Frank Lake grew up learning traditional practices from the Karuk and Yurok Tribes. He developed an interest in science which led to his career choice as a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station. As a young man, he didn’t realize how unusual the experience was of spending time in two parallel worlds.
The Megram Fire of 1999 was a turning point for Lake, and the Forest Service as well. It was one of California’s largest wildland fires ever and the agency grappled with how to restore salmon in the burned over watershed. Lake knew that local tribal elders considered “fire as medicine,” and an important part of the ecosystem. The link between fire and fish is through water, they told him, and “water is sacred to all life.” Fires could reduce the number of trees in overly dense forests and improve spring flow needed by rivers to support healthy fisheries.
“With the Megram Fire, we experienced how a big fire affected fish and watersheds, and the Forest Service really started to consider traditional ecological knowledge (TEK),” Lake said. Over the last 15 years, federal agencies established government-to-government consultations with regional tribes and other information sharing opportunities. Lake wanted to learn more as an ecologist.
One recent example of this collaboration is Lake’s research on forests regarding canopy cover. The elders shared with Forest Service scientists the degree of tree canopy cover they considered ideal for their cultural needs. By correlating the characteristics of preferred landscapes, the scientists were able to reduce the number of study plots needed to complete their research, with a substantial savings of time and money.
“We needed to bring the tribal point of view into a contemporary context to achieve multiple resource objectives, such as mitigating hazardous fuels in a forest and restoring fire as a natural process that promotes good things like water and desired vegetation for traditional foods and basket making.”
“Contemporary use of TEK to achieve desired management outcomes for an ‘all lands-all hands’ restoration approach is supported by USDA,” Lake said. “The next step with the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership is implementation, bringing TEK into forest research, planning and other landscape restoration strategies.”