The Application of Historical Ecology in the San Francisco Bay Area

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Thursday, October 27 2011


More than a decade ago, Robin Grossinger of the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) was giving a talk about the historical ecology of the Bay Area since colonization at a meeting of the Society for Ecological Restoration. When he asked for questions from the room of about 300, a hand rose at the back, and Chuck Striplen asked the one question Grossinger didn't have an answer for: what about historical ecology prior to colonization?

Chuck, a member of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band (Santa Clara Valley/Monterey Bay People) and PhD candidate at UC Berkeley in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM), has been working with SFEI towards answering that question ever since. He is pushing the timeline of historical ecology back to look at how our landscapes were managed and modified by tribes for more than ten thousand years prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1769.

Chuck has worked for SFEI since 2002, adding his knowledge of landscape history and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to the institute's analysis of the physical and ecological characteristics of the region's wetlands, creeks, and terrestrial habitats prior to major Euro-American colonization, according to the SFEI website. Through the use of early historical documents, oral histories, and other ethno-ecological sources, Chuck contributes analyses of Native Californian resource management that shaped the landscape first encountered by European explorers.

This information is sometimes tricky to collect, since there is a history of mistrust between some of the tribes and outsiders anxious to collect and exploit indigenous knowledge. Chuck helps build mutually beneficial relationships between tribes, scientists, museums and archives over time in an effort to build lasting, collaborative relationships around the development of this information.

The San Francisco Estuary Institute's mission to provide impartial scientific interpretations of the region's ecosystems benefits deeply from these new collaborations. In terms of the broader community, the goal is to "baby step people back in time," according to Chuck, including peer-reviewed data in scientific analyses that are thorough and objective. Because of the transient nature of most modern populations, and the relatively short vision of the institutions devised to manage these populations and the lands on which they reside, people can often be completely unaware of massive changes that have taken place on the landscape just within the last few decades, let alone 100 or even 300 years ago, says Chuck.

Because of this short institutional memory, many public agencies are now realizing that one way to avoid costly surprises - or costly mitigation associated with construction and management activities - is to front-load as much information about the "native landscape" as possible in the planning process. To this end, agencies such as the State Coastal Conservancy, the California Department of Transportation, water districts, flood control districts, and others are increasingly investing in the development of historical data. On the horizon, Chuck sees opportunities for the development of digital platforms to manage, secure, and efficiently apply this information, more tribal input in large-scale landscape management, and a greater sense of shared investment in more resilient and sustainable communities and watersheds.


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