Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Food from national forests

I posted a few days ago about our 3-5 year plan, to buy land adjacent to public forest land so we can set up a permaculture homestead on our own land, and hunt and gather on public land. I still have not spent as much time actually in national and state forests as I plan to, but I have made a preliminary observatino over the last year and a half of occasional outings: public forests have very little food diversity to offer humans! At this point I think I have a fairly good handle on native edible plants, but whenever I go out, I have a hard time imagining how we could get enough food from the forest to support ourselves. Obviously, with tracking, hunting, and fishing skills, we could harvest animals and fish. But still, I keep feeling surprised at how few edible plants I actually see.

I suspect as I keep learning plants, I'll see more edibles in the wild. I can also believe that a more thorough exploration of a given area would reveal more options than what I've seen so far. But I wonder whether some other factors also come into play...

Indigenous natives in the Pacific Northwest, probably like natives everywhere, cultivated food to some extent. Natives here routinely used fire to rejuvenate berry patches and to enhance hunting. Natives also maintained patches of camass bulbs and other root crops. I don't remember reading anything about natives cultivating plants other than berries in forests, but I have only scratched the surface of knowledge of how people lived here in the past, so I won't feel surprised to discover some level of active management of other plants such as filberts and oaks. So I wonder whether the forests today exhibit anything more than an echo of pre-European forests, and whether many of the native edibles occurred in much greater abundance where natives encouraged them. European genocide of natives (known as "settling the land") and genocide of forests (known as "logging") must have disrupted systems to an enormous extent.

Last year at anthropik.com, Jason basically stated that national forests in the US contain the land unsuited for agriculture, whether because of climate, soil quality, slope, etc. Jason expects some post-crash people to try cutting down forest to plant agricultural crops, but also expects them to fail so miserably that national forests will not suffer too much deforestation of this type.

That thought has stuck in the back of my mind, and I noticed when comparing Sunset's Western zone map to national forest locations that the national forests do coincide very closely with the super-cold Sunset zones, where people would find it very challenging to grow standard crops.

On our camping trip last week, I came across a fascinating section in Thomas Elpel's book Primitive Living, Self-Sufficiency, and Survival Skills. Elpel describes his early attempts to forage plant foods from the wilderness surrounding his Montana home. He kept finding himself hungry and frustrated, despite knowing all the edible plants natives did, plus edible european weeds. Eventually he realized that no native groups lived permanently in the mountains in which he foraged; all tribes known to use the area moved through it seasonally, harvesting certain crops at certain times of the year before moving tens or hundreds of miles to other areas. And even more to the point: "Many of the potentially sustainable [in terms of sustaining Elpel in foraging expeditions] wild foods on my list turned out to be species that grew only in the fertile, warm valley bottoms, around the farms and towns. This is no coincidence, since that is also where the native peoples camped. It is only us modern abos that expect to eke out a living perched on top of a mountain!"

So, if national forests do not currently grow many edibles, and if natives mainly used those areas for hunting or seasonal gathering of certain plant foods (such as berries), then we may need special strategies to live next to a national forest. The national forest itself may not support an unskilled tribe hunting and gathering, and the adjacent private land we buy may not be well suited to growing standard crops. (I still need to learn more about the private/public land interface.) I still think our plan for our private land makes sense: food forests designed using permaculture principles should give good yields next to a national forest where trees grow well. But the climate/soil/etc may limit our species selection, ruling out many common garden annuals, and even restricting our perennial species palette.

I feel totally exhausted (we canned apples and tomatoes well into last night (hence no blog post yesterday) and I didn't sleep in very late this morning), so I will finish up my thoughts regarding how the above ideas affect subsistence in a national forest in a future post. By the way, I always welcome feedback on any of these posts (even though I don't respond to every comment), but I especially welcome feedback on this one from anyone who knows more than I do (not hard to manage) about any aspects of this topic...

7 comments:

Bpaul said...

There is a lot I can say here, but to keep it short I will mention my recent food gathering from public land. Fishing for whitefish and then smoking and storing them: http://bugthumper.blogspot.com/2007/09/biologically-friendly-eats-crooked.html

The plant situation you are mentioning is very real, North America's ecology is severely disrupted compared to the time when people hunted and gathered off the land. Very real concerns you have. I'll be reading with interest and comment when I can contribute a bit -- but work calls at the moment.

Bpaul said...

Even though the address looks cut off there, if you double click on it with your mouse you will get the whole thing to paste into a browser.

or just go to www.bugthumper.blogspot.com -- and search for crooked river.

crystal said...

I have had the same thoughts when my husband and I explore the forests east of salem in the santiam corridor. I believe we have lost a lot of biodiversity w/the loss of old growth forest habitats. Wild edibles I have found are: thimbleberries (YUM!), salmonberry, red huckleberries, salal, oregon grape, elderberries, blackberries, minor's lettuce, siberian minor's lettuce, at higher elevations I have found blue huckleberries and american highbush cranberries and currents. Oh and FYI fishing for crawdads does not require a license. I found tons & tons of huckleberries last weekend at Elk lake. If you go camping again this season, I highly recommend it. This is the last year that it will be free, and it is beautiful (plus there are TONS of huckleberries and a few high bush cranberries).

rich said...

Between jason, bpaul, and crystal, I'd not have much to add on the ecology front, except the irony that clearcuts are much better foraging habitat than most second growth forest...the berries are thicker, and deer and elk thrive in those habitats. Hard winters in heavily clearcut areas cause population crashes, though, due to the lack of thermal cover, among other things.

It's true that most NF land (as well as BLM, state land and private timberland) was the unclaimed land after the homesteaders were done picking over the cream.

I'd keep open to the idea of finding land adjacent to state or private timberland, as well...gives you more options, and I can think of many places where private bottomland abuts public / corporate private land...e.g. Horton Valley west of Eugene, Middle or South Fork Nooksack River East of Bellingham, and, oh, some places in the North Yamhill drainage...

Bpaul said...

A note on clearcuts: they are only better forage for the first 5-7 years, then the planted trees get big enough to close the canopy and everything on the ground dies. So there is a spike in productivity then a plummett -- over the course of say 40 years, or 50 a climax condition old growth forest way outproduces the crash/boom cycles of clear cut production.

Bpaul said...

Oh, and the clearcuts will ruin all waterways associated with them, which is an enormous loss.

Anonymous said...

Public land in other more tropical and sub-tropical parts of the country experience a similar thing. Pulp multinationals in the southeast have planted Southern Pine for decades and it now dominates the landscape.
Interestingly the southern pine beetle is now devastating the overpopulated pines throughout the southeast. Large stands of solid pine only forest in these sub-tropical states are dead, dying or on their way. The USFS has no decent plan and has essentially only done studies on what they should replant. My question is, what would happen if I skipped the bureaucracy and started planting my own indigenous food forest, what are they gonna say? There are tens of thousands of acres that are laying waste right now. Just large barren openings in the forest w/ dead pine laying around.

What are the legalities/realities of such native propagation projects as a food forest on public land?

The hunting and fishing is also excellent in the south. Florida alone has 8000 miles of coast line, much of it estuary, an incredibly productive ecosystem for humans.