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Protecting oaks doing conservation genetics with an open heart

Blending traditional knowledge and Western science to strategise the battle against climate change

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In 2015, conservation biologist Amber Pairis had been working in government positions for more than a decade when she launched the Climate Science Alliance (CSA). A California native, Pairis says her dream was “to create a space where we could bring together researchers, managers, NGOs, foundations, community groups, artists and educators [to] advance climate resilience at a regional scale.”

She is now working with local partners and a group of researchers from two universities in Southern California as part of the Resilient Restoration project aimed to protect culturally important plants. Last April, Pairis presented part of their work during the 2021 State of Biodiversity Symposium organized by the San Diego Natural History Museum. Pairis, who is based in San Diego, started by thanking the Kumeyaay people for allowing her “to live, work and raise her children in their ancestral homelands.” Her acknowledging the Kumeyaay gives a glimpse of the heart of the Climate Science Alliance: the Tribal Workgroup, an assemblage of Southern California Tribes. There are 30 federally recognized Tribes in the southern region of California alone. The whole state is home to 109 American Indian groups, and, for most, oaks are a central part of their culture and identity.

“Everything goes back to creation,” explains Connor Magee, a tribal citizen of Pala and CSA’s Research and Data Applications Manager since 2019. Magee shares with me the creation story that has run in his family for generations and tells me about Kwila, one of the first Pala people to be created, who turned himself into an oak tree to provide shelter and food for his own. Acorns are inedible when raw, but with proper leaching to flush away their tannins, they become nutritious food.

From talking to Magee, one can feel he is intertwined with the landscape, fused with nature — a more than enough reason to try to protect the same trees to which his people owe their existence.  “We have a responsibility to take care of these plants,” he says.

Magee remembers his great-grandmother and thinks of her as a scientist, learning from the land from years of observation and testing. “She was in the landscape monitoring, taking in data, analyzing it, coming up with new strategies,” he says. Now, he has found allies in the academic world to protect their oaks.

Information gathered by people like Magee’s grandmother has been extremely important for evolutionary ecologist Lluvia Flores-Rentería and conservation ecologist Megan Jennings, from San Diego State University. “For me, it’s very important that information flows both ways. We share the knowledge we generate through the scientific method, but we also listen to the Tribes,” says Flores-Rentería.

The pair of scientists is currently working to understand the genetic and morphological underpinnings of two culturally important varieties of coast live oak. While Quercus agrifolia var. agrifolia has mostly glabrous leaves, Q. agrifolia var. oxyadenia is recognized by its tomentose leaves. This characteristic makes the group of scientists suspect that the oxyadenia variety might better tolerate lack of water, something they will confirm with their greenhouse experiments. With their genetic work, they might be able to determine if any of the varieties has genetic markers associated with drought tolerance. The researchers will also include individuals of the endangered Quercus engelmannii as part of their experiment since fragmentation and wildfires have reduced their population numbers. After the drought experiments, Flores-Rentería and Jennings will take the oak trees back to the communities from where they harvested thousands of seeds. Their research will be useful for managing oak woodlands in Tribal lands, says Magee, who also mentioned that an Intertribal nursery council will use this information and the young oaks for restoration.

And it is not only drought that the Tribal Workgroup is concerned about. California has experienced some of its largest fires in recent years so modeling population dynamics will also give some insights of how fire has affected populations of plants and some steps the Tribes might take to prepare for future ones. For this part of the project, ecological modeler Helen Regan and biogeographer Janet Franklin from the University of California Riverside will put their expertise to the service of the Tribal Workgroup.

Following Indigenous data sovereignty principles tailored for each of the Tribes participating in this project, CSA’s research findings will be shared with the academic community in scientific journals when results are in. However, Jennings says that CSA and the research team are continuously checking in with stakeholders and planners to ensure their needs are included in the research agenda. Jennings’ vision of “real-time science” comes from having worked as a U.S. Forest Service land manager for eleven years. Now at CSA, she is being a “science creator and science translator” to make climate resilience planning a reality. 

“It’s not ‘let’s go do the science and later we’ll deliver it’,” Jennings says. “It’s this constant back and forth and collaboration in the truest sense.”

Flores-Rentería and Jennings admit working with their Tribal partners has changed their perspective on how to do science. Both have been learning how to keep a balance between traditional knowledge and Western science, which operate at a different pace. Flores-Rentería is hopeful that this type of collaboration might inspire other scientists to adopt similar approaches.

For researchers who might be wondering how to take their science to practice, Jennings recommends lending an ear for those already working on the ground. “I want to ask what people need and I want to deliver science that is useful to people and the only way you can do that is by asking and then listening very carefully,” she says.

She adds that many of the skills for this type of collaboration come from “[L]earning little things that have nothing to do with being a scientist but have everything to do with being a human being.”

Centuries of enslavement, extermination policies and unethical scientific studies conducted in the eighties, have created distrust among Tribal communities. Flores-Rentería and Jennings, aware of this murky past, took precautions to explain the genetic work they will be doing, highlighting the application of their findings for restoring oak populations in Tribal lands.

For centuries, the lives of the Tribal people in California have been linked to oaks. Now, this delicate relationship is at risk. Never has the need to build alliances and blend knowledge to battle climate change been more important.

“We need to have an open heart. We have to work together to conserve these oaks,” says Flores-Rentería.