A wildland fire and fuels research scientist, Frank Lake grew up in Northwestern California surrounded by the Pacific coast, Humboldt Bay, redwoods and the Klamath River. His experience growing up among his Yurok and Karuk family allowed him to develop a deep appreciation for the traditional ecological knowledge of his elders. Today, he brings the perspective of recognizing the value of diverse points of view to his work at the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.
Who or what inspired you growing up?
My parents and growing up among my Yurok and Karuk family. Seeing the struggles of the tribal community over resources management, tribal fishing rights, access to forest resources, and efforts to protect areas from destructive resources exploitation. I was able to learn local tribal community subsistence and ceremonial practices that instilled principles of responsibility and respectful stewardship of our relationship with nature.
Is there anything you’d like to share about Native American culture and/or how it may have influenced your work today?
Growing up, I experienced the struggle of rural and tribal communities over resource management, conservation and the recognition of tribal rights to natural and cultural resources. I was able to spend time with tribal elders to learn the history of place, and their perspectives for solutions to some of the challenges we faced with environmental stewardship. When I came to the USDA Forest Service, the Six Rivers and Klamath National Forests, needed to improve relationships with local tribes. Tribes bring a traditional ecological knowledge of plants, animals, fungi, tribal subsistence and burning practices. Having learned that traditional ecological knowledge from elders, I recognized a responsibility to my culture and place to improve those relationships.
What do you like to do for fun in your free time?
I really enjoy cultural subsistence activities at any season: fishing, hunting, gathering and burning when I can with my family and friends. Also, I spend a bit of time as a youth wrestling coach — folk and freestyle — that connects to tribal boys’ and men’s traditional endurance training and sports. I am also a traditional artist — working with wood, bone/ivory, shell, animal or bird parts and other materials to make tribal regalia to support ceremonies.
What do you do in the Forest Service and when did you start working here?
I am currently a research ecologist for the Fire and Fuels Program in the Pacific Southwest Research Station. I came to Forest Service research in 2004 as a graduate student hired through the Student Career Experience Science Research Initiative Program. My Forest Service career began in 1994 as a fisheries habitat biologist for the Siuslaw National Forests. At the time, as influenced by my family’s tribal fisheries experiences, I wanted to be a fish biologist.
What is your favorite part of your job?
The flexibility of my research position, collaborating and working with a diverse array of indigenous communities, academics, international to local organizations, federal and state agencies, and other interest groups. I enjoy being able to fulfill my personal cultural responsibility for the traditional knowledge I have gained and working to create the best available science to inform management and influence policy development. Having the majority of my field-based research and science support occur in the area I grew up in and have cultural ties with is a gift.
How has your education, background, or personal experiences prepared you for the work that you do now?
It has been intentional. I had a vision and goals to do meaningful work in the place I am from and live. I deliberately followed an educational and career path that would allow me to do that.
After graduating from University of California-Davis in 1995, I was a zone district fish biologist on the Rogue River National Forest. Wildfires, and the importance of fuels and forest management, became a focus of my fisheries work. I became fireline qualified and realized I needed to understand and learn more about forestry and wildland fire to restore fish. That led me to seeking ways to incorporate tribal, traditional and ecological knowledge into my professional and academic work. I then pursued my Ph.D. at Oregon State University, crossing over from fish management to wildland fire and fuels research. I am still following that career path and working with indigenous and tribal communities. Today, I am broadening my work to include climate change as well.
Describe a recent, current, or upcoming project that you’re working on.
I am working on the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership and at the Redwood Experimental Forest, continuing with my field-based research, forestry and fuels plots, and linking that data to prescriptions and treatment strategies. Now the work has broadened to include increasing the resilience of forests and rural/tribal communities to the effects of climate.
Describe a professional or personal achievement that you are particularly proud of.
Being able to be the coordinating scientist for the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (inland along the Mid Klamath River) and with the Redwood Experimental Forests (on the coast, near the ocean). My work directly supports tribes and fulfills aspects of the federal trust responsibility to those tribes.
Why do you think your field is important?
Wildland fire and climate affects our society. Learning from indigenous peoples allows us to develop management solutions and is part of the strategies to increase our adaptive capacity, as is learning to live with fire.
What are some of the greatest challenges confronting your field?
Unconscious bias of colonial society that unintentionally marginalizes indigenous communities. There is also a perception that underestimates or minimizes the value of working with American Indian tribes. Also for non-tribal people to value the utility of indigenous knowledge applications to research and management.
What are some of the most promising strategies being used by the Forest Service to address these challenges?
Greater inclusivity and diversity efforts, respecting cultural or indigenous knowledge systems, and promoting collaboration and shared stewardship.
How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?
That working to fulfill tribal trust responsibilities is also of benefit to society and the public at large. We are all beneficiaries of creating the best available science, and utilizing indigenous knowledge improves land management as well as the stewardship of the resources derived from landscapes — resources that are necessary to sustain us.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve their country as a Forest Service employee?
It can be rewarding and meaningful. Working for the agency allows you to see the effect of your work and how you can make a difference.