First Cultural Burn at Pepperwood in Over 200 Years

At Pepperwood, we believe that California Native communities must be active partners in the re-integration of Native lifeways and TEK into the life and landscapes of Northern California, and we’re translating this belief into action.

Clint McKay and his family light the first cultural burn at Pepperwood in over 200 years. Photo Courtesy of Michael Gillogly.

This past month, the first cultural burn in nearly 200 years took place at Pepperwood, led by Indigenous Education Coordinator, Clint McKay (Wappo, Pomo, Wintun), and his family. At Pepperwood, we partner directly with Native land stewards on the adaptive stewardship of the reserve. Our Indigenous Education Coordinator, Clint McKay, provides continuous and consistent cultural leadership on education, outreach, and land stewardship. We are committed to creating a culture in conservation where the resiliency, ingenuity, diversity and continuance of California’s First Peoples are honored and celebrated.

Indigenous Californians have a time depth of knowledge of this place that extends for millennia. Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) manifests in myriad different ways that can be seen in the landscape today, even despite over 200 years of suppression of traditional tending practices. Among the most powerful Native land tending tool was fire. Every North Bay habitat type was likely burned on a regular basis. Burns at the end of summer (before seed germination) were used to eliminate undesirable plants such as poison oak, thickets of Douglas-fir saplings, overly dense chaparral, and tanoaks in redwood forests. Fall burns were used to encourage particular plant communities that respond well to fire, and those that benefit from the carbon and other nutrients fires release into the soil.

There was an understanding and a harmony built upon respect and reciprocity between people and the lands, waters, and life that supported them. We cannot go back in time to find this harmony again, but we can work to restore what was lost in the last two or so centuries. Native peoples – whose traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) has prevailed despite the impacts of colonization, persecution, and physical and cultural genocide – play a critical role in restoring this balance between people and our planet. This is one reason why elevating Indigenous leadership is a thread woven into each of Pepperwood’s five-year strategic initiatives: restoring native grasslands, building climate and fire resilience, linking landscapes for wildlife, and inspiring connections to the land.

Follow-up note: All prescribed burning at Pepperwood, including partnerships with our Native Advisory Council to restore cultural burning, are conducted in compliance with our CalFire Vegetation Management Plan, and any applicable local, state, or federal safety requirements.


  1. Earle Cummings says:

    Good to see a family name I recognize in your story about burning tradition! My Dad worked with Mabel Mackay to press the Corps of Engineers to mitigate for the sedge and willow gathering spots flooded out when Warm Springs Dam went in. He used his role in the Sierra Club to press for a way to replace the fiber sources that traditional basket weavers relied on. He was heartbroken the mitigation the Corps provided ( a garden area) produced gnarly roots that were not long and straight like the sedge and willow fibers grown in riverbank sandbars.

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