A World Aflame

In July 2002, a barrage of lightning strikes set southwestern Oregon’s rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness ablaze. The Biscuit Fire would burn for more than five months, scorching half a million acres in its path. For nearby American Indian tribes, the fire provided an opportunity to discuss their concern that climate change was striking at the heart of their cultures. They found a sympathetic ear in University of Oregon researcher Kathy Lynn, MRCP ’01.

A recent graduate of the UO’s Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management, Lynn was then working for the Office of Tribal Relations of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which sent her to find out how recent fires had affected local tribes. “They were talking about these profound changes on the landscape,” she remembers. “Fires were a big concern.”

Environmental impacts from climate change, including more frequent fires that are larger, hotter, and more destructive—are expected to transform ecologies. Because many tribes consider natural resources to be synonymous with their cultural and spiritual identity, they perceive a threat not only to tribal resources but also to their cultural survival. 

Concerned by what she’d heard, Lynn cofounded the Pacific Northwest Tribal Climate Change Project. A collaborative effort between the UO’s Environmental Studies Program and the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, the project acts as a clearinghouse for information on how tribes in the Northwest and elsewhere are responding to climate change.

Northwest tribes, says Lynn, have taken the lead in this effort, with some nine tribes currently employing the latest climate science, including to assess how “first foods” (such as salmon and huckleberries) and plants used for weaving baskets are expected to fare under a climate-changed world. That these scientific efforts are being aided by the tribes’ traditional knowledge is a testament to the keen observations of peoples with long tenures on their lands.


Imagine a world where salmon, one of the bedrocks of your culture, die in hot, low-running rivers and streams. A world where plants you gathered with your grandmother, used for subsistence and sacrament, disappear from the only place you are legally allowed to gather them. A world where wildfires burn seemingly endlessly during the summer and fall, engulfing your home in smoke and ushering in new ecosystems.

These are just a handful of the climate change threats that scientists believe Northwest Indian tribes will face in the future, and they’re part of the growing list Lynn has been compiling.

Lynn, an upbeat woman in her early 40s with long brown hair graying at the temples, is sitting in a large open room with thick pine poles that stretch to a vaulted ceiling. The glossy poles and surrounding pine walls transform the pallid Oregon sun streaming in through the picture windows. This is the Many Nations Longhouse on the UO campus, a home away from home for American Indian and Alaska Native students, a sacred space, and a comfortable setting to discuss the uncomfortable nature of Lynn’s work. “Indigenous people have done little to create climate change, but the impacts of climate change are being disproportionately borne by them,” she says.

There are 567 federally recognized tribes in the United States. An additional 70 tribes are recognized by individual states, and some tribes are not recognized at all. The result is a patchwork of sovereign tribal governments, many of which are now employing researchers to investigate climate impacts.

Lynn has done a lot to raise awareness about tribes’ climate concerns. Among her more prominent efforts, she has authored numerous peered-reviewed studies including several in the prestigious journal Climatic Change, which in 2014 devoted an entire issue to the subject of tribes and climate change. She was a lead author of a chapter covering indigenous peoples and climate change in the recent National Climate Assessment, arguably the nation’s definitive climate science document. Lynn has also worked hard to help tribes find funding for their efforts and create a set of legal and ethical guidelines for nontribal organizations working with tribes. In the process she’s built a network that’s grown from an initial list of 12 interested individuals to more than 350 people. Her close collaborators at the UO include Mark Carey, associate professor of history and associate dean of the Robert D. Clark Honors College; Stephanie LeMenager, Barbara and Carlisle Moore Distinguished Professor in English and American Literature; and Kari Norgaard, associate professor of sociology and environmental studies and author of the book Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (a look at why climate science is so hard for many of us to accept).

Since 2009, Lynn has mentored 24 graduate and undergraduate students from multiple departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as in the School of Law and the Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management. Many of these students have been American Indian and Alaska Native students who have gone on to work on climate-change issues for their tribes. “One of the reasons I am so grateful to be part of the university is that I can extend opportunities for research to native students,” says Lynn.

What’s unique about the efforts of tribes, she says, is how they have managed to connect traditional knowledge to Western science. “I think that many tribes, particularly in this region, recognize that science may aid traditional knowledge and understanding,” she says. 


As summer approached, the little girl and her great-grandmother would go into the hills to gather cous. The short stubby plant had bright yellow flowers that grew bunched together, coloring the hillsides.

The little girl knew, because her great-grandmother had told her, that they weren’t after the flowers, pretty as they were. They wanted the roots, which they would smash and form into small edible biscuits that the sun would dry. But cous looked strikingly similar to another biscuitroot species, or at least it did to the little girl. Learning the difference took time and patience, both of which her great-grandmother had in abundance. And if looking at them didn’t work, she could always smell the plants. The right ones had a peppery smell, her grandmother would tell her with a sparkle in her eyes.


“She was always teaching and always telling me stories and looking to see if I was paying attention and understanding what she was saying,” says Cheryl Shippentower, a plant ecologist for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, a federation of Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Tribes in eastern Oregon.

Shippentower says her great-grandmother’s patience, love, and knowledge around gathering her people’s first foods—cous, huckleberries, chokecherries, and other plants—kindled in her a love of science and stewardship that eventually led to her botany degree.

Now in her late 40s and a grandmother herself, Shippentower still travels the same hills. The effects of climate change, she says, can be seen everywhere. “Plants are blooming and budding earlier and our windows [for gathering] are just getting shorter and shorter. We are so dependent on first foods; these changes really affect us.”

In January 2016, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that 2015 had been the latest in a series of warmest years on record for the planet. Last year was also the warmest year for Oregon and Washington. Since 2013, both states had suffered under the same drought that has parched California.

It was a rare glimpse into a future Shippentower doesn’t care for. “In June, it looked like August,” she says. “We weren’t able to get any chokecherries due to extreme weather the previous fall. The huckleberries didn’t get enough snow cover for insulation, so the crop was poor. We’re seeing damage to our plants. And the rivers were really low and the temperatures really high.”

The Umatilla River, where tribes fish for Chinook salmon, reached its peak height on February 10, 2015. This was a full 70 days earlier than expected. In April, the Confederated Tribes and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, concerned the waters would be too low and too hot for the salmon to reach their spawning ground upriver, decided to truck the fish there instead.

Chinook salmon now top the list of first foods threatened by climate change, according to a recent analysis performed by the Confederated Tribes. Cous and huckleberries are next on the list. The rising temperatures are expected to lead both cous and huckleberries to seek cooler climates farther north and at higher elevations. “Plant migration is a real issue for our first foods,” Shippentower says. “We could potentially lose those foods if they become unavailable within our traditional gathering areas.” 

Recognized tribes currently have rights, guaranteed by their treaties, to gather food, hunt, and fish on many of their traditional lands, even if those lands lie outside their reservations. Ecosystems, of course, don’t recognize these arbitrary boundaries and neither will climate change. Traditional plants may not only leave these boundaries but also take other first foods with them, including game animals that eat the plants.  

Lynn says gathering rights may need to be reconsidered. If not, she says, climate-changed landscapes could effectively make many tribes “climate refugees” on their ancestral lands. Accelerating these landscape changes is another climate impact, the one that initially sparked Lynn’s project: wildfires. But here, too, tribes are combining science and traditional knowledge to find a solution.


More than 10.1 million acres were affected by wildfires in the United States last year. All told, some 2.7 million acres burned in Oregon, Washington, and California alone, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a multiagency federal effort to track wildfires.

And according to the scientific literature, this trend of large fires is going to continue into the future as climate change creates warmer, drier conditions. Because many of these fires are likely to burn in national forests and national parks next to Indian reservations, tribes are understandably concerned about health effects from the smoke. But the tribes have another concern as well: the fires are expected to burn so hot that it could be difficult for native plants to reestablish themselves. Meanwhile, invasive species and plants migrating from the south will move in and take over. This transition, say researchers, will be abrupt—the plant-world equivalent of a regime change. And it could come as quickly as the middle of this century.

Adding fuel to these fires is a history of fire suppression in the West, which has resulted in too much understory vegetation and a lot of spindly trees—in other words, a tinderbox. But fire could also be a part of the solution, says Frank Lake, a research ecologist at the USDA Forest Services Pacific Southwest Researcher Station in Orleans, California, and a coauthor with Lynn on several studies. “When we talk about prescribed fire, we’re really talking about prescribed medicine,” Lake says. “But we don’t want too much medicine. Too much medicine is as bad for ecosystems as it is for bodies.” 

Lake is a descendent on his father’s side of the Karuk people, whose ancestral homeland includes the area where he now works in the Six Rivers National Forest. He is also an expert on the traditional use of fire by Native Americans. “I feel, as both a tribal person and a scholar, that there is a real lack of appreciation of the use of fire by tribes across the Pacific Northwest, and how that relates to ecological diversity,” says Lake. 

Lake’s work is part of a new wave of research that’s dispelling a notion many of us learned in grade school: that when Europeans came to America they encountered a wilderness untouched by humans. Through a mix of sociological and ecological research, Lake’s work has shown the opposite. To take just one example, the Karuk used prescribed burns to cultivate everything from morel mushrooms (for eating) to beargrass (for basket weaving). Other researchers have found similar findings.

The Willamette Valley is the home of the Kalapuya people, who historically used fire to turn the pine-dominated valley into the savannah-like landscape of oak trees and grasslands it is today. They used acorns collected from oak trees to make a kind of porridge, and the grasses attracted the game animals they hunted.

Lake says the traditional use of fire could be used to encourage the presence of first foods and other traditional plants while also acting as prescribed burns to help clear out understory growth, lessening the fuel that would power the monster fires expected in the future. The key, he says, is to find the sweet spot where cool-burning, controlled fires can create a landscape of fire-adapted traditional plants that can help edge out the coming super-fire regime of the future. He doesn’t have to go far for an example of what that might look like.

The Karuk has its own fire and forestry program, and, for the past three years, the tribe, in collaboration with the nonprofit Nature Conservancy and local and federal officials, has conducted a series of prescribed burns in the fall. Connected to the Karuk’s World Renewal Ceremony, a yearly ritual that seeks ecological and spiritual balance through fire, the Karuk are hoping to use fire to adapt their lands to climate change.

UO researcher Kari Norgaard is aiding this effort. “We have 100 years of Smokey the Bear, and people view fire as dangerous and bad. And it can be, but that’s not the only thing it can be,” she says.

Norgaard is currently working with the Karuk to investigate how fires will affect the tribe’s access to first foods, roughly three-quarters of which are connected to fire in some way. Following years of fire suppression, the Forest Service is now more open to the use of prescribed burns. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is also encouraging the traditional use of fire as part of its wildfire management program, including burning on traditional gathering lands outside official reservations.  

Norgaard says all this points to a changing attitude about fire that’s coming just in time.  

“There is a lot of traditional knowledge about how fire is medicine. Hopefully we will be able to show how this medicine is needed more than ever,” she says.


Lynn recalls being in Haiti in September 1998 as a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer. Everyone knew Hurricane Georges was coming, but there was no sense of urgency. She sat on her host family’s porch, watching as the strong winds forced the palm trees in front of her from their normal vertical position to a horizontal one. Then came a torrential downpour. Lynn’s thoughts went to her trees.

When she had arrived some two years earlier, she had found barren hillsides, the result of a local economy based on making charcoal. The process had denuded the landscape, making the hillsides prone to landslides and erosion. Over the next two years, Lynn would help plant some 1,000 trees, mostly fruit-bearing. The trees would help buffer her village from the hurricane, holding the hills in place. When she visited years later, she was invited inside a local home and served limeade made from one of her trees.

Lynn tells this story in the Longhouse as a heavy rain falls, the result of one of the largest and most unpredictable El Niños on record. The point of the story, says Lynn, is the choices we make at the local level matter, even if we can’t stop the approaching storm.

“How we retain our cultures and communities within the context of climate change is all about the choices we make,” she says. 

—By Nathan Gilles

Nathan Gilles, MS ’11, is a science writer based in Vancouver, Washington.