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Taking Ashland's stewardship model to Congress

Testifying in Washington, D.C., as an expert witness on wildfire resilient communities, I was not alone. I was supported and joined by a delegation of elected tribal representatives from Northern California and Lomakatsi staff. I brought the understanding that when we live embedded into the forest as we do in the Rogue Valley, it’s critical that we cultivate a way to act as ecological stewards, creating fire-adapted communities and resilient ecosystems.

I was invited by U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, who is chairwoman of the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. Haaland is one of the first native women elected to Congress, and she was flanked by her colleagues from across the nation to hear from witnesses and discuss solutions.

We all know this reality now.

Although wildfire is a natural process that shaped the biodiversity of our ecoregion, in the summer of 2018, Oregon wildfires cost $514 million, and that half-billion is not the end of what is on the horizon. Our fire seasons are longer, less predictable and made worse by climate change. The cost and impacts of fire and smoke on our lives will increase. It’s critical we continue to receive support and funding from the federal government in combating an issue that affects us all.

In addition to submitting my 13-page written testimony, I had five minutes to describe our working model, followed by a series of questions from subcommittee members.

“My testimony today focuses on a forward-thinking, replicable model that balances ecology and economy, holistically reduces wildfire risks through an ecological approach, advances climate adaptation, and addresses the socio-economic challenges by forest-based communities,” I said.

My job was to explain what we do and why it works.

“For the past 24 years, our team of foresters, ecologists, eco-cultural experts, timber operators, forest workers, and fire professionals have worked to restore dry forest ecosystems, create fire-adapted communities, and provide economic opportunities by creating jobs and sending logs to local mills.”

I was honored to have the opportunity to share the great work of our partners in the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project and champion the initiatives of tribal landscape forest restoration partnerships and the work of the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative.

Lomakatsi has been on Capitol Hill several times before, but this time we were summoned to share our model, which has gained recognition. This is an example of the urgency felt among elected officials and communities around the country. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, a Republican across the aisle from Haaland, read my testimony back to me. He appreciated my reference to practical solutions that work.

“There is a practical solution. Through science-based risk assessments and land management strategies, there is a middle way between a complete hands-off approach (do nothing) and outdated forest management practices of extensive timber harvest that have created homogenized landscapes, making them prone to burning hotter. This middle road strategy protects large trees and wildlife habitat, conducts ecologically-based commercial thinning of trees as the by-products of restorative work, and reduces the risk to communities by returning beneficial fire to the landscape.”

While it can be challenging to unite Washington around answers, the subcommittee meeting struck a hopeful note. Most everyone acknowledged the role of indigenous people and traditional ecological knowledge as a place-based model for living with fire and tending ecosystems responsibly, which includes carefully applied prescribed burning. I was glad to re-enforce that understanding as requested of me, by the elected tribal delegation:

“Natural fire is an essential element of a healthy forest and helps mitigate future fires by clearing fuels from the forest floor. Tribes bring a wealth of knowledge and cultural practices, including indigenous fire that is applied to the land to increase vegetation for wildlife habitat and decrease disease and what would today be considered ‘hazardous fuels.’ Indigenous fire was and is applied carefully and diligently to increase forest health and subsistence lifestyle cultures.”

I ended my remarks the way I often do, by acknowledging the value of solutions that we create together to restore ecosystems and sustain communities and cultures.

What an honor. I’m gratified by the experience.

Marko Bey is executive director of Lomakatsi.

Photo by Julie Akins{ } Marko Bey, executive director of the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, is shown before the committee meeting with Dr. Steve Quarles, left, University of California Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus, and Dr. Ray Rasker, executive director, Headwaters Economics.