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Researchers collaborate to study human-fire-climate interactions in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains

Southern Methodist University anthropologist Christopher I. Roos is a member of an interdisciplinary team of researchers examining how humans in the Southwest have responded to changes in the surrounding forests over multiple centuries, including forest fires and climate. The research is funded by a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The project is about forest fire history, fuels and forests, how human activities have changed them, and the influence of drought and dry conditions.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers will examine how humans in the Southwest have responded to changes in the surrounding forests over multiple centuries. The research is funded by a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The project is about forest fire history, fuels and forests, how human activities have changed them, and the influence of drought and dry conditions, said Thomas W. Swetnam, co-principal investigator on the grant and director of the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

The scientists are focusing on New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, where native peoples lived within the ponderosa pine forest in significant numbers for centuries before Europeans came to North America.

Swetnam and Southern Methodist University fire anthropologist Christopher I. Roos will use tree-ring and archaeological methods to reveal the fire history of the forest and of the forest close to the human settlement sites. Roos, co-principal investigator, is an assistant professor in the SMU Department of Anthropology.

While fire is a natural part of the Southwest’s forests and grasslands, the region’s massive forest fires this year were exacerbated by decade-long drought. In addition, more people are living in or near fire-adapted ecosystems, increasing the likelihood that human activities will affect and be affected by forest fires.

“Humans and fire are interconnected all the way back to our beginnings,” said Swetnam.

The team will study the interplay among human activities at the wildland-urban interface, climate change and fire-adapted pine forests.

“Drought and dry conditions are going to keep going on, so there’s an urgency in understanding what’s happening,” Swetnam said. “We’re seeking to know how we can live in these forests and these landscapes so they are more resilient in the face of climate change.”

Unprecedented approach to studying interaction of people, climate and fires
The team includes experts in tree-ring science, fire ecology and forest fire behavior, archaeology and anthropology, and education and outreach.

In addition to Roos, Swetnam’s co-principal investigators are T.J. Ferguson, a professor of practice in UA’s School of Anthropology; Sara Chavarria, director of outreach for UA’s College of Education; Robert Keane and Rachel Loehman of the USDA Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory; and Matthew J. Liebmann of Harvard University’s department of anthropology.

The team’s research approach is unprecedented, Swetnam said. By studying how people and climate and fires have interacted in one place over long time scales, the researchers will learn something fundamental about how the people-fire-climate system works.

“What are the tipping points?” he said. “What amount of change with regard to fuel, forest densities, how often you burn it or don’t burn it, leads to forests that are sustained through time?”

Native American life in Jemez Mountains will provide clues to living in sustainable forests
In the Jemez, Native Americans moved from their forest homes during the Spanish period, returned after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and left again in the 1690s. Liebmann has conducted extensive archaeological studies of the sites where the Jemez people lived.

Comparing the forest-fire-climate-human interactions during times of high and low human habitation will provide clues for living within forests sustainably, Swetnam said.

Ferguson said, “We’re interested in how the ancient populations in the Jemez responded to fire. We’re melding together settlement patterns and fire patterns, mapping one against the other.”

Ferguson is partnering with John Welch, Simon Fraser University, and with four tribes in the region to gather traditional knowledge of how ancient peoples responded to forest fire and their uses of fire. The tribes are the Pueblo of Jemez, the Pueblo of Zuni, the Hopi Tribe and the White Mountain Apache Tribe. All the tribes have lived in ponderosa pine forests at some time in their history.

“Who better to tell us about the human response to fire than the people who have lived in the Southwest for thousands of years?” Ferguson said. “They have a lot to teach us.”

Keane and Loehman will incorporate the information gathered into dynamic computer models of fire behavior and landscape-fire interactions.

Chavarria will lead the project’s outreach effort. She will conduct workshops for local-area teachers and help them develop teaching materials about the nature of fire and forests in the local landscapes.

Community outreach will bring students and teachers to join scientists in the field
In the summer, local high school students and teachers will join the scientists in the field to help with the archaeological and tree-ring research. “Connecting with the high school students this way will expose them to research and to the idea of a career path that involves college,” Chavarria said.

The research project is a homecoming of sorts for Swetnam, who grew up in Jemez Springs, N.M. and spent much of his youth roaming the Jemez Mountains. His father was the U.S. Forest Service district ranger in Jemez Springs. Swetnam has conducted many research projects in the Jemez over the years.

“I grew up around archaeology and went to school with pueblo kids,” he said. “It’s a dream project for me. I hope this project will help me learn some social sciences and learn something from my former classmates and childhood friends.” — University of Arizona

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By Margaret Allen

Senior research writer, SMU Public Affairs