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Our Responsibility to Steward

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

I am spending my term of service with the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District, where I am fortunate to have the opportunity to interact with many of the community’s land managers through our outreach and technical assistance programs. During the past two months I have observed that there is a lot of responsibility that comes with living in a rural area. An understanding of what this means is expressed by the residents of Mendocino County to varying degrees, yet it is increasingly becoming a necessary reality for all of them due to the unprecedented threats of wildfire and the effects of climate change. So, what is this responsibility and what does it mean for the residents of Mendocino County? Broadly, this responsibility involves the stewardship of the land and natural resources to provide for the present and for future generations, however to really get at the roots of the issue one has to examines events of the not so recent past and how we fit in with that history.

Since time immemorial, indigenous peoples have lived on and managed the forests, oak woodlands, and grasslands of Mendocino County. The traditional environmental knowledge of these people informed the ways in which they interacted with the landscape.

Anthropogenic wildfire contributed to a large share of the 4.5 – 12 million acres of land burned in low-intensity wildfire each year, clearing the forest floor of fuel, reducing the prevalence of plant diseases and pests, and aiding in the regeneration of fire-adapted plants and ecotypes. All of California’s plant communities and ecosystems have evolved with fire, developing strategies that protect against it or benefit from its presence. These fires were often intentionally lit in accordance with the phenology of key organisms, benefiting plants and ecosystems that provided foods, fibers, and medicines.

Far from a wilderness, California was tended with intention.

Following the colonization of these lands by immigrant settlers, indigenous ways of being were upended by an organized campaign of violence and the dislocation of indigenous peoples from their traditional territories. This is a process that still continues today. Widespread fire suppression emerged in the early 20th century, along with other forest management practices diametrically opposed to the practices of indigenous peoples. With the end of the cyclic maintenance of the landscape through fire, forest structure and species composition has shifted to create stands that are more susceptible to catastrophic wildfire and the effects of climate change and result in a reduced capacity for recovery following these disturbances. Acknowledgement of these trends within the environmental and policy sphere has increased in recent years, however moving from rhetoric to action has proved to be a much slower process.

Reintroducing fire alone is not the solution; we must first act a surrogate to fire before the forests are settled in a condition where fire can be reintroduced as a maintaining force. Increasing the pace and scale of forest management is essential in bringing balance back to our forest ecosystems. While there are many government agencies, non-profits, and community groups working towards improving forest management in California, their capacity to get the work done is limited by the scope of the work necessary. Instead, it should also be on the impetus of the land manager, as a custodian of their land, to take this responsibility.

This is not just a responsibility to the land in an abstract sense, it is a responsibility to our community and a responsibility to the legacy of indigenous peoples for the debt we carry by living on their unseated lands.

When land managers undertake fuel reduction projects, construct sheltered fuel breaks, or use prescribed fire, they are not only benefiting themselves by increasing the health of their forest and its resiliency to fire, they are also benefiting their neighbors and their community as a whole. We all benefit from reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire and we all enjoy the benefits of biodiversity and clean air and water. Wildfire and the effects of climate change are both operating at the landscape-level, requiring commitments to management that reflect the scope of the problem. The efficacy of small or geographically disparate projects is limited; however, when communities come together and each responsible party does their part, the sum is greater than the whole of its parts. These synergistic effects are unlikely to come to pass if land managers do not recognize their roles and responsibilities in bringing landscape-level management goals to fruition.

In Mendocino County there is a vast diversity of land managers. Some are logging and ranching families who have lived here for generations, others are recent arrivals from urban areas looking for somewhere to retire, and still others are members of indigenous communities in recognized or unrecognized tribes who have lived here since time immemorial. All these managers have a responsibility to steward the land; however, whether they have the resources, knowledge, or intention to do so is another matter.

My position as a GrizzlyCorps Rural Climate Fellow is not just to provide land managers with technical assistance or connect them to useful resources, it is also to help cultivate that sense of responsibility among the community itself. A community with the tools and impetus to work together for a healthier environment is a stronger and more resilient community. My responsibility, at least for my time here, is to help make this happen.

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