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Indian burning

It is unnecessary in most cases to invoke human-set fires as an explanation or cause of fire regime patterns in the Southwest. We contend that even if humans had never crossed the land bridge from Asia to North America, historical fire regimes in most Southwestern forests would still have been similar in most respects to the fire regimes that we have documented.

—Swetnam and Baisan 1996, pg. 29

Oddly, those who argue that the record of fire-scarred trees tracks only natural fire grant humanity's capacity to alter those regimes by suppressing flame, which is difficult, but not by starting it, which is easy.

—Stephen Pyne 1995, pg. 23

Click here to solve the puzzleSince the arrival of Europeans in the Southwest, the impact of Indian burning on its landscapes has been hotly debated. Stephen Pyne, America's premier fire historian, argues that Indian burning was so extensive continent-wide that the "general consequence of the Indian occupation of the New World was to replace forested land with grassland or savannah...Conversely, almost wherever the European went, forests followed."

Southwestern landscape ecologists Thomas Swetnam and Craig Allen, among others, argue that due to the "fading record" problem, it is not possible to know for certain "the varied roles of aboriginal Americans in the fire regimes of the Southwest," a region where "the high levels of lightning-ignited fire...are easily sufficient to generate the frequent return intervals..." (Allen 2002, pgs. 182, 180).

Early European visitors to the region were quick to criticize Indians for the frequent fires. The Apache in particular were noted for their "very destructive habit amongst their long catalogue of vices of firing the forests of their enemies" (S.J. Holsinger, 1902, qtd. in Pyne, 1982, pg. 519). There is little doubt that only with the defeat of the Apache could the intensive livestock grazing and fire suppression regimes of Anglo settlement begin.

In general, prehistoric aboriginal impacts in the Southwest were probably greater at lower elevations, where many people lived year-round. Regardless of the impact of Indian fire on the prehistoric ecology of the upland forests, it is the lack of natural fire regimes since that time that have led to the current need for ecological restoration and the return to a regime of frequent fire.



Alcoze, Thom. 2003. First peoples in the pines: Historical ecology of humans and ponderosa. Pages 48-57 in Friederici, Peter, ed. Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests: A Sourcebook for Research and Application. Washington, D.C. Island Press.

Allen, Craig D. 2002. Lots of lightning and plenty of people: an ecological history of fire in the upland Southwest. Pages 143-193 in T.R. Vale, ed. Fire, Native Peoples, and the Natural Landscape. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Arno, S. F. 1985. Ecological Effects and Management Implications of Indian Fires. Pages 81-86 in James E. Lotan, et al., ed. Proceedings, Symposium and Workshop on Wilderness Fire: Missoula, Montana, November 15-18, 1983. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. p. 82-83.

Krech, Shepard, III. 1999. The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. New York: W.W. Norton & Co Ltd.

Lewis, H. T. 1983. Why Indians burned: Specific versus general reasons. Pages 75-80 in J. E. Lotan et al., ed. Proceedings, Symposium and Workshop on Wilderness Fire: Missoula, Montana, November, 15-18, 1983. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, p. 79.

Pyne, Stephen J. 1982. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pyne, Stephen J. 2001. Fire: A Brief History. University of Washington Press. 204 p.

Swetnam, T. W., and C. H. Baisan. 1994. Historical fire regime patterns in the Southwestern United States since AD 1700. Pages 11-32 in C. Allen, ed. Fire effects in Southwestern Forests. Proceedings of the Second La Mesa Fire Symposium. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report RM-GTR-286, Los Alamos, New Mexico, p. 29

Last edited June 25, 2003

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