The Stewardship Project: Developing Policy Pathways through Western Science and Indigenous Knowledge Exchange

What would it look like for Indigenous and Western science to collaborate on solutions to the climate and wildfire issues we face? Beyond that—what policy solutions would encourage that collaboration and build a path to implementation?

The Stewardship Project—which was developed by Climate and Wildfire Institute board member Scott Stephens and others—takes aim at this question and the associated challenges in answering it. Chief among these challenges is identifying exactly how we can translate a desire to integrate these knowledge systems at the academic and policy levels into real-world solutions that work across landscapes and cultures. 

“The genesis of [The Stewardship Project] is really a realization that we are at a crisis point in these fire-dependent ecosystems, where the level of stewardship that we believe is required to return to a state that is both ecologically sound as well as protective of communities, and culturally in alignment, is not where it needs to be,” Sara Clark, who is a partner at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP and a co-lead of the Stewardship Project. 

“And there’s been discussion for decades now about how this is a problem, we need to do better, and really nothing has changed. And so there’s a lot of growing recognition of the problem, a growing recognition of the tools that we have available to us to solve the problem, but sort of a lack of willingness to tackle some of the structures and policies that are impeding implementation of those activities.”

Clark, for her part, provides a critical policy perspective to the Stewardship Project team. Her work as a lawyer has involved advising fire collaboratives on good fire implementation and advancing policy solutions that encourage that implementation. With this experience, Clark is well-positioned to bring a realistic sense of what policy changes are both achievable and meaningful at a policy level. 

“We really wanted to have that legal perspective to make sure that our policy ideas were sort of well grounded in the legal frameworks,” she added. 

Stephens, Clark, and Indigenous academic Don Hankins—who together make up the Stewardship Project team—recently assembled key partners to discuss policy recommendations that will streamline greater integration of Indigenous and Western knowledge in land management, fire use, and associated policy. The challenges in making those recommendations—and ensuring that they’re well-grounded—were a notable talking point at the gathering. 

“[The project] is really about empowering tribes to do their traditional stewardship practices on lands that are not just in reservation lands,” Clark said. “But a big part of the reason why we’re not doing the stewardship work that we need is that we don’t have the workforce with the knowledge and skills that we need to be able to do that. Another [challenge] is that our policy structures were really built in the 1970s, around a time when fire suppression was at its height.

As they develop recommendations to put in the hands of policy makers, the priority remains on tribal sovereignty in making land management decisions—not just on reservation land, but in the unceded ancestral lands that tribes have been stewarding since time immemorial. Tribal sovereignty, Clark says, is the keystone of any recommendations that come from the Stewardship Project. 

“We have a whole bunch of other unrelated recommendations, but we really want to imbue aspects of tribal sovereignty and stewardship into everything that we are doing,” she said. 

The convening in January expanded beyond the explicit objectives of the Stewardship Project and its leads, however. It also fulfilled an essential component of CWI’s mission—to encourage knowledge sharing, collaboration, and in-person conversation. CWI’s staff and board understand that these are the things that incite real change, and the benefit of this physical gathering was not lost on Clark or her fellow project leads.  

“The last takeaway for me was just—what an impressive group of people we had in the room,” she said. “You know, it is truly a delight to be around people that are so smart and thoughtful, that come from a variety of different backgrounds, but are really committed to this work and to trying to be thoughtful and bold in what we’re trying to accomplish.”

“I think there’s room right now for big ideas.”