Tribe Invites UC Researcher to Study Acorns
By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer
The ground outside the test plot seemed littered with acorns in every possible condition. Arielle Halpern reached through the foot-deep maze of young tanoak starts and grabbed a handful.
Most were dark and many were shattered. Halpern, a researcher from UC Berkeley, selected a few that were bright green, the recently fallen, and revealed small worm holes.
Tanoak trees seem able to drop the infested acorns early. There was no shortage of them. Food grade acorns will drop later, she explained.
Before traditional under-burning of the tanoak stands was outlawed 100 years ago, Karuk tribal members would have lit low intensity fires that would have killed many of the pests—filbert weevils and filbert worms—that thrive in the absence of fire.
The burns would have also reduced the low thicket of new tanoak starts that now effectively choke out many other plants.
Halpern’s work is designed to use scientific methodology to test the effects of the absence of the traditional introduced fires in the tanoak stands and the effects of its reintroduction.
Halpern’s work is part of a more modern tradition by the Karuk Tribe, the recruitment of sophisticated academics to explore and document specific areas of tribal interest. One earlier example was a 2003 paper by Dr. John Salter, an anthropologist with a long history working among local tribes. It was developed to clarify the effects of Iron Gate and other dams on the Klamath on the use of traditional resources and cultural patterns.
Two years later Dr. Kari Norgaard, an environmental sociologist now at the University of Oregon, with Ron Reed, Karuk cultural biologist, issued a paper titled “The Effects of Altered Diet on the Health of the Karuk People.”
The Norgaard-Reed paper traced the erosion of health among Karuk people with the loss of traditional salmon and other fish in their diets and specifically listed spikes of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, tuberculosis, hypertension, kidney disorders and strokes.
Both Salter and Norgaard’s papers were valuable to the tribe in the ongoing debates of whether to relicense the dams and Halpern’s work may be useful in the growing pressure inside agencies and out to attempt a return to some adapted version of traditional intentional burning. Tribal burning was outlawed in 1911.
Halpern’s study is an outgrowth of a Karuk-UC Berkeley collaboration which connects UC graduate students, faculty and staff with the Tribe’s Eco-cultural Revitalization efforts. The Collaborative was started in 2007 by Jennifer Sowerine and Tom Carlson from UC Berkeley and Ron Reed.
Carlson, both an ethno-botanist and medical doctor at UCB, said, from many conversations, “We learned that the Tribe had an interest in ecological studies measuring the impacts of prescribed burns on the availability of culturally important resources, upslope habitat condition and reduction of the risk of catastrophic fire. Acorns are one of the principal focal species of the tribe, for food and ceremonial importance.”
Carlson is one of Halpern’s advisors in her path to earn a PhD, along with Wayne Sousa, Carlson’s colleague in UCB’s Department of Integrative Biology. Her local advisors include Bill Tripp, an eco-cultural restoration specialist with the Tribe, and Frank Lake, a research ecologist from the US Forest Service.
Part of Halpern’s work includes 100-120 test plots in Somes Bar and Weitchpec. The plots are protected by a shallow cage of screen wire one meter wide and two meters long, about the size of a single bed mattress. The top screen wire has holes big enough to let acorns fall in but small enough to exclude most predators.
They are located in areas slated for prescribed burns and are designed so the fire will burn them the same as the surround landscape.
Her study has two parts. The first would measure how the indigenous style of prescribed fire changes the rates of filbert weevil and filbert worm infestation.
The second would be to compare how the presence and the absence of fire affects food grade acorn collection and to track whether that collection makes room for sprouting by other plants such as huckleberry, thimbleberry, or prince’s pine.
Hypothetically, a fall burn would consume the infested acorns, which drop early, and, when the food grade acorns drop after the burn, they would be easier to find because the blanket of tanoak shrubbery will be gone.
She says her work would be useful in the nascent food security movements in the river communities, even though traditional foods like acorns are under utilized at present. The US Department of Agriculture has labeled the river communities as food deserts, their term for locales where there is poor access to nutritious, affordable food. The term has a certain irony in a region where there are thriving gardens and small farms and where tribal peoples once had a nutritious lifestyle based on the availability of fish, acorns and other traditional food sources.
Collecting and eating more acorns would contribute to community health, she said, perhaps figuring that it’s healthier to walk in the woods than in the aisles at Safeway.
Halpern came to ecology research through an unusual path. She worked as an actress for 15 years and attended college in theater arts. When she decided to leave theater and pursue a PhD, she had to enroll in two-and-a-half years of undergraduate science and math to even qualify to apply.
She says the real formation of her scientific hypotheses came from the thousands of years of observation by the tribal people who have lived here. “I’m simply putting numbers to the natural phenomena that they have been working with and refining for generations.”
She added, in clear praise of those many earlier generations, “I’m always absolutely amazed by the elegance and the specificity of the canon of management practices that tribal practitioners used to manage their cultural plant resources. They’re so specific to the life cycles of the plants and life cycles of the organisms that interact with those plants.”
The path to the doctoral degree will not be a short one. She hopes fire will be introduced into at least some of the plots this fall. She will collect data from those burns plus next year’s acorn collection and then spend two to three years writing her dissertation.