I am slowly learning about some of the shortfalls my training as a western scientist has had on my ability to interpret vegetation communities of the Klamath Mountains. What I am learning, that was never properly taught in my schooling, is that everything we see today in the Klamath Mountains was affected, to some degree, by long-term human habitation over the past ~9,000 years. For example, up north in British Columbia’s coastal temperate rainforest Fisher et al. (2019) found that the plant communities around village sites had different plant assemblages than control sites and were dominated by plants with higher nutrient requirements and a cultural significance. Consider this next time you look at an oak woodland on a river bench
Another major misconception taught in western science is the description of the assumed wild and wilderness as absent of human impact–when this is far from the truth. Much of what we have designated as wilderness was sculpted by Native People’s stewardship. For example, numerous travel routes were maintained for securing basketry, medicine, food resources, or reaching ceremonial sites (see map below).
Vegetation communities across space and time
I recently re-visited Fish Lake and the high country ridgelines above Bluff Creek in an attempt to see this region in a new light, through a fresh lens, as I re-learn how to interpret regional vegetation communities. This watershed is, and has been, used extensively by both Karuk and Yurok people for thousands of years. The low elevation lakes were incorporated into many of the historic travel routes and the ridgelines above Bluff Creek were the preferred routes into the high country each summer.
What follows I learned while creating The Klamath Mountains: A Natural History and working with Frank Lake (2021) as he wrote the First People chapter. He and others are teaching me to see the landscape in new ways.
Beginning n the coastal lowland forests of the western Klamath Mountains near Weitchpec, species like Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), chinquapin (Chrysolepis chrysophylla), and evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) were significantly influenced by tribal practices, including burning.
At middle to higher elevations along ridgelines and on southern aspects (often along travel routes) cultural burning and fuelwood practices favored sugar pine/manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) dominated ridge systems. Here, fires intensify near the upper ridges on southern aspects and frequent burning kept the ridge trail systems clear, reduce surface and ladder fuels, and increased drought-tolerant/fire adapted plant species.
These practices tended sugar pines for food, medicine, and materials, as well as manzanitas for food (berries/sugar), wood (fuel/heating/ceremonies), and medicines (bark/leaves). Wildlife also benefited from these open ridge systems for travel, foraging, and seasonal occupancy ranging from tribally sought game and regalia species of birds, reptiles, and mammals.
I will continue to revisit and rethink my understanding of landscapes and vegetation communities over space and time because of what I am learning about traditional agroforestry and burning systems. I look forward to furthering my understandings thanks to the wealth of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the Klamath Mountain Region.
Lake, Frank. 2021. The Klamath Mountains: A Natural History — First People Chapter. Unpublished. Planned December 2021 release.
Fisher, J.A. et al. 2019. Indigenous peoples’ habitation history drives present day forest biodiversity in British Columbia’s coastal temperate rainforest. People Nat. 1: 103– 114.