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Ray, L. A., C. A. Kolden, and F. Stuart Chapin III. 2012. A case for developing place-based fire management strategies from traditional ecological knowledge. Ecology and Society 17(3): 37.

A Case for Developing Place-Based Fire Management Strategies from Traditional Ecological Knowledge

1Department of Geography, Clark University, 2Resilience and Adaptation Program, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, 3Department of Geography, University of Idaho, 4Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks


Sustainability science promotes place-based resource management because natural processes vary among ecosystems. When local science is limited, land managers may be forced to generalize from other ecosystems that function differently. One proposed solution is to draw upon the traditional ecological knowledge that indigenous groups have accumulated through resource use. Integrating traditional ecological knowledge with conventional resource management is difficult, especially when the two offer competing explanations of local environments. Although resource managers may discount traditional ecological knowledge that contradicts conventional resource management, we investigate the possibility that these disagreements can arise when nonlocal resource management generalizations displace place-based science. Specifically, we compare claims about wildfires made by Athabascan forest users residing in or near the Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge and in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire management plan for that refuge. We focus on two aspects of fire ecology and management: the drivers of landscape flammability and the feasibility of using wildfires and prescribed burns to achieve resource management objectives. The results indicated that some disagreements came from reliance of the federal fire management plan on generalized national narratives at the expense of place-based science. We propose that in some cases, conflicts between traditional ecological knowledge and conventional resource management, rather than indicating a dead end, can identify topics requiring in-depth, place-based research.
Key words: Alaska; climate change; indigenous knowledge; traditional ecological knowledge; wildfire


Place-based science and traditional ecological knowledge

Ostrom and colleagues argue that panaceas, defined as popular solutions prescribed for diverse environmental problems, are doomed to fail because they simplify complex environmental systems, assume homogeneous human resource use, and ignore local context (Ostrom et al. 2007). Diverse research supports these claims: resource management studies caution against universal solutions, as different environments require different management strategies, and resilience studies recognize that general approaches often fail to address the complexities of real ecosystems (Holling 1978, Quigley and Bigler Cole 1997, Berkes and Folke 1998). Sustainability science generally calls for place-based assessments precisely because the complexity of coupled human–environment systems gives rise to such different outcomes by locale (Kates et al. 2001).

The problem of national narratives and the need for place-based science is evident in U.S. wildfire management. Federal fire management agencies followed a national narrative promoting full fire suppression from 1910 to 1968, before recognizing wildfire’s ecological importance and embracing fire use as a landscape agent (Stephens and Ruth 2005, Pyne 2010). National narratives now assert that increasing forest density drives landscape flammability and promote uniform risk reduction through prescribed fire and mechanical thinning (Schoennagel et al. 2004, Stephens and Ruth 2005), failing to recognize place-based, local fire regime characteristics and regional climate change impacts.

In Alaska, for example, place-based research contradicts the national policy narrative. Unlike the fuel-limited fire regimes of the southwestern U.S. pine forests, which historically burned frequently at low intensity (Westerling et al. 2003), Alaskan ecosystems burn under infrequent summer drought (Abatzoglou and Kolden 2011) and with stand-replacing severity, taking decades to regenerate after fire (Chapin et al. 2006). In addition to inaccessibility, this long regeneration period impedes monitoring of landscape flammability and wildfire effects. Although regional studies exist, Alaska’s size and diverse terrain challenge local application to remote areas, as even small differences in climate and topography can lead to different wildfire patterns (Kasischke and Turetsky 2006, Kane et al. 2007, Johnstone et al. 2010) Resource managers are thus challenged to gather the local information needed for comprehensive, place-based management. One potential solution is to draw on traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, defined by Berkes et al. (2000:1252) as:
a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment.
Fortunately for Alaskan resource managers, indigenous Alaskan residents depend on the boreal forest and regularly observe forest processes (Nelson 1983, Marcotte 1986, 1990). Considerable research indicates that TEK could fill gaps in resource management science (Acheson et al. 1998, Kofinas et al. 2002, Krupnik and Jolly 2002, Berkes 2008, Alexander et al. 2011) and that management devoid of traditional ecological knowledge and values will be neither ecologically sustainable nor locally acceptable (Osherenko 1988, Rocheleau et al. 1996; Acheson et al. 1998, Holling et al. 1998, Kofinas et al. 2002, Tsing et al. 2005; Berkes 2007, Reynolds et al. 2007). In practice, however, integrating TEK with conventional resource management is difficult (Gilchrist et al. 2005, Fernandez-Gimenez et al. 2006). TEK rarely fits neatly into scientific models, as resource managers and indigenous resource users often perceive environmental issues differently, and some indigenous resource users may refuse to generalize about natural processes because their knowledge is place-based (Berkes 1987, Cruikshank 2000, Huntington 2000, Watson and Huntington 2008). The integration of TEK and resource management science is particularly difficult when the two contradict each other and has therefore received less attention in the literature (Rist et al. 2010).

Although contradictions between TEK and resource management sometimes bring new insight into management questions (e.g., Huntington 2000, Rist et al. 2010), conflicts between the two knowledge types frequently derail collaboration. In many cases, researchers or managers may use Western science to validate TEK (Fernandez-Gimenez et al. 2006), pronouncing TEK incorrect if it contradicts resource management science (e.g., Gilchrist et al. 2005). Although incorrect or incompatible TEK may account for some disagreements, an understudied alternative is that the inappropriate application of generalized national narratives to local environments may also generate conflict between TEK and resource management. In this study we evaluate federal wildfire management policies and the TEK of Koyukon Athabascan resource users for areas of agreement and conflict. We compare these results with national policy narratives and regional fire ecology research to determine whether regional scientific understanding of fire ecology corresponds more closely to national narratives or to regional TEK and if, in areas of knowledge conflict, management policies follow national policy narratives rather than regionally specific knowledge. We focus on two elements of fire ecology and management: drivers of landscape flammability and the use of wildfire as a management tool.

Drivers of landscape flammability

Increasing evidence in the late 20th century indicated that a century of intense wildfire suppression in the western U.S. had removed a natural counterbalance to growth and produced “overstocked” forests (Arno and Allison-Bunnell 2002, Brown et al. 2004). In 2000, this observed trend contributed to catastrophic wildfires that burned across the western U.S. and inspired a national approach for reducing wildfire risk (Machlis et al. 2002). The Healthy Forests Initiative (HFI) of 2002 and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003 sought to counter increased wildfire hazard by reducing forest fuel loading and restoring historic stand structure (White House 2002).

Although this national policy narrative was applied uniformly, the supporting science came primarily from pine forests in the southwestern U.S. Subsequent work found that infrequent, high intensity wildfires occur naturally in other ecosystems that are not overstocked; instead, their flammability has been relatively unaltered by a century of wildfire suppression (Brown et al. 2004, Schoennagel et al. 2004, Platt et al. 2006). Additionally, other research attributed changes in fire behavior to climate change and not fuel loading (Westerling et al. 2006, 2011), challenging connections between fire suppression and fuel abundance (McKenzie et al. 2004, Schoennagel et al. 2004). Despite this counter-narrative demonstrating the importance of local understanding, the national narrative of human-altered forest structure as the primary driver of wildfire risk still pervades fire management strategies (Steelman and Burke 2007).

Over the last three decades support for fire use surged, resulting in national policies supporting both prescribed burning to manage hazardous fuels and wilderness fire as an essential ecological process. This support exists despite evidence that many ecosystems are neither fire-adapted nor do they historically burn with low to moderate severity (Pyne 2001, 2004). Universal support for managed fire may adversely affect wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and productivity in some ecosystems (Tiedemann et al. 2000, Varner et al. 2005), and some suggest a more cautious approach to forest restoration (Tiedemann et al. 2000, Pyne 2001).

Use of TEK for fire management

The model for using TEK in science-based fire management comes from Australia, where incorporating aboriginal landholders has contributed to more ecologically complete fire management programs (Lewis 1989, Russell-Smith et al. 1997, Petty et al. 2007). In the U.S., fire management has only integrated TEK on a limited basis, despite considerable indigenous TEK of fire regimes (Anderson 2005, Lake 2007, Carroll et al. 2010). In Alaska, most attempts to integrate TEK into management have focused on wildlife, with no comparable effort for wildfire management (McNeeley 2012). Several studies have investigated wildfire effects on rural indigenous resource users, showing that wildfires temporarily complicate subsistence resource use and that rural and urban Alaskans have different vulnerabilities (Chapin et al. 2008, Nelson et al. 2008, Trainor et al. 2009). This research indicates a need for Alaskan wildfire management to incorporate TEK, a gap that this study seeks to fill.

Study Area

Galena and Huslia are located, respectively, along the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers in a remote, roadless, and sparsely populated part of western interior Alaska (Nelson 1983). Since 1980, much of this traditional Koyukon Athabascan territory has been managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which oversees the 1.8 million hectare Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge (Koyukuk Refuge) and the 304,000 hectare Northern Unit Innoko National Wildlife Refuge (Figure 1). Koyukon culture developed around boreal forest use, and area residents traditionally moved seasonally to harvest resources such as fish, waterfowl, furbearers, and large and small game (Nelson 1983). Although most Koyukon no longer move seasonally, they still depend heavily on wild resources (Marcotte 1986, 1990).

Historical analysis indicates that the Koyukon did not traditionally practice landscape burning, likely because Koyukon territory had natural landscape variability even without wildfires, lower lightning strike density and more moisture than other parts of interior Alaska, and residents with fixed resource use territories (Natcher et al. 2007). Currently, this area is regularly affected by wildfires that generate conflict between local users and federal managers. While the Koyukuk and Northern Unit Innoko National Wildlife Refuge Fire management plan (FMP) (Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2005) espouses the ecological benefits of wildland fire, recent research showed that many resident Koyukon saw wildfire as a destructive force, largely due to disruptions to forest access and traditional wild food use (Huntington et al. 2006, Chapin et al. 2008, Ray 2011). This study builds on that research by collecting detailed, place-based observations of wildfire effects from Koyukon forest users for qualitative comparison with the management objectives laid out in the FMP.


This study uses qualitative methods to document indigenous observations of wildfires and place change on the Koyukuk Refuge, and to compare these to the FMP. Qualitative methods, which allow respondents to introduce information not considered by researchers, are considered most appropriate for documenting perspectives unrepresented in the literature (Auerback and Silverstein 2003). Qualitative analysis uses textual data, such as interview transcripts, to generate data-driven categories, which are generally robust and can be applied to different texts for comparison (Glaser and Strauss 1967). To generate texts describing indigenous observations of wildfires, semi-structured interviews with 43 Koyukon residents of Galena and Huslia were conducted in English, digitally recorded, and transcribed. Traditional ecological knowledge interviews take considerable time, thus preventing a census approach, and random sampling does not produce appropriate respondents (Tashakkori and Teddlie 1998, Wengraf 2001). Consequently, a purposive sampling strategy targeted male (n=24) and female (n=19) residents age 45 and older with extensive forest knowledge.

An interview guide, developed using local feedback, ensured consistency, but question order varied by respondent, and, if respondents introduced a relevant topic that was not on the interview guide, they were encouraged with follow-up questions (Slocum et al. 1995, Huntington 1998, Bernard 2006). Respondents were asked to describe resource use areas they had utilized since childhood and to recount changes they had seen over their lifetimes, both in the characteristics of places and in the availability of subsistence resources. Respondents were then asked if any of these areas burned and how burning affected the place and the resources of interest. Previous research in Huslia showed that general discussions about wildfires can lead to statements that may be difficult to interpret out of context (Huntington et al. 2006). To avoid confusion, project interviews focused on wildfire effects directly observed during subsistence uses of area forests. Interview transcripts were coded in ATLAS.ti for both pre-determined and data-generated categories (Marshall and Rossman 1995). This generated lists of quotes organized by category (Appendix 1).

The observations coded to each category were organized into diagrams that maintained respondent descriptions of cause and effect and included the number of respondents reporting each phenomenon (Namey et al. 2008). As respondents had different subsistence use areas with different wildfire histories, interview content varied considerably.

Results were reviewed by participants in an iterative process that involved return visits to Galena and Huslia and mailings. Written summaries of results were presented to respondents in person or by mail in order to solicit feedback. Results were also presented at a community meeting in Huslia and at a tribal council meeting in Galena.

To compare the observations of subsistence users in the Koyukuk Refuge area with local wildfire management policy, we analyzed the FMP using ATLAS.ti (Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2005). The FMP was coded to the same categories as the interview transcripts, ensuring data comparability, and coded observations were organized into diagrams comparable with Koyukon response diagrams.

The FMP was developed using a national template published by both FWS and the Department of the Interior that prescribes the exact FMP format (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008, Department of the Interior 2009). FMPs are generally developed by fire managers, agency planning personnel, or contracted private firms. Fire managers and agency personnel take a required national-level course in the National Interagency Fire Center training system that includes FMP development (Kolden, unpublished manuscript). While local science and data are allowed in FMPs, they are not required. Most preparers do not deviate from the template because the FMP must be approved through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process. Finally, the FMP determines how much funding the local unit will receive from the national agency; since the National Fire Plan of 2000, fire managers have prioritized hazardous fuels management because federal funding was tied to reduction of hazardous fuels, particularly near communities (Steelman and Burke 2007, Schoennegal et al. 2009, Kolden and Brown 2010). To our knowledge, this is the first comparison of an FMP to regional knowledge about wildfire.


Community perspective

Drivers of landscape flammability


Although interview questions did not cover wildfire severity, multiple respondents described drivers of landscape flammability in terms of effects on wildfire severity and thus on subsistence resources after a wildfire (Figure 2). The combined responses identified four primary components of landscape flammability: fuel type and condition (moisture), wind, and temperature. Several respondents also recognized two distinct phases of the boreal fire season: the earlier season conditions conducive to moderate severity wildfires and the later season, drier conditions conducive to more severe wildfire activity affecting soil and permafrost. Finally, respondents pointed out both first order (what the fire directly consumed) and second order (long-term successional impacts) fire effects for both levels of fire severity.

Changes in landscape and climate

Numerous respondents had observed changes in both the landscape and climate that increased landscape flammability. The most commonly reported changes included drying lakes and sloughs, milder winters, more overgrown vegetation, hotter drier summers, and thawing permafrost (Figure 3). Many respondents noted both first order effects of climate change (i.e., the timing and magnitude of events) and second order effects (i.e., how climate change is altering the wildfire regime).

Time since wildfire

Interview responses did not indicate consensus on the relationship between flammability and time since last burn. Eight respondents supposed that flammability could increase with time since burn, as dense brush could build up, while six respondents indicated that wildfires caused flammable conditions by killing trees. Most respondents related flammability not to fire history but to specific vegetative conditions caused by different factors (Figure 4). Dead or dry vegetation was seen as the primary cause of flammable conditions, followed by dense brush, grass, and jack spruce (Figure 4).

Fire as a management tool

Koyukon respondents’ primary resource management objectives emphasized traditional subsistence uses and resource health, access, and abundance (Table 1). Residents observed that wildfires dramatically affected subsistence resources and access. Respondents reported both positive and negative effects (Figure 5) but perceived more wildfire-induced hardships than benefits due to downed trees blocking travel, the loss of important places, difficulties trapping, caribou displacement, and the deaths of small animals. Although some comments seemed contradictory, multiple respondents explained that wildfire effects varied dramatically by vegetation type and environmental conditions during the burn. Respondents with distinct traditional use areas observed different wildfire effects. Participants described wildfire effects on mature, spruce-dominated forest areas (Figure 6), non-spruce features (Figure 7), and soil and organic mats (Figure 8) as both environmental and subsistence use changes. Some respondents indicated that mild to moderate wildfires were more likely to have beneficial or neutral effects on subsistence, and severe wildfires were more likely to complicate subsistence uses (Figure 2). Many of the effects reported for the burning of soil, organic mats, and mature spruce-dominated forest areas were the negative effects associated with severe wildfires (Figure 5).

Resource management agency perspective

Drivers of landscape flammability


The FMP focused on the three legs of the fire behavior triangle (Countryman 1972), and the associated conditions for each leg influencing fire danger and fire behavior (Figure 9).

Changes in landscape and climate

The FMP did not address climate change, simply commenting that:
Fire is an integral part of the ecosystem and has caused plants and animals to adapt to fire over the eons. Climate change, especially in the interior, may alter some of these fire relationships. (Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2005:3)
Additionally, the FMP did not mention any trend of vegetation overgrowth, but described vegetation as within the natural range of variability while noting that wildfire suppression could cause a shortage of early successional vegetation.

Time since wildfire

The FMP classified the Koyukuk and Northern Unit Innoko refuges as naturally supporting infrequent (35-100+ years) mixed to high severity wildfires, and related flammability more to weather, fuels, and topography than to time since wildfire. The FMP also described the Koyukuk Refuge as within the “natural range of variability” (Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2005:25) for vegetation and fuel characteristics and fire frequency and severity, but expressed concern that fire suppression could shift fire regimes away from historical conditions without specifically defining how that shift in fire regimes would manifest itself in fire behavior and effects. Additionally, the FMP recommended wildland and prescribed fire use to restore fire-adapted ecosystems, reduce “hazardous fuel accumulations”, and “lower the risk of catastrophic fire” (Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2005:26), thus implying some relationship between flammability and time since burn.

Fire as a management tool

The FMP was analyzed for resource management objectives, including those met by fire (Table 2). The FMP predicted multiple beneficial resource effects from wildfires and prescribed fires (Figure 10) but did not support predictions with observational data or published citations. Overall, the FMP did not describe much variability in wildfire effects or clearly connect wildfire severity to effects on resources (Figure 10). Although the FMP primarily related severity to fire suppression decisions, it did note that (1) prescribed burns must meet certain environmental conditions to achieve desired objectives, (2) research is needed to see whether wildland and prescribed fires are meeting resource management objectives, (3) very high fire intensities (defined in the FMP as an estimate of heat per unit length of fire edge per unit time) can cause unwanted plant mortality, and (4) fires that smolder too long can destroy root systems.


Drivers of flammability

The two sources of information (TEK and the FMP) identify the same general drivers of flammability (Table 3). Since these general drivers (topography, fuels, and weather) comprise the three legs of the fire environment triangle globally (Countryman 1972), the FMP follows a national narrative and regional science that TEK confirms locally.

Analysis of climate change recognition indicates that reliance on national narratives at the expense of regional science can drive community/agency conflict (Table 3). Many older Koyukon residents perceived an increase in landscape flammability due to warmer summers and winters and a drying landscape that was more prone to overgrowth. Considerable regional science supports these observations, as recent research indicates a reduction in surface water, boreal forest browning, increasing wildfire activity and consumption of the organic layer, larger areas burning, later season burning, and shifting forest composition (Chapin et al. 2006, Kasischke and Turetsky 2006, Riordan et. al. 2006, Johnstone et al. 2010, Kasischke et al. 2010, Verbyla 2011, Wolken et al. 2011). In contrast to nearly two decades of regional and national science highlighting climatically-induced changes in wildfire regimes, U.S. wildfire policy did not recognize the effects of climate change until the 2009 passage of the FLAME Act (H.R. 2996), a lag in recognition evident not only in the FMP, but nationally in the U.S. fire management system (Kolden and Brown 2010).

Finally, community/agency perspectives on the relationship between flammability and time since burn indicated neither conflict nor agreement between a national narrative and TEK (Table 3). The FMP identifies the natural fire return interval at 35-100 years and implies that overzealous fire suppression has unnaturally delayed fire occurrence in fire-adapted forests, producing “hazardous” fuel accumulation conducive to catastrophic wildfires, paralleling the national narrative. Regional science, however, indicates that a late successional, fire-adapted spruce forest capable of carrying a high severity wildfire develops over decades to multiple centuries, and flammability is linked to fuel type and climatic conditions, not an overaccumulation of “hazardous fuels” (Johnson et al. 2001, Chapin et al. 2006). Furthermore, the fire cycle in the Yukon River lowlands region is estimated at 171-230 years (Kasischke et al. 2002), far exceeding the human lifespan. Koyukon respondents had varying views on flammability, with some indicating flammability increased with time since burn, others stating that wildfires increased flammability, and the majority describing flammability through factors not directly related to the wildfire regime. Those respondents describing places that became more flammable over time primarily referred to brushy areas and not to spruce forests. A recent study indicates that climate change has increased the proportion of mid-succession shrublands burning in Alaska’s boreal forest, particularly during record warm years in the 2000s (Kolden 2010).

Fire as a management tool

Substantial community/agency conflict emerged over the idea of wildfire as a management tool (Table 4). In general, community respondents perceived highly variable wildfire effects, with the negative outweighing the positive (Figure 5), whereas the FMP lauded wildfire’s role as a natural process and its theoretical potential to reduce hazardous fuels and improve habitat (Tables 2 and 4). This conflict had two major origins: (1) different resource management objectives between the two groups, and (2) conflicting agency approaches dominated by national narratives at the expense of regional science or local observations.

While numerous regional studies have reported widely variable fire effects similar to those observed by Koyukon respondents (Viereck 1983, Chapin et al. 2006, Johnstone and Chapin 2006, Shenoy et al. 2011), the FMP failed to acknowledge this variability and highlighted only the potentially desirable effects. Furthermore, the FMP first stated that fires have burned naturally on the Refuge within their historic range of variability, but then suggested that wildland and prescribed fires are necessary for resource benefits, to reduce hazardous fuels, and to return fire regimes to their historic conditions. This management approach is supported by neither regional science nor the FMP itself and likely stems from the HFI/HFRA requiring projects to include “hazardous fuels” reduction in order to receive national funding (Steelman and Burke 2007, Kolden and Brown 2010). This emphasis on adding additional fire to an ecosystem that has never seen fully effective suppression and, additionally, has experienced climatically induced increases in fire activity, is perhaps the most transparent displacement of TEK and regional science by a national fire policy narrative.

TEK and Regional Science

Although many local observations corresponded with regional science, there are advantages to incorporating both into management. First, as demonstrated by the figures, local observations can add fine-scale local details and historical context, detect changes yet undocumented in scientific studies, and indicate which regional studies apply to a given locale. Additionally, incorporating rural users into resource management is ethical, as management directly affects local well-being, and practical, as it can reduce conflict over resource management (Western and Wright 1994). Incorporation of local knowledge about local variability in fire effects can facilitate the development of fire management strategies that maximize benefits and minimize the negative effects of wildfire through landscape-scale management. Finally, given federal mandates for government-to-government relationships with tribes (White House 1994), and the mandate of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) to prioritize subsistence uses on federal lands (Public Law 96-87 1980), there is considerable legal precedent for including indigenous knowledge and values in wildfire management.

Limitations of this research

As respondents were allowed considerable control over interview direction, the topics discussed varied and some valuable observations were noted by only a few respondents. While research has shown that TEK is not evenly distributed and that the best observations will come from the most knowledgeable informants about a specific topic and not from the largest number of informants (Chalmers and Fabricius 2007), it would have been useful to determine which of the less common observations were more broadly shared, perhaps through a survey. The uneven distribution of observations does suggest that there is value in working with a large number of respondents when doing qualitative environmental research, as no one respondent will have observations as topically, temporally, and spatially diverse as a larger group.

Interview design influenced the disparity in reported observations of change, as the interviews specifically asked respondents to describe changes they had seen in subsistence areas over their lifetimes, and the FMP template did not require mangers to document changes in area landscapes or wildfire regimes. We contend, that, rather than indicating a flaw in the study, this indicates a gap in FMP design, as sustainable wildfire management policy must consider the dramatic observed and predicted changes in Alaska’s wildfire regime.

Previous research has shown that wildland firefighting is an important source of income for many rural village residents (Trainor 2006), which may influence some communities’ wildfire policy preferences. As we documented direct observations of wildfire effects on the landscape, rather than wildfire policy preferences, we consider this influence to be minimal. Additionally, research in Galena and Huslia indicated that younger residents, of firefighting age, had more positive views of wildfires than the older residents who could no longer firefight (Ray 2011), indicating that firefighting income was not the primary driver of negative views on wildfires.


The study results indicated that some disagreements between traditional ecological knowledge and resource management policies can result from conformance of management to national narratives despite contrary evidence from regional science and traditional ecological knowledge. In this case, climate change effects on the boreal wildfire regime were well documented by both indigenous residents and regional scientists but were overlooked in federal resource management policies that ignored climate change and focused on hazardous fuels accumulation. Additionally, the FMP neglected regional research and local observations on the variability of wildfire effects. Comparing TEK with existing regional science indicated that, despite the FMP proclamation that “it will take some time to educate the local public of the ecological benefits of wildland and prescribed fire,” (Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2005:5) the local forest users, as a group, have important observations of the range of possible wildfire effects that are not documented in the FMP and are generally consistent with regional science.

Federal fire management must play a delicate balancing act in answering to national policy mandates, synthesizing the best available local or regional science, and addressing impacts to local stakeholders. When local and regional science is limited and/or displaced by a national narrative, TEK can provide information that enables regional fire managers to challenge the national narrative and to work with communities to coproduce a locally appropriate management strategy. TEK is particularly valuable in places like Alaska, where TEK is relatively rich, refuge-based science is limited by the recent establishment of refuges and their constrained funding for research, and management actions have potentially large impacts on livelihoods in small indigenous communities such as Galena and Huslia. Indigenous communities retain federally protected rights to subsistence, the customary and traditional uses of wild resources, on federal lands, and integrating TEK may help federal wildfire management meet this obligation to indigenous tribes.

We suggest that fire managers in Alaska and elsewhere look to the model provided by community-based natural resource management, which recognizes the right of resource-dependent communities to participate in environmental decision making and embraces community knowledge and local resource management traditions (Brosius et al. 2005). Additionally, we propose that disagreements between TEK and resource management policies do not prevent collaboration, but rather indicate places where national narratives may not fit local environments, making traditional ecological knowledge and regional science essential to sustainable management. We recommend that future fire management plans incorporate both community observations and the best available regional science, especially on climate change and the variability of wildfire effects. Furthermore, we suggest that national fire narratives advocating the blanket use of prescribed fire are just as harmful in some fire regimes as previous full suppression policies were to southwestern pine forests. National fire policy makers would do well to recognize the spatial variability of fire regimes and the importance of incorporating place-based TEK and regional science into local fire management policies.


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The first author would like to thank Billie Turner for support throughout the research process, the residents of Galena and Huslia for their participation in this study, and Bob Lambrecht, Dianne Rocheleau, John Rogan, and Jody Emel for support early in the research process. The research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (Graduate Research Fellowship Program and Grants 0620579, 0654441, and 0732758 to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks as part of the Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research program, the Resilience and Adaptation Program, and the Ecosystem Services Project of the International Polar Year) and the Community Forestry Research Fellowship Program. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge, provided extensive logistical support in the field. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Community Forestry Research Fellowship Program.


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Address of Correspondent:
Lily A. Ray
PO Box 636
Nome, AK 99762
United States
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