Communities that are mostly black, Hispanic or Native American experience 50 percent greater vulnerability to wildfires compared with other communities.
Written & Photographed by Kat Morgan, Puget Sound Community Partnerships Manager
On a chilly morning in the North Sound, 20 semi-sleep deprived undergraduates from across the country (there were some fireworks and late nights at their campsite the previous night) stood in our Mount Vernon office parking lot learning about who The Nature Conservancy is, and our work in Washington, particularly Puget Sound. These were the 2016 cohort of Doris Duke Conservation Scholars, a program sponsored by the University of Washington. This two year program is designed to help foster and ultimately increase diversity in the conservation workforce. These were the first-year students – freshmen and sophomores - participating in this 8-week field program in Washington. They visited conservation projects and professionals around Puget Sound, learned about current conservation needs and issues, and about the people doing this work. We toured our Mount Vernon office to give them a sense of what it might be like to work for The Nature Conservancy, and then headed to one of our flagship project sites – Port Susan Bay. Most students knew the Conservancy purchased and conserved lands. Only one knew that we actively managed those lands, or that we supported and implemented large-scale, landscape changing projects beyond our own ownership.
After hearing about the needs for restoring floodplain systems across Puget Sound, they had lots of questions about how you work with communities to do this work. What kinds of outreach were required, and how did you go about it? We talked about how each community has different needs, and you approach each community differently depending on the circumstances and people involved. They nodded their heads when we talked about the similarities – in each community, you ask questions and listen. You listen a lot - to understand what is needed, what is important to the people who live in that place, and you work together to find space for all those needs in a project.
We toured the Port Susan Bay restoration project site at low tide, when all the restored tidal channels and estuarine marsh were visible and visited the flood return structure, installed to address local flood issues as part of the project. Migrating shorebirds moved around the shallow pools left by the tide. The students marveled at the remoteness of the site, even though houses are visible all around, and the subtle energy, where at a distance everything appears very still, but when you get closer, you see song and shore birds flitting round the marsh, rushes moving in the breeze, and raptors on the wing looking for lunch.
As we wrapped up the tour, we turned the tables and I asked questions of this group of future conservation professionals. Jared Rivera is one of the Doris Duke scholars. He studies environmental engineering at UCLA. As a Native American, Jared is very interested in the intersection of social justice and conservation, in making sure Native American communities are engaged in problem-solving and decision-making around natural resources. Jared appreciates the interdisciplinary teams the Conservancy puts together to tackle conservation problems, and one day, when he finishes his environmental engineering degree, is interested in a seat at the table.
Name: Jared Rivera
Hometown: Murrieta, Southern California. Going to college at UCLA.
Murrieta is located in the center of the Los Angeles San Diego mega region of 20 Million people. After interstate 15 was built in the 1980’s, suburban developments started being constructed. Today, Murrieta is known as a commuter town and the largest employer is the school. I know this area though. I have family on Camano Island. It’s really interesting to hear about your projects here.
Childhood Dream/what did you want to be when you grow up?:
Until I was 17, I wanted to join the Marines. Then my ideas changed. I had an AP bio teacher who taught us about ecology and took us on field trips to the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. I was fascinated by a project they were working on of sustainable algae fields for biomass production. I applied for a student study program at the Wrigley Institute and was accepted.
What about our work do you find most inspiring? What is most surprising?
The Levees at the Port Susan Project. The fact your conservation organization isn’t afraid to make changes to the environment, and to build infrastructure if it will help you accomplish your goals. Humans have already meddled with nature to mess it up. The only way to fix it is to keep meddling.
What would you most like to see The Nature Conservancy work on that you didn’t hear about today?
I would like to see The Nature Conservancy become more involved in social justice issues. Particularly as a Native American, I would like to see more indigenous communities included in the problem-solving and decisions around our natural resources.
What would make you want to work for us?
I am really excited about the interdisciplinary approach you described bringing experts from all different fields together to problem-solve, to have a seat at the table, particularly involving social justice issues.
Written and Photographed by John Marshall, Northwest Photographer
These photos from the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area in Okanogan County illustrate the necessity of controlled burning along with forest thinning to enable our forests to withstand catastrophic fires.
Historically, fires would occur here ever few years, including some intentional burning by Native Americans. Fire suppression in the last century has created an unnaturally high density of trees, multi-layered canopies, and a high accumulation of dead wood which fuels fire. You can see this in the first photo, taken in 2010, where a once-open ponderosa pine forest in the Sinlahekin Valley has filled in with small pines and Douglas-firs.
In 2010, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, assisted by The Nature Conservancy, began a project to address these concerns by removing small understory trees by thinning and subsequent controlled burning.
In the second photo, taken in June of 2015, you can see the same stand of ponderosa forest. First it was thinned and then careful controlled burns were set to clear out the fuels. Not only is it safer from fire, but grass forage for bighorn sheep, browse for deer, and berries for birds increased.
For a week In late August of 2015, the treatments were tested by the Lime Belt Fire, a portion of the vast 133,000-acre Okanogan Complex Fire, which burned through the south half of the wildlife area. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Hand-lines, bulldozers, water drops, and retardant were all used. Efforts to thin and burn prior to the wildfire made fire-fighting efforts more successful and safer to implement.
Photographer John Marshall visited the same stand in October of 2015. As you can see in the third photo, where both thinning and prescribed burning were completed, most of the ponderosas survived the wildfire.
The fourth photo shows a stand that had been thinned, but not yet prescribed burned, and you can see thatmost of the ponderosas were killed by the wildfire. In general throughout the Okanogan Complex Fire, areas that had been logged but not burned fared poorly in the wildfire.