Protecting ecological legacies at Bears Ears

“The medicines on the landscape all have a story. The original proposal to designate 1.9 million acres for Bears Ears National Monument came from listening to the elders and medicine people who mapped culturally significant plants to protect our narratives. In terms of management, traditional knowledge is crucial to protect the entire ecosystem as a cultural living landscape…”

Cynthia Wilson, director of the Traditional Foods Program for Utah Diné Bikéyah
and member of the Navajo (Diné) Nation.

 

A new study by GCSC-affiliated faculty Brian Codding, Lisbeth Louderback, and colleagues draws on ecology, archaealogy, and indigenous knowledge can guide resource management in the Bears Ears region.

Below is an exerpt from the full story in At the U:

Indigenous people have lived in the Bears Ears region of southeastern Utah for millennia. Ancestral Pueblos built elaborate houses, check dams, agricultural terraces and other modifications of the landscape, leaving ecological legacies that persist to this day…

For the first time, a new study evaluated ecological legacies, archaeo-ecosystem restoration and Indigenous co-management practices in the Bears Ears region on the Colorado Plateau. The study published on May 17, 2021 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Bears Ears is not just about boundaries, it’s about management,” said the study’s lead author Bruce Pavlik, director of conservation at Red Butte Garden. “And it’s not just about artifacts. It’s also about the archaeo-ecosystems that are there. That’s what’s sacred to Native people.”

The authors surveyed 25 archaeological sites in the Bears Ears region that represented a wide range of locations, environments and archaeological complexity. By collecting plant specimens found at those sites, they compiled a list of 117 culturally significant plant species—those used for food, medicinal, ceremonial and utilitarian purposes by the Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Apache Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and the Navajo (Diné) Nation who trace ancestry to or currently reside in the region…

“What Tribal members have said all along is that you don’t just preserve the archaeological site,” said Lisbeth Louderback, curator of archaeology and director of the archaeobotany lab at the Natural History Museum of Utah and anthropologist at the University of Utah. “You have to preserve the entire resource space around the site, including the plants. Building a management plan incorporating both western science and traditional knowledge will get a full picture of the best way to take care of the resources and the monument.”

Wildfire smoke trends worsening for Western U.S.

The warming climate has made wildfires and smoke increasingly common. Researchers in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences evaluated data from a number of sources to look at air quality trends in the West. A new paper by doctoral student Kai Wilmot with Gannet Hallar and John Lin (GCSC-affiliated faculty) and Derek Mallia (past GCSC fellow) is published in Environmental Research Letters.

 

The following was originally published in At the U:

From the Pacific Northwest to the Rocky Mountains, summers in the West are marked by wildfires and smoke. New research from the University of Utah ties the worsening trend of extreme poor air quality events in Western regions to wildfire activity, with growing trends of smoke impacting air quality clear into September. The work is published in Environmental Research Letters.

“In a big picture sense, we can expect it to get worse,” says Kai Wilmot, lead author of the study and doctoral student in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences. “We’re going to see more fire area burned in the Western U.S. between now and in 2050. If we extrapolate our trends forward, it seems to indicate that a lot of urban centers are going to have trouble in meeting air quality standards in as little time as 15 years.”

Drawing the connection

Many of the West’s inhabitants have seen smoky summer skies in recent years. Last year, dramatic images of an orange-tinted San Francisco Bay Area called attention to the far-reaching problem of wildfire smoke. Wilmot, a native of the Pacific Northwest, has seen the smoke as well and, with his colleagues, looked at trends of extreme air quality events in the West from 2000 to 2019 to see if they correlated with summer wildfires.

Using air measurements of PM2.5, or the amount of particulate matter in the air with diameters less than 2.5 microns, from the Environmental Protection Agency and the IMPROVE monitoring network, along with measurements of fire area burned and the PM2.5 emitted from those fires, the researchers found consistent trends in air quality that correlated with wildfire activity—but that had different spatial patterns in August than in September.

Trends in August and September

Over the years studied, the researchers noticed that the mean air quality was worsening in the Pacific Northwest in the average August when sensors indicated wildfire smoke events.

“That’s pretty dramatic,” Wilmot says, “that extreme events are strong enough to pull the mean up so that we’re seeing an overall increase in particulate matter during August across much of the Pacific Northwest and portions of California. The Pacific Northwest seems like it’s just really getting the brunt of it.”

The reason for that, he says, is that the regions around the Pacific Northwest, in British Columbia and Northern California, both experience wildfires around August. The mountainous Pacific Northwest, Wilmot says, sits in the middle.

But by September, the researchers found, wildfire activity slows in British Columbia and shifts to the Rocky Mountains. The smoke shifts too—the researchers saw emerging trends correlating wildfire smoke with declines in September air quality in Wyoming and Montana. “We see the PM2.5trends start to pick up a bit more in the Rockies and they become more statistically significant, a little bit stronger and more spatially coherent,” Wilmot says.

What about Utah? The study findings show that the magnitude and significance of air quality trends increases as you go from the southern states of Arizona and New Mexico toward the Pacific Northwest. In Utah, Wilmot says, air quality trends are near the edge of statistical significance, with evidence for impact from wildfires, but evidence that’s less robust than in the Pacific Northwest and California. “Thinking about events like the smoke transport from fires in the Bay Area this past summer,” Wilmot says, “I would not be surprised to see trends in Utah become increasingly convincing with additional data.”

Looking to the future

Other researchers in other studies have suggested that the future will bring more fire areas burned in the Western U.S., with an accompanying increase in wildfire smoke exposure throughout the West and the impacts of that smoke on human health.

Wilmot notes that the trends the researchers see in the Pacific Northwest in August are “pretty robust,” he says, while the September trends in Montana and Wyoming are still “emerging.”

“I think the concern is that, given more time, those emerging trends are going to start looking a lot more like what we’re seeing in August,” he says. “I hope that’s not the case, but it seems entirely within the realm of possibility.”

His next step is to develop simulation models to more precisely link wildfire emissions in urban centers to smoke source regions.

“The big picture,” he says, “is aiming to help forest management in terms of identifying wildfire emissions hotspots that are particularly relevant to air quality in the Western U.S., such that if we had funding to spend on some sort of intervention to limit wildfire emissions, we would know where to allocate those funds first to get the most out of it.”

Find the full study here.

Indigenous land-use reduced catastrophic wildfires on the Fish Lake Plateau

Vachel Carter (2011-12 GCSC fellow) is the lead author on a paper resulting from a study that assesses the human influence on prehistoric wildfires. GCSC affiliate faculty from multiple disciplines who were part of the study are: Simon Brewer and Andrea Brunelle, Department of Geography; Brian Codding, Department of Anthropology; and Mitchell J. Power, Natural History Museum of Utah. Such interdisciplinary research is a key aim of the GCSC.

The following is excerpted from an article by Lisa Potter in At the U.

“The study is the first in the region to combine charcoal, pollen, tree ring and archeological site data together to assess the human influence on prehistoric wildfires. The multiple disciplines allowed the researchers to make connections that would otherwise have been impossible.

 

“If you were to visit the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau a thousand years ago, you’d find conditions remarkably familiar to the present. The climate was warm but drier than today. There were large populations of Indigenous people known as the Fremont, who hunted and grew crops in the area. With similar climate and moderate human activity, you might expect to see the types of wildfires that are now common to the American West: infrequent, gigantic and devastating. But you’d be wrong.

“In a new study led by the University of Utah, researchers found that the Fremont used small, frequent fires, a practice known as cultural burning, which reduced the risk for large-scale wildfire activity in mountain environments on the Fish Lake Plateau—even during periods of drought more extreme and prolonged than today.

“…In Utah, many forests could benefit from frequent, smaller fires to mitigate wildfire risk. Perhaps one of the most urgent is in the Fish Lake National Forest that guards Pando, a stand of 47,000 aspen tree clones and the most massive organism on Earth. Pando has sat at the south end of Fish Lake for thousands of years, at least—some say the organism is a million years old. In recent years, the beloved grove has been shrinking. Low severity fires may help Pando, and other Utah forests, stay healthy.

” “Fuels on the Fish Lake landscape are at the highest that they’ve been in the last 1,200 years. The climate is much warmer than it was in the past. Our droughts have not been as intense as we’ve seen in the past, but they’re on their way,” Carter said. “The Fremont likely created long-lasting legacies on the Fish Lake Plateau through their cultural burning. Moving forward, ‘good fire,’ like prescribed fire, will be needed to mitigate against wildfire risk.” “

Mounting air-quality sensors on light rail saves cities money while improving data

Researchers affiliated with the GCSC have been measuring greenhouse gases in the Salt Lake valley by mounting sensors on TRAX light rail trains. Not only does this greatly improve the data that informs city planners and policy makers, but this method can provide extraordinary cost savings. The cost of one research-grade mobile sensor is about $40,000. To collect data from the same area with stationary sensors would take 30 instruments and would cost more than $1.2 million.

U of U researchers have been monitoring carbon dioxide in the Salt Lake Valley for 20 years. According to John Lin, Professor, Atmospheric Sciences, adding the TRAX-based measurements to stationary monitoring sites makes Salt Lake City one of the best-instrumented cities in the world for observing air pollution.

Read the full story in At the U. Find the publication in Environmental Science & Technology.

How vegetation effects microclimates in urbanized Salt Lake Valley

A new study by Carolina Gómez-Navarro and GCSC affiliate faculty Diane Pataki, Eric Pardyjak, and Dave Bowling, looks at how trees and grass can help mitigate excessive heat in urban areas. Hard surfaces like roofs, buildings, and pavement absorb the sun’s heat and radiate it into the surroundings, creating a “heat island effect”. While trees cast cooling shade, the team found that a more effective cooling solution occurs with a mix of trees and turf grass. Read about the study in At The U.