Before the arrival of European settlers, Native American tribes had lived in North America for more than 20,000 years. During that time, Native Americans generally used land in ways that were in harmony with nature. If an area was full of wild animals, or game, they would hunt in that area for some time. When the supply of game in a given area decreased, they would move on and allow the animal population there to rebound. If an area had fertile soil, they would clear the land and cultivate it for crops. After the soil was depleted, they would let the land lie fallow and allow wild plants to grow back.
Over time, those methods changed ecosystems to suit the needs of local Native American peoples. Burning was among the most important of their land management tools. Slash-and-burn techniques were used to clear underbrush, encourage the growth of new grass, recycle nutrients in the ecosystem, control other animals, and reduce the danger of larger, uncontrolled fires. The regular use of fire altered the natural development of landscapes, hindering the development of forested ecosystems dominated by large trees. Instead, the burnt land, with its fertile ash, was used for the cultivation of crops. Over time, the repeated use of burning caused enduring changes in the ecosystem to favor plants that tolerated fire, changes that were useful for humans.
As a result of these practices, Native American tribes developed cultures that viewed land as shared property for communal use. Although properties could have well-defined boundaries, land was not meant to be accumulated or transferred from one person to another.
These views of property clashed with the concept of private property held by the European settlers who began arriving in large numbers in North America in the 1600s. For these settlers, land was a valuable asset owned by individuals and was a source of wealth and prestige. Landowners developed their property—by establishing farms, in most cases—in order to generate income from the land. Soon after the settlers’ arrival, their demand for land was too great, and the Native Americans began to push back.
As a result, conflicts over land defined European-Native American relations for much of the next three centuries as settlers claimed more and more territory. These clashes started in the 1600s as a series of wars on the East Coast between colonists and Native American tribes. After the American Revolution in the late 1700s, the United States steadily expanded westward. During the 1800s, settlers displaced Native American tribes all the way to the Pacific Ocean. During this time, the United States adopted the Indian Appropriations Act, which established the Native American reservation system and relocated Native Americans to designated territories. The stated purpose of this system was to give Native American tribes land over which they could exert sovereignty and practice their own cultures.
Unfortunately, the reservations were mostly unsuitable to the tribes' needs. The reservation lands often lacked fertile soil, adequate water, and other resources. With limited access to quality farmland and game, Native American tribes relegated to reservations were unable to practice their traditional farming or hunting lifestyles. These factors had a devastating impact, resulting in significant poverty on the reservations and a loss of Native cultural practices.
When Native American peoples were removed from their tribal lands, their land management methods were disregarded. As a result, the environment suffered. Europeans rejected the beneficial Native American burning techniques; the colonists suppressed all types of forest fires. But North American ecosystems cared for by Native American tribes were reliant on regular burning to perpetuate their natural cycles. With intentional burning no longer in use and natural fires suppressed, highly flammable underbrush accumulated, which led to larger and more frequent wildfires.
Given the high costs of battling wildfires, modern governments are trying to learn from traditional Native American land management techniques and adopting those methods for fire prevention. Many U.S. states, including Oregon and California, are using controlled burns to clear out underbrush and dead trees. Like Native Americans, they are performing these exercises in the late fall and early winter when the ground is damp and cold to prevent the fire’s spread. Despite these steps, wildfires continue to be a major problem in California and other states. Today, billions of dollars are spent every year fighting wildfires and paying for the property damage they cause. It may take time for the ancient Native American land management techniques to significantly reduce the incidence of major fires.