Nature often has a way of invoking these emotional ties to its beauty and pulling opinions toward a conservation state of mind. It tempts us to question whether human interference is validated. Why even manage the land? Why can’t we just leave it as a natural wilderness “as it was” in the absence of human influences? Wasn’t it much more balanced before people arrived and disrupted the ecosystem? The answer is simple: our North American landscape was managed long before Europeans inhabited it.
It is tempting to aspire toward pristine forests and rangelands by way of stepping back and letting nature run its course. However, the land has never been self-maintaining. In fact, the ecosystems have been significantly shaped by human maintenance. The historical role of Native American land management using prescribed fire, for example, is often overlooked. Archaeological evidence shows people, who were present far before European and Spanish explorations, were not only hunter-gatherers but also horticulture experts. Many of the anthropogenic fires were utilized to cultivate the food and fiber resources needed to survive. For example, certain roots and berry plants have increased production after fire disturbance and were kept in the earlier, more tender and palatable stages of growth rather than the woody stage of succession. Fire was also used to promote basketry material plant growth, making it not only a food production stimulant but also growth of cultural materials. Looking closely at the environment, it is clear that these are fire-adapted landscapes and fire is beneficial for recycling nutrients and building healthier soil.
Another aspect of land management is grazing. There is often controversy between livestock and wild horse grazing. Imagine the landscape prior to modern inhabitation. Bison, pronghorn, elk, deer, and other ungulates migrated throughout the country. By continually moving, these herds of animals prevented over-impact of the land and prevented disease. Picture the grazing lands today. Wild horses return again and again to the same springs, the same fields, and the same regions 365 days of the year. Now compare the historic grazing patterns to the present. Not only are wild horses not native to North America, but they are not manageable to restrict their impact on the environment. Livestock, however, are manageable. Not only do they respect fences (unlike wild horses), but they are only allowed to graze during a specified season, at certain numbers, and are moved from pasture to pasture. This is much more like the historical land management techniques of the bison and pronghorn.
In the end, land management is a vital aspect of today’s world. We cannot step back and expect the land to self-maintain. As I drive down the length of California and see the tragic, charred state of our land due to lack of management, I am reminded of the critical need for management. I am reminded of the need to manage our land when I see the springs and rangelands, thrashed and overgrazed by wild horses to the point of disintegration. As stewards of the land, we have a responsibility to make the decisions necessary to preserve its beauty. We need to remember that protecting the land is not always equivalent with preserving it. -sb
References and Additional Reading
Anderson, M. Kat, and Moratto, M. J. (1996.) Native American Land-Use Practices and Ecological Impacts. Water, II, 187-206. University of California, Centers for Water and Wildland Resources. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/545a90ede4b026480c02c5c7/t/55256362e4b02b9e39c24af0/1428513634635/Anderson_Morrato_SN%2Bmts.PDF
Davies, Kirk, and Boyd, C. S. (2019). Ecological Effects of Free-Roaming Horses in North American Rangelands. Biological Sciences, volume 20, 10:1-8. doi:10.1093/biosci/biz060
Pyne, Stephen J. (2001.) Fire: A Brief History. Canada: University of Washington Press.
Weigel, Lawrence E. (1993.) Prehistoric Burning in Northern California. In “There Grows a Green Tree: Papers in Honor of David A. Fredrickson.” Center for Archaeological Research, UC Davis. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/545a90ede4b026480c02c5c7/t/5525656be4b007c5fd383d81/1428514155621/Weigel.pdf