5 questions with Associate Visiting Professor of Practice Heidi Huber-Stearns
Through the Western Forest and Fire Initiative (WFFI), based at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), Heidi Huber-Stearns joins a transdisciplinary working group organized to understand and develop strategies to manage forests and human communities in the western U.S. as an integrated social-environmental system.
- Can you tell us about your background prior to coming to U-M as a visiting professor of practice?
I was trained and have worked as an interdisciplinary scholar, linking research to applied conservation issues. The space I tend to occupy often feels like having one foot in the academic space and the other in a more practitioner-based space. I grew up on a cattle ranch in rural Oregon, so working in a space that allows me to link research to work on the ground and knowledge users has always been foundational to my professional trajectory.
Immediately prior to joining U-M, I worked full time at the University of Oregon as an Associate Research Professor and as Director of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment and the Ecosystem Workforce Program (EWP), a grant-funded, applied natural resource research program. I am still based in Eugene, Oregon, and continue some of my ongoing projects at EWP. My current work portfolio there includes rural community response to interventions and monitoring for air quality (smoke) concerns, social and economic monitoring of forest restoration programs and stewardship contracting, post-wildfire recovery, and equity in the labor-intensive forest workforce.
Before my time at University of Oregon, I was at Colorado State University for graduate studies in human dimensions of natural resource and natural resource policy. My work focused on intermediary organizations in Western Panama, and investments in ecosystem services in the west. I also worked with the Environmental Governance Working Group (part of the Earth System Governance Network), and at the Center for Collaborative Conservation to help develop a nascent water fund in Northern Colorado, now called Peaks to People.
I also work with networks and other efforts around natural resource issues including the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition, Northwest Fire Science Consortium, Oregon State University's Extension Fire Program and Smoke Ready Communities group and the North American Alliance of Hazards and Disaster Research Institutes.
- What drew you to U-M and the WFFI? What are you most looking forward to?
I was drawn to U-M and SEAS in particular due to the incredible research people within the school are conducting. The opportunity to learn from new colleagues and to help think about how to connect cutting edge, DEI and justice-focused, and creative research to solving some of our most pressing conservation issues in the west was intriguing-and the issues around wildfire that the west faces are relevant in wildfire-prone landscapes across the globe. The core of my professional identity is about connecting information to those who can use it, and this professor of practice position was geared towards exactly that—working with practitioners, managers and other stakeholders in the west to create relevant and useful research informed by the current challenges faced on the ground. This position was an opportunity to work in that boundary spanning space to connect between science and practice. I have the honor of linking critical, high-quality research to the equally critical knowledge and needs of those working in applied settings, and learning from both. I am also excited to continue to learn from the impressive SEAS community, including engaging with faculty and students, as well as engaging with other parts of U-M such as the Bold Challenges initiative in the Office of the Vice President for Research.
- Can you share some background on the wildfire issue and why the WFFI is an important initiative?
The WFFI is focused on core principles for systems thinking and engaged research, which I believe is critical to how researchers approach such complex and intractable issues in our current context. We need a better understanding of wildfire risk as a complex social-ecological-technical system to help policymakers, planners, and managers to identify points of intervention to reduce damages to human communities and forest ecosystems in the near term, and to prevent undesirable future feedback effects. The interdisciplinary working group of UM scholars (faculty, postdocs, students) are from a range of fields, which creates an innovative and creative set of skills for thinking about wildfire issues. In particular, thinking about the intersection of these sets of expertise can provide some different ways to tackle aspects of different wildfire challenges. The team has expertise in many of the disciplines that are most critical to the problem (human behavior, policy and politics, energy engineering, climate science, forest ecology, environmental justice) and experiences working on similarly complex social-ecological issues. Many of our team members are able to apply their expertise from other locations and subject areas to wildfire issues in the west in a way that can contribute to the body of scholars thinking creatively about these issues in the West.
- How will you be working with Paige Fischer and other members of the WFFI?
I am really excited to be working with Paige Fischer and members of the WFFI in engaging and building our team’s collective capacity to work within and between academia and practice, translating and transferring skills as needed throughout the project lifetime. As part of the WFFI, I am learning right along with the team, and with practitioner networks and organizations to understand more about the issues they are facing, and how they could use research to inform their work. An engaged research approach like the WFFI is focused on can support a framework for future action and can generate new information to inform policies and practices for practitioners and other knowledge users.
Part of my work will be in connecting interested key organizational partners in the wildfire space to relevant individual projects within the WFFI. I will connect with organizations and networks in the west to identify where and how the WFFI might be able to help support ongoing needs, and potentially plug in, learn from their work and identified needs and provide them with information they can use and act on.
Some of the engaged research I am working on as part of the WFFI includes:
- Serving on the California Council on Science & Technology's Linking Forest Health, Wildfire Smoke, and Public Health Steering Committee for a study on the connections between forest health, wildfire smoke and public health.
- Partnering with Colorado State University, Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition, the Fire Learning Network, and The Ember Alliance on a prescribed fire implementation capacity and insurance survey. Through the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA), an influx of federal dollars will be made available for fuels projects throughout the country. At the same time, many federal and community-based partners have expressed a need to better understand non-governmental partners’ implementation capacity for prescribed fire work across public, Tribal and private lands, to more strategically direct that investment. There is also an urgent need to better understand the critical challenges these partners face with the loss of prescribed fire insurance products. This survey is designed to collect timely and relevant information that addresses these gaps, focusing on groups that implement prescribed fire across multiple land jurisdictions throughout the U.S.
This prescribed fire project is a great plug to share that we at the WFFI are hiring for students to work on qualitative and quantitative research projects this academic year, one of which is this survey project. Please contact me if you are interested in applying for any of the WFFI opportunities!
- Please share your perspectives on wildfires and the possible solutions, next steps, management options, based on your research and the areas you work in.
One of the main things I focus my work on is organizations and other actors working together to collectively address a range of natural resource challenges. Collective action for wildfire risk increasingly involves different actors working across administrative, jurisdictional and other boundaries to identify strategic and efficient opportunities to reach necessary communities and contribute to wildfire mitigation and risk reduction outcomes. Given the complexity of the wildfire challenges we are facing in the west and across the globe more broadly, these crossboundary moves to integrate more social science with ecological science, connect science and practice and find areas of shared interest between different actor groups are all contributing to the types of solutions we need to see more of: boundary-spanning, creative and multifaceted.
Some of these wildfire challenges are microcosms of other challenges we face in communities across the globe, for example, the need to increase community resilience to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. At the same time, some of the most vulnerable populations experience disproportionate impacts from every one of these stages-impacts that are also unequal across space and time. The distance wildfire smoke and post-fire water sedimentation can travel to affect air quality and drinking water for populations can create issues far beyond the control line of a wildfire, and often with less understanding or resources about how to help impacted populations. All of these examples underscore this need for boundary-spanning, interdisciplinary research that values multiple ways of knowing and can directly inform the challenges communities face, identifying pathways forward. I am excited to be part of and learn from the SEAS community that looks at issues from this range of perspectives, and creates opportunities for research with lasting value to place-based communities.