SDSU Partners with Tribal Communities to Build Climate Resilience in Southern California

A $7.1 million University of California Climate Action award will support Indigenous land stewardship and fire management projects.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023
Stewardship Pathways program participants engage in NWCG basic firefighter classes hosted by the Cahuilla Band of Indians in 2023 (Courtesy of Jennifer MacDonald)
Stewardship Pathways program participants engage in NWCG basic firefighter classes hosted by the Cahuilla Band of Indians in 2023 (Courtesy of Jennifer MacDonald)

A striking black and yellow beetle called the goldspotted oak borer has been decimating oak trees in Southern California for more than 20 years, including on the ancestral lands of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians on Palomar Mountain. The insects’ larvae burrow into bark, increasing drought stress on the trees. 

A project funded by a $7.1 million University of California (UC) award will tackle habitat degradation caused by the gold spotted oak borer and similar issues in the region by putting Indigenous land stewardship practices and California State University (CSU) and UC academic research to work boosting climate resilience. The Collaborative of Native Nations for Climate Transformation & Stewardship (CNNCTS) is a partnership between the Climate Science Alliance and its Tribal Working Group, six tribes, San Diego State University and three other universities.

“Tribal communities have always been resilient in the face of change, and this project is creating an opportunity for them be at the forefront by sharing and demonstrating the value of the work that they've already been doing,” said Megan Jennings, co-director of the SDSU Institute for Ecological Monitoring and Management and principal investigator of CNNCTS.

A major component of the community-driven project will be Indigenous fire management, training and landscape restoration demonstration projects on tribal lands around the region. They will serve as workforce development opportunities for the next generation of land stewards and climate leaders from both tribal communities and local universities, according to Amber Pairis, founder and lead advisor of the Climate Science Alliance. 

“The demonstration projects in particular are really important because they're opportunities to really show how climate adaptation work is done and what it looks like when you create a space where there's equal valuation for ways of knowing,” she said.

Good fire

Several of the demonstration projects focus on Indigenous practices for managing fire. As stewards of the land, native communities in California have used cultural fire — an approach to working with fire to cultivate and sustain the land — that was practiced for thousands of years before colonization. Fire can renew ecosystems, releasing vital nutrients into the soil, and support biodiversity, according to Jennings. But federal land managers have suppressed fires for more than a century, leading to the buildup of flammable material that has in turn fueled devastating wildfires in recent years. During this time, Indigenous voices were left out of fire management decisions. 

“Part of what has influenced the way communities are affected by climate change is a history of colonization,” said Jennings. “Having land taken away, not having an opportunity to steward their own lands, ancestral lands, or to have a say in what happens to their communities. And so we are trying to create a more equitable vision of how we move forward and adapt to climate change.

Acorns are an important food resource for Indigenous communities. On the La Jolla Indian Reservation and adjacent ancestral lands on Palomar Mountain, Tribal members and the band’s Natural Resource Manager Joelene Tamm — a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside — will continue ongoing work testing cultural burning and the timing of tree cutting as a means of reducing the spread of the goldspotted oak borer and restoring forests. 

“Bringing good fire back to the land in the right way is particularly important and our tribal colleagues are at the center and leading on how cultural burning is talked about and what that looks like across the West,” said Pairis.

Also on Palomar Mountain, a demonstration project led by the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians will build on ongoing stewardship work that has been restoring the forest following the destructive Poomacha Fire in 2007. CNNCTS will invest in Pauma’s vision to create a nature trail that is accessible to Tribal members — especially elders. Jennings emphasized that making the demonstration projects accessible is an important aspect of CNNCTS. 

“We can best steward the places that we see and we can get to,” she said.

Food, fiber and medicine

Three demonstration projects focus on restoration of landscapes that support culturally and ecologically important plants used for food, basket making, and traditional medicines. “All of this comes back to this idea of how we envision our roles as stewards,” said Jennings. “Since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples lived on the lands, stewarded it, and gave back to it and it gave to them.”

The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians have established a greenhouse east of Alpine to produce seeds and plants that could be used to restore sites damaged by fire, or caused by other climate-related issues in the future.

“Some of the species that currently live within their reservation boundaries, for example, might not be there in the future,” Jennings said. “And so this will allow them to be better prepared for doing restoration and promoting healthy populations of culturally important plants that serve as food, fiber and medicine.”

West of Palomar Mountain, the Pala Band of Mission Indians also are building a greenhouse operation. Their demonstration project will encourage people to set up their own home gardens and share the knowledge with other communities. 

In coastal Southern California, the Acjachemen Tongva Land Conservancy’s demonstration project aims to rematriate and restore lands that were part of their unceded ancestral territory, creating a welcoming place for the community to return to, according to Jennings. 

The tribal working group and its extensive network will share knowledge gained from the demonstration projects with the broader tribal community.

A model for climate adaptation

CNNCTS will engage students from SDSU, California State University, Long Beach, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, and community college campuses in hands-on learning opportunities, turning university preserves and Native American Land Conservancy lands into living laboratories and working side-by-side with tribal stewards in an reciprocal exchange of knowledge. And research by SDSU and UC Riverside faculty and students will build upon on-going restoration work. The program will also support tribal business development for a climate-resilient economy. 

Ultimately, the approach CNNCTS takes could provide a model for accelerating community-centered climate adaptation actions across the country. 

The UC has awarded $83 million to 38 climate action projects across the state, which will involve 12 UC schools, 11 CSU campuses and two private universities, as well as 130 tribal, community, industry and public agencies.

Tribal and non-profit partners on the CNNCTS project include: Acjachemen Tongva Land Conservancy, Climate Science Alliance, Intertribal Long Term Recovery Foundation, La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, Native Coast Action Network, Native American Land Conservancy, Pala Band of Mission Indians, Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians, Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous People, Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, 

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