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Indian Fires as an Ecological Influence in the Northern Rockies

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The importance of fire as an ecological disturbance in the Northern Rockies is well accepted. Lightning is generally thought to have been the main source of ignition prior to settlement by Europeans. But writings of explorers and pioneers mention deliberate burning by Indians frequently enough to warrant an investigation of its importance. Interviews with descendants of Native Americans and of pioneer settlers in western Montana suggest that Indian burning was widespread, had many purposes, but was generally unsystematic. Fire chronologies based upon scars on old-growth trees indicate that fire intervals within similar forest types were shortest near Indian-use zones. Comparisons of presettlement fire intervals with those calculated from modern lightning-fire records suggest that Indian-caused fires substantially augmented lightning fires over large areas. As dependence on lightning fires alone may not create or perpetuate certain desirable plant communities or stand conditions, prescribed burning may be needed.

Document Type: Journal Article

Affiliations: Forest Ecologist at the Northern Forest Fire Laboratory, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, USDA Forest Service, Missoula

Publication date: 1982-10-01

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  • The Journal of Forestry is the most widely circulated scholarly forestry journal in the world. In print since 1902, the Journal has received several national awards for excellence. The mission of the Journal of Forestry is to advance the profession of forestry by keeping forest management professionals informed about significant developments and ideas in the many facets of forestry: economics, education and communication, entomology and pathology, fire, forest ecology, geospatial technologies, history, international forestry, measurements, policy, recreation, silviculture, social sciences, soils and hydrology, urban and community forestry, utilization and engineering, and wildlife management. The Journal is published bimonthly: January, March, May, July, September, and November.

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