For Skye Greenler, a fire ecologist and PhD candidate, fire management has been part of her life from a very young age.
“I grew up on a family farm in Wisconsin that was half organic cropland and half restored tall-grass prairie,” says Greenler. “Conducting prescribed prairie burns was a celebration of the changing seasons, and balancing production with sustainability and conservation was an integral part of working on the land.”
Her family’s prairie management emulated that of upper Midwest and great plains tribes, which instilled a deep interest in the practices of Indigenous fire managers. The farm also taught Greenler to think critically about sustainably using the land, building healthy ecosystems to buffer resources through bad years, and balancing a range of seemingly contradictory objectives— the questions she’s still thinking about today.
Greenler is at the forefront of a more holistic perspective in scientific inquiry. She is working to understand how systemically entrenched bureaucracy, patriarchal mindsets of command and control and injustices to underrepresented communities inhibit adaptation to our current fire challenge.
She arrived at OSU excited about the opportunity to study wildfires in one of the most fire-prone landscapes in the nation, where science, management and policy decisions often drive changes in the region and across the country.
Her dissertation focuses on identifying when wildfires can help restore historical and healthy forest conditions in eastern Oregon and northern California. A major part of her dissertation focuses on developing landscape-scale fire models for northern California that incorporate Indigenous fire management practices into cutting-edge fire modeling and management tools.
“This work is a collaboration with Karuk tribal experts, resource managers and scientists. Working together, we will better understand historical forest conditions, implications of different management decisions, and the changes necessary to build future climate and wildfire resilient ecosystems and communities,” says Greenler.
Greenler says there is an urgent need to reassess how we manage and live with fire in Oregon and many places across the globe.
“Understanding when, where, and how fire is beneficial on landscapes is critical for us to work towards promoting good fire and coexisting with fire rather than needing to fight and fear all fire,” says Greenler.
There is also increasing recognition of the importance of Indigenous fire management in restoring landscape resilience, reducing risk to communities and promoting critical first foods and medicines.
“This work is very place-based and needs to be led by local tribes, not Western scientists, but I see a lot of hope in collaborative work that centers Indigenous fire stewardship and land management,” says Greenler.
Greenler hopes that fire scientists can transition to uplifting Indigenous fire management in the following decade and collaboratively create a tangible and substantial space for cultural burning within fire management and landscape restoration.
“In the western United States, wildfire is a natural process that is foundational to maintaining ecosystem health but is increasingly a destructive event that can result in loss of life, property, and valued natural resources,” says Greenler. “Science, management, and policy that together can reduce the risk of uncharacteristic, destructive fires, while promoting natural fire and forest processes is critical to restore forest resilience and reduce risk.”
Greenler’s major professor John Bailey, professor of silviculture and fire management, says she exemplifies the combination of intellectual ability, talent, drive and heart to advance the College of Forestry’s mission for research, teaching and outreach.
After receiving a Provost Fellowship, Greenler helped found the Traditional Ecological Knowledge Club, which supports Tribal rights and inclusion in natural resource stewardship, including hosting a recurring conference on Traditional Ecological Knowledge in ecosystem sustainability. She served as the President of the Student Association for Fire Ecology and is one of 100 doctoral students in the U.S. and Canada selected to receive the Scholar Award from the P.E.O. Sisterhood.
Greenler received a master of science degree from Purdue University in 2018 and a bachelor of arts degree in ecology from Colorado College in 2014.
A version of this story appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Focus on Forestry, the alumni magazine of the Oregon State University College of Forestry.