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Culturally prescribed burning is a sustainable method for managing land and enhancing the resilience of streams and watersheds. USGS and Yurok Tribe scientists are studying how these fires affect plants and soil moisture conditions on Yurok Ancestral Lands.

In the lush landscapes of Northern California, where towering ancient redwoods stretch skyward and rivers sculpt their paths to the Pacific, a remarkable partnership thrives. Here, the Yurok Tribe and the U.S. Geological Survey unite in a groundbreaking collaboration, melding evolving Tribal scientific knowledge and practices with academic science's knowledge and practices to address the escalating challenges of wildfire and land management. This alliance, centered around the use of culturally prescribed burns, not only aims to protect these storied lands but also to revitalize ecosystems and safeguard communities from the devastating impacts of catastrophic wildfires.

Spanning northwestern California, the Yurok Ancestral Territory extends from the mist-laden coastal redwood-spruce rainforests to the verdant inland forests and prairies. The Yurok Tribe is deeply committed to preserving their rich heritage and the wealth of natural resources that have sustained them for millennia. With a profound connection to their ancestral lands and a desire to restore balance on the earth, the Yurok Tribe focuses on stewarding culturally significant species and the delicate ecosystems that support them, amid growing concerns over climate change impacts.

Yurok Ancestral Land at Sunset

Bridging Knowledge Systems on the Science of Fire

At the heart of this partnership is a mutual respect for two complementary systems of knowledge: the analytical, data-driven approach of Western (academic) science and the deep, ancestral wisdom of the Yurok Tribe. The USGS, with its cadre of scientists, brings to the table data-informed tools and methodologies designed to analyze and interpret environmental data.

"I am honored to partner with the Yurok Tribe on collaborative research revealing the effects of land management on water availability. As a researcher, I am learning how to create space for and elevate California's Native peoples' perspectives and culture when thinking about the relationships between water, nature, and people," 

says Michelle Stern, PhD, principal investigator, USGS California Water Science Center. 

"Co-learning about the culturally significant resources that are important to the Yurok people and honoring their experiences and immense knowledge about their land has been very rewarding. I look forward to sustaining meaningful relationships with the Yurok people, and to collaborating on research that directly impacts them."

In parallel, the Yurok Tribe contributes an unfolding form of knowledge honed over millennia, rooted in a symbiotic relationship with the land. This emergent indigenous science, characterized by acute empirical observations and validated through generations via oral transmission, offers invaluable insights into the natural world. The Yurok's expertise in the strategic use of fire as a tool for land management exemplifies a sophisticated understanding of natural cycles and ecological balance.

woman looking at computer
Michelle Stern collaborates with Yurok Tribe scientists and staff to troubleshoot data logger issues at the Yurok Tribe Offices

These scientific efforts are pivotal in understanding the dynamics of fire and its myriad interactions with the landscape, thereby enhancing the ability to better anticipate, manage, and mitigate fire impacts more effectively. This integrated approach not only informs better policy and practice, but also respects and incorporates the cultural heritage and ecological wisdom of indigenous communities like the Yurok Tribe.

Christine Cosby, environmental coordinator, Yurok Tribe, explains,

"For more than two decades, the Yurok Tribe Environmental Department has performed a wide range of rigorous data collection and scientific work in the Klamath Basin, including managing real-time monitoring stations for water quality and quantity data on the Klamath River and cold-water tributaries vital for salmon health."

The Yurok Tribe brings an understanding of natural processes and cultural practices to their scientific collaborations, which aims to blend indigenous scientific knowledge with mainstream ecological science.  

"Our primary objective transcends merely contributing to the body of Western science. Yurok people know the benefits of culturally prescribed fire and have known since time immemorial. They know that if you burn, there is going to be more water. Our main aim is to address Yurok inquiries, rooted in tribal community interests, such as securing a brighter future for the flourishing of traditional foods, fibers, and medicines, as well as preserving traditional lifeways in the face of climate change,"

says Christine Cosby, 

"It is not a coincidence that those values foster additional benefits, like reducing wildfire fuel loading and increasing water resilience. If anything, this study illustrates how agencies can serve as valuable allies and partners in supporting Indigenous-led research while upholding tribal and data sovereignty. We require more instances of this collaborative approach."

Culturally Prescribed Burns: A Legacy Rekindled

Culturally prescribed burns, a cornerstone of this partnership, are carefully managed fires ignited according to both Ttribal practices. These burns are meticulously planned to achieve specific ecological goals, such as reducing underbrush to decrease wildfire risks, enhancing habitat for wildlife, and promoting plant species vital for tribal cultural and spiritual practices.

These burns play a pivotal role in nurturing healthy ecosystems, particularly through their influence on base flows, the consistent, gentle stream of groundwater that feeds into rivers and streams which is crucial for maintaining water quality and ecosystem health. This traditional practice of culturally prescribed burning, guided by the deep-rooted scientific experience of the Yurok Tribe, offers multiple ecological benefits that extend beyond forest boundaries. Firstly, it fosters a transition in forest composition to more diverse mixed hardwood ecosystems, which are inherently more resilient. Secondly, it strategically reduces the build-up of underbrush and other fuel sources that can escalate into catastrophic fires. Thirdly, by limiting excessive tree growth, these burns reduce the demand on the water table, thereby enhancing surface water flow and maintaining soil moisture longer into the dry season. Collectively, these effects help shield communities and forests from severe disturbances, ensuring a balanced and thriving environment.  (source: USGS SW CASC and USGS data release)

For the Yurok, fire is more than just a management tool; it is an integral part of their cultural heritage, embedded within their spiritual and ceremonial life. The practice of setting controlled fires is conducted with reverence and precision, guided by an intimate knowledge of the land’s rhythms.

A Yurok firelighter ignites a culturally prescribed burn in a photo by Matt Mais, public relations director for the Yurok Tribe, seen to the right.

Firelighter Lighting a Fire, Fall 2023, Yurok Tribal Land

Science to Support Ecological and Community Resilience

A team of Yurok Tribe scientists and USGS scientists from the California Water Science Center are together actively studying the impacts of these culturally prescribed burns on various ecological parameters, including soil moisture, vegetation health, and watershed resilience. By embedding advanced soil moisture sensors within the soil of forested lands and utilizing remote sensing technology, the team meticulously tracks how fire influences the hydrological cycle and alters plant stress levels across diverse landscapes. This data is crucial for understanding how fire management practices can be optimized to enhance water availability and overall ecosystem resilience.

Using climate data from the Prism Climate Group at Oregon State University, one of the team’s goals is to build a water balance model. The model uses climate data to drive the water balance calculations. Collected data like streamflow and soil moisture are used to calibrate and validate the model.


Here's how the components of a water balance will function:

  1. Inputs: Precipitation and surface water from streams
  2. Outputs: Water can leave the system through evaporation, plant transpiration, recharge, and surface runoff.
  3. Storage: This includes water retained in the soil and water bodies like streams. Changes in storage are critical for understanding water availability over time.


At the heart of this project is a key land management goal: to explore how fire affects water availability by studying different upland habitats. Upland habitats refer to areas of land typically elevated above the surrounding terrain and not regularly saturated with moisture. 

Upland areas play crucial roles in the ecosystem, including acting as sources of freshwater runoff, providing unique niches for wildlife, and serving as sites for various forms of land use like agriculture and forestry. This collaboration is allowing the Yurok Tribe and USGS to gain new and deeper insights into the relationship between fire and water through their focused study on Yurok land where culturally prescribed burning is happening or planned.

The Approach

Soil Moisture Monitoring: Soil moisture sensors, which are jointly placed by scientists from the Yurok Tribe and the scientists from the USGS California Water Science Center, are tracking how quickly moisture evaporates, infiltrates, or is absorbed by plants over time, thereby providing critical data on water dynamics in these ecosystems.

Throughout this process, which is currently underway, the actions of USGS scientists and Yurok scientists epitomize scientific collaboration. Michelle Stern describes,

“The placement of the soil moisture probes was extremely collaborative. Together we think about the most important considerations when installing these probes, like avoiding disturbed areas and edges of different vegetation types, access to roads, and local conditions like slope, aspect, and distance from burn areas. We knew ahead of time that we wanted to place the soil moisture probes in forested soils to study the effects of culturally prescribed burns in forested lands.”

Since embarking on the project, USGS scientists regularly work with Yurok scientists out of the Yurok Tribe office and have formed a close working relationship with one another. 

“Joe, Christine, and Tarah of the Yurok Tribe picked the areas they thought would be most appropriate considering the planned cultural burn location, describes Stern. “We discussed where to place the sensors, how many should be placed, and the depths at which they should be placed, and the final locations were approved by the Yurok Tribal Council. Together, the Yurok scientists and USGS scientists ensured that the soil moisture probes were placed in locations that will help answer our questions about soil moisture and hydrology, while ensuring that the probes were not installed in culturally sensitive areas."

Vegetation Stress and Water Effects

Alongside soil moisture tracking, remote sensing techniques are employed to observe how water availability impacts plant health and stress. This information helps determine the optimal moisture levels needed for various plant species to thrive.

woman hunched over metal box in ground
Tarah Balden, environmental scientist, Yurok Tribe is burying the data logger box underground to protect it from the upcoming culturally prescribed burn. 

The data from these sensors and remote observations feed into a detailed water balance model specifically tailored for the local watersheds. This model, known as the Basin Characterization Model, is being fine-tuned with the latest local data to accurately predict how different climate and management scenarios, like the timing and placement of culturally prescribed burns, could enhance water resilience in the region. This model will serve as a crucial tool in guiding future decisions about using fire as a strategic resource management tool.


Towards Inclusive Scientific Practice

The USGS-Yurok collaboration marks a significant stride not just in fire management but also in the evolution of environmental policy and scientific practice. This change is underscored by recent Department of Interior guidance wherein the USGS relies on Indigenous knowledge as a scientific knowledge source in federal research, policy-making, and decision-making processes.

In describing Indigenous Knowledge, the guidance notes, "Indigenous Knowledge is a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, innovations, practices, and beliefs developed by Tribes and Indigenous Peoples through interaction and experience with the environment." 

This definition paves the way for a more holistic approach in federal undertakings, encouraging the integration of tribal scientific knowledge, from scientific research to its application. 

Community and Environmental Stewardship

The benefits of this partnership extend beyond ecological metrics. For the communities living in these fire-prone regions, the resurgence of culturally prescribed burns has brought a renewed sense of security and sustainability. These practices not only help mitigate the risk of larger wildfires but also foster a deeper connection between the community and the land, promoting sustainable stewardship that is informed by both respect for tradition and scientific insight.

Group of elk in front of trees with one looking at camera
A group of Roosevelt Elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) feeding on grass on Yurok Tribal prairie land. They are the largest of the North American elk subspecies.

Conclusion: A Model of Scientific Partnership

The USGS USGS-Yurok partnership is a testament to the power of collaborative science and the potential of integrated knowledge systems to address complex environmental challenges. As this cooperative effort continues to grow, it serves as a model for other regions and communities, highlighting the importance of embracing diverse knowledge systems in the stewardship of natural resources. In the face of increasing wildfire threats, this innovative approach offers a hopeful pathway toward resilience, sustainability, and the preservation of both cultural heritage and ecological integrity.

Seen below are Joe Hostler, environmental scientist, Yurok Tribe and Noah Hoffman, physical scientist, USGS California Water Science Center installing soil moisture probes on Yurok Tribal land prior to a culturally prescribed burn later that fall.

man putting square box in ground
Joe Hostler, environmental scientist, Yurok Tribe installing soil moisture probe
Person putting metal boxes in ground
Noah Hoffman, physical scientist, USGS California Water Science Center, installing soil moisture probe

Joe Hostler, environmental scientist, Yurok Tribe reflects on the past several months of the collaboration and looks forward as he reflects,

“A major point of our project that I think is important to share is the trust building and time that has been invested in making our collaborative relationship meaningful and genuinely a co-production of information between USGS and the Yurok Tribe. I feel that many more USGS projects should follow the example of our project in this regard.”

Through such endeavors, the evolving scientific knowledge of both the Yurok Tribe and the USGS are woven together, creating a tapestry of fire management that is as scientifically robust as it is culturally profound. This story not only narrates a partnership but also ignites a broader dialogue on how combining diverse knowledge systems can lead to more effective and meaningful environmental stewardship.


This story is part of the “Unleashing the Science” series, showcasing how bureaus within the Department of the Interior produce and apply science to ensure responsible management decisions for our planet now and for the future. 


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