Six Rivers National Forest surrounds Orleans, an unincorporated community of 600 people tucked in California’s northeastern Humboldt County. The area’s diverse ecosystem ranges from lofty redwoods to spawning salmon. Yet, like other ecosystems in the West, devastating wildfires fueled by the effects of a changing climate and a century of fire suppression are altering this land.
Frank Kanawha Lake looks at these problems through two lenses: one as a research ecologist for nearly 20 years at the Pacific Southwest Research Station and the other as a Karuk tribal descendant with family in the Yurok tribe.
Lake’s connection to that land and his ancestors runs deep like the roots of a long-lived tree, gripping the ground. You could even say the land runs in his blood.
“I grew up with both a spiritual tie to the land and an appreciation for the role of science,” Lake said. “My parents were medicine people. My late dad was also the founding professor of ethnic studies at (then) Humboldt State University. That gives me a unique perspective.”
Today, he serves as the agency’s coordinating scientist to the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership working along with representatives of the Karuk Tribe, Mid Klamath Watershed Council and the Salmon River Restoration Council, and national forests. Originally focused on 1.2 million acres of the Middle Klamath River sub-basin. The partnership now spans two national forests—the Klamath and Six Rivers—and includes the communities of Weitchpec, Orleans, Somes Bar, Forks of Salmon, Cecilville, Sawyers Bar, Happy Camp, Seiad Valley, and much of the Karuk Tribe’s ancestral territory.
Lake is disheartened to see the land where he grew up marred by pollution. Recent runoff from high-severity wildfires and intense rains has turned the Klamath River into a chocolate brown. This river is home to Coho and Spring Chinook salmon, which runs deep in the cultural and spiritual identity of the Yurok and Karuk tribes.
Indigenous knowledge – also referred to as traditional knowledge or traditional ecological knowledge – is a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, innovations, practices, and beliefs that promote sustainability and the responsible stewardship of cultural and natural resources through relationships between humans and their landscapes.
Linking the past to the present is key for preserving and restoring watersheds like the Klamath River, part of which is specially designated as a wild and scenic river. The annual Fish Camp is a time when Yurok elders teach children about how salmon fishing has been part of their people’s way of life for centuries.
Preservation of tribal cultural traditions also is important to those waters, Lake said. He sees his role as bringing Indigenous knowledge to the forefront of forest and wildland fire management.
Lake, who has a doctorate in environmental sciences, uses his unique perspectives to reach different audiences. He likes to do what he calls a ‘crosswalk,’ wearing the hat of a research ecologist with a tribal perspective.
Tribal perspectives, Lake cautions, vary with age, gender, and one’s cultural roles and responsibilities. There’s not a one size fits all. But one resounding message rings loudly: Fire is considered medicine by many tribal elders. Fire connects them to the land, and land management policies of fire suppression have, historically, severed that connection. Lake and many others are working to restore traditional uses of fire on the land. Tribes such as the Karuk and Yurok, could be considered as having fire dependent cultures.
Cultural burning beats to the rhythm of nature. Set during seasonal cycles, fire can enhance habitat for black oaks, sacred to many California tribes, for example. This creates open meadows for the Tribes to gather huckleberries and hazelnut shoots to weave baskets.
Viewing forests through this multidisciplinary lens, Lake said, is unifying. On a field trip to the Sierra National Forest, Lake observed perceived competition between advocates of conservation for threatened wildlife habitat versus those for tribal food security. While some advocated for protecting forested areas for spotted owls and fishers, others wanted more open areas for burning and gathering acorns. Lake sees possibilities for both.
Within the project planning area of the Sierra National Forest, a more layered canopy of black oaks with a richer understory could support spotted owl and fisher habitat. In the southern section, fuller crowned black oaks could create space for open meadows to harvest acorns, Lake explained.
Lake’s holistic view of landscapes, as informed by Indigenous knowledge teachings and academic training fosters the ability to reach across the aisle have cemented his reputation as a leader in his field. Lake builds bridges and knocks down barriers, whether sharing his knowledge with new California State Park staff beginning their careers or seasoned Forest Service fire managers. Education of tribal histories and contemporary interest is key.
“I think acknowledging that, historically, the Forest Service did not always treat Indigenous people with kindness is important,” Lake said. “Now, seeing tribal descendants of those ancestors who had a rough time with the Forest Service working side-by-side with the agency means a lot. There’s more work to do, but it’s a hopeful start.”