27 Mar 2009, 11:58pm
Cultural Landscapes Fire History Native Cultures
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Fire, Flogging, Measles and Grass: the influence of early York settlers on bushfire policy in Western Australia

David Ward and Roger Underwood. 2003. Fire, Flogging, Measles and Grass: the influence of early York settlers on bushfire policy in Western Australia. Barladong (4) 2003: 16-27 (Barladong is the journal of the York Historical Society in Western Australia).

Note — this paper is a revision of an earlier paper:

David Ward. 1998. Fire, Flogging, Measles and Grass: Nineteenth Century Land Use Conflict in Southwestern Australia. Dept. of Conservation and Land Management, Western Australia.

Full text of the 1998 paper, which includes references and reprints of colonial correspondence, is [here] (3.6 MB)

Full text of the 2003 paper:


“Nearly fifty-five miles east of Guildford is the new town of York, laid out on locations of fifty acres each, round the base of a conical hill called Mount Bakewell (which is covered with poa-grass)…” — Nathaniel Ogle, “The Colony of Western Australia: A Manual for Emigrants”, 1839

Conflict over land management is common today. Some of our most contentious political and economic issues are between interest groups promoting different, and often conflicting, land uses such as farming, nature conservation, recreation, urban development, forestry, and water catchment. In this paper we examine a particular conflict in the 1840s, especially in the York district, over the traditional use of bushfire by Noongar people. The historical perspective is relevant to present day conflict over fire management.

Before Europeans settled in south-western Australia, the indigenous Noongar people used the land for hunting and gathering. As with other hunter-gatherers in Africa, India, and the Americas, Noongars used fire as a management tool, and had probably done so for tens of thousands of years. The arrival of Europeans whose homesteads, sheds, stock, crops, pastures and haystacks were vulnerable to fire led to immediate conflict: a fire-vulnerable society was seeking to establish itself in an environment in which fire occurred frequently, and was the dominant land management practice.

The importance of frequent fire in the land use and culture of the Noongars has been set out by West Australian scholars such as Associate Professor Sylvia Hallam [1] and Dr. Neville Green [2]. Amongst a wealth of historical references, Sylvia Hallam noted Lt. Bunbury’s [3] estimate of two to three years between bushfires in the parts of the south-west that he had visited in the 1830s. She also noted Major Mitchell’s [4] perceptive comment of 1848, based on observations in other parts of Australia, that

Fire, grass, kangaroos, and human inhabitants, seem all dependent on each other for existence…

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12 Mar 2009, 12:03pm
Cultural Landscapes Fire History
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Reconstructing Historic Ecotones Using the Public Land Survey: The Lost Prairies of Redwood National Park

Joy A. Fritschle. 2008. Reconstructing Historic Ecotones Using the Public Land Survey: The Lost Prairies of Redwood National Park. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 98:1, 24-39

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


Restoration of natural systems depends, in part, on reconstructing historic landscapes to serve as reference ecosystems. The most effective historic landscape reconstruction relies on multiple lines of evidence at different temporal and spatial scales. This study analyzes original Public Land Survey (PLS) records and compares the results with previous work that relied on dendroecology and aerial photograph evidence of vegetation change. Notations in the land survey regarding the location of prairie-woody vegetation ecotones in the Bald Hills of Redwood National Park were transcribed into a geographic information system. Sugihara and Reed (1987) measured the degree of coniferous forest encroachment into prairies and oak woodlands, estimating a 29 percent loss in the spatial extent between 1850 and 1983. The location of 1875–1882 land survey records of ecotones provides evidence that transects across the prairies might have narrowed by as much as 44 percent. Furthermore, this study found evidence of both oak woodland and coniferous forest encroachment into prairies, and that the diminishment of prairies further inland might result primarily from the expansion of oak woodland. A reconstruction of the historic landscape that relies on both field and archival evidence is the best approach to defining reference ecosystems.

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12 Mar 2009, 11:36am
Cultural Landscapes Fire History
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Environmentally biased fragmentation of oak savanna habitat on southeastern Vancouver Island, Canada

Mark Vellend, Anne D. Bjorkman, Alan McConchie. 2008. Environmentally biased fragmentation of oak savanna habitat on southeastern Vancouver Island, Canada. Biological Conservation 141(2008) 2576-2584.

Selected Excerpts:


Quantifying the degree to which natural or protected areas are representative of a specified baseline provides critical information to conservation prioritization schemes. We report results on southeastern Vancouver Island, Canada, where we compared environmental conditions represented across the entire landscape, in oak savanna habitats prior to European settlement (<1850), and in both protected and unprotected oak savannas in the present-day. In this region, oak savannas represent a rare habitat type, harboring many threatened species. Before European settlement, oak savannas occurred in a distinctly different subset of environmental conditions than they do today. Compared to the entire landscape, oak savannas were historically found predominantly in warm, dry, flat, and low-lying areas, but habitat destruction has left oak savannas in largely the exact opposite set of conditions at present. Thus, the range of conditions in both protected and unprotected oak savannas at present are highly unrepresentative of historical conditions. It appears that fire management by indigenous peoples maintained oak savannas historically across large areas of flat low-lying conditions with deep soils, where succession otherwise produces closed coniferous forest. These areas have since been almost entirely converted to agricultural and urban areas, leaving remnant oak savannas largely on steep, rocky hilltops, where the habitat is maintained by shallow soils. Our results provide quantitative guidance for setting conservation priorities for oak savannas in this region, while highlighting the important general issue of the major role traditional land-use practices can play in shaping landscapes, and therefore in influencing the baselines used to set conservation priorities.

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Evaluating the Purpose, Extent, and Ecological Restoration Applications of Indigenous Burning Practices in Southwestern Washington

Linda Storm and Daniela Shebitz. 2006. Evaluating the Purpose, Extent, and Ecological Restoration Applications of Indigenous Burning Practices in Southwestern Washington. Ecological Restoration, Vol. 24, No. 4, 2006.

Selected excerpts:


Understanding the historic fire regime is essential before restoring fire to an ecosystem. Historical ecology provides a means to use both quantitative and qualitative data from different disciplines to address questions about how the traditional ecological management (TEM) practices of indigenous peoples influenced prairie and savanna ecosystems in the past. In this article, we evaluated paleoecological, archaeological, ethnographic, and ethnobotanical information about the Upper Chehalis River basin prairies of southwestern Washington to better understand the extent to which TEM influenced prairie distribution, composition, and availability of wild plant food resources. We also surveyed areas that had been burned at differing frequencies to test whether frequent fires increase camas (Camassia quamash) productivity. Preliminary results support the hypothesis that camas productivity increases with fire-return intervals of one to two years.


A number of anthropologists, ethnobotanists, and ecologists now believe that indigenous peoples contributed to the long-term maintenance and distribution of prairie and savanna ecosystems in pre-European western Washington through traditional management techniques, such as burning (Norton 1979a, 1979b; Kruckeberg 1991; Agee 1993; Dunn and Ewing 1997; Boyd 1999a; Leopold and Boyd 1999; Wray and Anderson 2003). Following the decline of indigenous cultures and the subsequent absence of low-intensity, high-frequency fires, areas in western Washington that were once prairies and savannas have naturally succeeded to conifer-dominated forests (Lang 1961).

Today, there are efforts underway to restore the fire-dependent prairies and savannas of western Washington and the many now rare, threatened, and endangered species that continue to exist in those degraded ecosystems (Dunn and Ewing 1997, Chappell and others 2001, Peter and Shebitz 2006).

In this paper, we use a historical ecology methodology to evaluate both the reasons why indigenous peoples in the Upper Chehalis River basin managed prairie and savanna ecosystems and the extent of those practices through time and space. …

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