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Local Forest History: Fire-Dependent Landscapes with Lane Johnson

Fire-dependent landscapes

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Heidi Holtan:
It is time to talk forests on the Tuesday morning show. This show strives to take an in-depth look at some natural resource-based issues important to our region. We not only discuss the issue, but we attempt to highlight some creative initiatives related to the topic. In our current series, we're focusing on the history of our local forests. Last month it was Forest Ecologist John Almendinger, talking about how glaciation influenced the types of forests we have in our region. Today's guest is Lane Johnson from the University of Minnesota, Cloquet Forestry Center, discussing his research and work involving the long history of indigenous people managing the forest. Lane, thanks so much for being with us today. And Mark, thanks for being here.

Mark Jacobs:
Good morning.

Lane Johnson:
Good morning. Thanks for having me. It's a privilege to be here.

Heidi Holtan:
Lane, let's talk a little bit about where you work. What is the Cloquet Forestry Center? What kind of things do you do there?

Lane Johnson:
Yeah, the University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center is the primary research and teaching forest for the University of Minnesota. So, we're affiliated with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences based in St. Paul. And our role here in northern Minnesota and on the Fond du Lac Reservation is to be a destination where people can come and learn and exchange ideas related to the ecology and stewardship of northern forest ecosystems. As far as my role there, I'm a research forester so I'm one of three folks that's in the Forest Management and Research Office here at the Forestry Center. We're responsible for land stewardship decision-making, providing research access to would-be or could-be researchers, providing research support, supporting educational efforts, and doing outreach related to our work.

Heidi Holtan:
Well Lane, we'd love to hear about your research that's involved fire scars on old stumps or snags in the region.

Lane Johnson:
Sure. So I'm classically trained as a geographer rather than a forester. So, I kind of look at the forest with a lens or a synthesis. And so, I'm interested in patterns and processes (similar to what John Almendinger was describing when he was on), but thinking about how humans have shaped some of those patterns and processes. And so, in forested settings where we know that we're interested in understanding the effects of fire or the fire history on those sites. Fire-dependent trees (like our native Red Pine, which is the State tree of Minnesota) can be a storyteller on the landscape related to the history of fire on the sites where those trees are found. So, Red Pine particular is a really long-lived pine species: individuals can persist on a site for 400-plus years, and we're able to use the pattern of wide and narrow rings within the wood of those trees, and the fire damage that those trees oftentimes hold, to understand the occurrence or reoccurrence of fire. At the tree level, we can understand fire frequency, we can pull information related to fire seasonality. When we begin to look at triggering records at a site, and expand to larger scales from sites to landscapes to region, we can begin to answer questions related to fire and fire climate relationships, area burned over time, and also effects of land use change on fire occurrence. And so, human decision-making at a grand scale.

John Latimer:
So Lane, when you're walking around, you're kicking around in a forest and you come across an old burned-out stump. I've often just assumed that these are just relics left over from the last logging, which was probably a century ago or a bit more, maybe 110 or 115 years ago. Is there a way to know whether those stumps are that young, or whether the burn actually happened before the logging?

Lane Johnson:
Yeah, I love that you're referring to those stumps as kind of remnants or relics of the past forest. And certainly, a lot of the fire scar red pie material that's out on the landscape doesn't date to the last 50 years or so of management, but actually dates to the pre-settlement period of Minnesota forest history. By pre-settlement, I mean pre-Euroamerican settlement or colonization. Ways we can tell if that material is old is really kind of kicking or probing at the wood itself: If it feels solid, if there's actual wood there and it's not just kind of punky debris or that you're not hitting pockets of decay, that's a sign that you've got a resinous stable piece of pine wood that likely has a record of growth, and may very well contain annual resolved fire scar records. Those records can be dated using tree ring science and then used to inform what the site history is of a place where we're finding that wood. And so if you're finding a really solid, what you believe is Red Pine and it smells really resinous, like it has this pungent pine scent, like terpenes, that aromatic essence of Red Pine is unique to that species in the lake states. And no other conifer or hardwood species has that strong resinous odor. That's often time attributed to fire-scarred wood that's been stabilized through fire damage.

John Latimer:
Two things. One, my father always taught me that if I was ever out in a rainstorm and I wanted to get a fire started, I should look for one of those old Red Pine stumps and kick it apart, because that wood will burn regardless of how wet it is. And two, are you saying that a White Pine would have a different sort of a stump? That you could actually tell the difference between a Red and a White Pine? I mean at this burned-over kind of stage?

Lane Johnson:
Yeah, you're right on both counts. If you wanna start a fire in the rain, go find a resinous piece of Red Pine.

John Latimer:
I hated to bring that up because I'm destroying the evidence that you are seeking out! <laugh>

Lane Johnson:
Well, yeah, we don't have too much competition out there. People tend to use other means for lighting fires these days, but I think that's a great piece of woods wisdom and that's certainly information that's been passed down through generations. And yeah, just to generalize, White Pine dumps tend to rot from the heart out, so from the inside out. So you find a White Pine stump in the woods it's probably likely a ring of preserved wood that's hollow in the center, whereas Red Pine tends to rot from the outside in, where you have resinous heartwood that's retained. That's the record we're working with. And the sapwood and the bark has rotted and sloughed off and is not there as part of the record.

Mark Jacobs:
So Lane, how did you come to the conclusion that indigenous peoples had intentionally started fires over centuries?

Lane Johnson:
Sure. A lot of the first places where we were looking to find fire scar material and develop these records were in we'll call fire-isolated sites. So islands in the center of lakes, small islands or geographically-isolated peninsulas where you would expect to see less fire occurrence rather than more. And what we are actually seeing is the opposite phenomenon, where these sites have more evidence of frequent fire occurrence, even though you would expect them to be burning less from an intuitive standpoint. And it's because those portions of the landscape have been kind of a focus of human activity over centuries because of their strategic geography, if you will, or their position on the landscape. That location has strategic value for human use or occupancy from a survival standpoint. And that's something that we continue to see manifested today in our kind of aesthetic preferences for use of those sites, whether that's an island or a lake shore campsite or a lot of places where people probably tend to recreate or have their summer homes or family cabins today.

Heidi Holtan:
We're talking with Lane Johnson today from the University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center and Mark Jacobs is joining us as well, producer for the segment on forests. Let's talk a little bit about intentional burning. How did centuries of intentional burning shape the forest landscapes?

Lane Johnson:
So the landscapes of what we now call Minnesota have been occupied by people for millennia. Basically, since the glaciers receded and moved north into Canada out of northern Minnesota, we've had human communities using the landscape for practical purposes: for survival and to support their families and communities. And so, there was kind of a habitual nature to how landscapes were getting used over time that we commonly refer to in the archeological world as the seasonal round. And so fire was commonly used as a means of creating food abundance or producing fuel wood maintaining travel routes for agriculture, for hunting, for landscaping sites, drying them out and opening them up, to reduce insects, and in warfare. And so when you think about all these different ways that fire was being applied to the landscape for very practical purposes, that created this landscape mosaic that was ever-changing. And that ever-changing landscape or fire-maintained mosaic is what Euro-Americans came and experienced when they first were settling in the state. And that had the biodiversity and the kind of species mix and forest mix that people thought was desirable and worth coming and settling for and using for their own needs. So, I guess that's trying to provide a very brief, succinct overview, but I could talk at length about that. <laugh>

Heidi Holtan:
What about fire suppression then? How has that changed the landscape of forests?

Lane Johnson:
So, many portions of Minnesota would've seen fire annually to decadally. So, areas that were more grassland (oak savannah or pine savannah) would've seen fire on a regular basis and it would've been as common as a spring rain or an early-season snowfall. And with fire suppression, we've pulled fires out from these sites that would've been seeing fire at a fairly frequent scale. Where many portions of our landscape, areas that were more fire-prone or culturally important in the past, used by Ojibway peoples, have missed six or seven entries of fire over the last hundred years because we've been actively putting out fire and keeping fire out of these places. And so what we have is the loss of fire-maintained habitats. So, we used to have millions of acres of barrens, prairies, savannah, and woodlands and forest openings like glades and meadows across the lake states.

And many of those have gone away. They've infilled with forests: they've become densely treed. And trees aren't necessarily bad, but when you have more trees per acre (Mark probably knows this well, as a forester) that can oftentimes be actually detrimental to the health of the forest as a whole. And so more trees means more fuel. So when we think about fuel, we think about fire risk and fire hazard. There's all these ecological and social consequences to having a fire deficit on the landscape. And that's kind of what we're beginning to really wrestle with or begin to fully understand is what all the consequences of that fire suppression or fire exclusion has been, and how we can work to work our way out of that deficit.

John Latimer:
So if I understand you Luke, you've got a stand of Red Pine, let's say, and a fire sweeps through every 25 or 30 years and burns up the hazel and the grasses that are underneath without really getting into the canopy and damaging the forest. But if you let that fuel source build up and you get a larger fire and the fire can jump into the canopy, I mean, I've seen lots of fire-scarRed Pines, white and red that have obviously been burned at the base but not damaged to the point where they die off. But I know in my own situation, the undergrowth hazel that comes in is really starting to choke things off under there. So talk a little bit about that.

Lane Johnson:
Yeah, depending on where you are in the state, the ecological effects of fire exclusion are gonna be very different. Certainly in the Grand Rapids area and on the Chippewa National Forest and Leech Lake Reservation, these thick brush understories or kind of ground-floor sort of strata really inhibit the regeneration of long-lived trees. And it also creates conditions that are not necessarily desirable from a recreation standpoint or from a hunter's perspective, and also kind of limits the productivity of other shade-intolerant or sun-loving species that would be persisting or flourishing in a more open forest context where that hazel and aspen layer isn't as well developed or homogenous. In other parts of the arrowhead region, (Northern St. Louis Count and where I am at the Forestry Center in Carleton County) we've got really thick understories of Balsam Fir. and I love Balsam Fir, it reminds me of the north woods, but some of us are familiar with what Balsam Fir looks like when we put it on a fire. Say we're burning our Christmas tree in the new year: imagine the effects of not just one balsam that's getting thrown on a fire, but literally not burning your family Christmas tree for a century and letting all of that fuel accumulate and then having it all go at once. And that has a very different energy sort of release and very different fire effects. And so if you're burning a hundred years of Christmas trees and you also want to keep living pine on a site like that. You're gonna have a really hard time retaining those long-lived Red Pine and White Pine and other species that tend to cohabitate with Balsam Fir in the absence of fire, but really benefit by having fire maintaining those sites and keeping them more healthy and diverse.

Mark Jacobs:
Tribal forest entities have really been leaders in my experience, in putting prescribed fires on the ground. Do you see that spreading? Do you see that expanding?

Lane Johnson:
Yeah, I'd say as a whole, people are tired and exhausted with business as usual fire-suppression policy. And we're seeing from the news out west that our approach to putting out fire or attempting to control fire is failing <laugh>. And so I think people that are on the forefront of fire suppression and fire response and wildland fire settings are looking for new ways to understand our role as fire moderators in the landscape. And that indigenous perspectives, Ojibwe perspectives, indigenous knowledge systems as a whole (or indigenous science) helps us reframe where we fall in the hierarchy of the community of life <laugh>. And that maybe in fact people are not more important than the trees that we're interested in protecting or that fire is being onto itself or a spirit that needs to be respected and belongs among us. And so it's kind of philosophical and practical and relational reasons for why we would begin to lean on indigenous knowledge and indigenous science for kind of reshaping or revising our collective relationship with wildland fire.

Heidi Holtan:
It's Lane Johnson from the University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center and Mark Jacobs. I think there's a lot more we could be talking about, but thank you both for your time today. We appreciate it.

John Latimer:
Thank you. Talk about a subject that could go much deeper. Thank you both for joining us. It's been eye-opening.

Lane Johnson:
Yeah, thank you all for the time for providing this as a platform. It's great to talk with you all.

Heidi Holtan:
This segment is made possible in part by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

——
To learn more, Lane says:
The BWCAW fire history work informs much of the collaborative work I do now. Here's a storymap that synthesizes many of the lessons learned from the BWCAW:
People, Fire and Pines
z.umn.edu/peoplefirepine

Below are some materials highlighting other fire-related projects that are underway at the U of MN Cloquet Forestry Center and elsewhere.
Fire History at the UMN Cloquet Forestry Center
z.umn.edu/blendedknowledge

How Indigenous Knowledge Reconnects Us All to Fire
https://www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2022/09/20/fire-indigenous-traditional-ecological-knowledge

Fire History of Star Island
z.umn.edu/windigoominis

How Indigenous Burning Practices Could Revitalize a Northern Minnesota Forest
https://mspmag.com/arts-and-culture/how-restoring-indigenous-burning-practices-could-revitalize-/

Heidi Holtan has worked at KAXE/KBXE for over 22 years. She currently helms the Morning Show as News and Public Affairs Director where she manages producers, hosts local interviews and programs, oversees and manages web stories and establishes focus areas of programming like phenology, clean energy, Indigenous voices, Strong Women, local foods, clean energy, economic development and more. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North. In 2018 Heidi received the “Building Bridges in Media” award from the Islamic Resource Group for her work on KAXE/KBXE hosting conversations about anti-Muslim movements in rural Minnesota. During the pandemic, Heidi hosted 14 months of a weekly statewide conversation on COVID-19 for the AMPERS network.
As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Sarah Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Sarah creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, Sarah enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).