Plant ecologist awarded NSF grant for restoring the culturally important Emory oak

Assistant professor Sara Souther of Northern Arizona University’s School of Earth and Sustainability (SES) is the principal investigator on a major new project focused on restoring a tree species important to the cultural heritage of tribal communities in the Southwest. 

Acorns from the Emory oak tree are a critically important resource for the Western Apache tribal nations—including the Yavapai-Apache, Tonto Apache, San Carlos Apache and White Mountain Apache in east and central Arizona—who use it both for food and cultural and ceremonial purposes. Groves of Emory oak have been declining in health and yielding fewer acorns with each harvest for several decades due to loss of habitat, fire suppression, livestock grazing, groundwater reductions, species competition and climate change.  

With $1.5 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, Souther will launch a five-year project starting in March entitled “DISES: Restoration of a southwestern cultural keystone species: Integrating socio‐ecological systems to predict resilience of traditional acorn harvest by western Apache communities.” Co-PIs on the multidisciplinary conservation project, representing SES and NAU’s School of Forestry as well as the departments of biology, sociology and geography, planning & recreation, are associate professor Clare Aslan, Regents’ professor Peter Fulé, assistant professor Alark Saxena, associate teaching professor Amanda Stan, associate professor Diana Stuart, professor Andi Thode and associate professor Amy Whipple. 

“I am extremely excited to have the resources to explore this amazing social-ecological system. For a long time, I’ve felt that wild harvest and traditional ecological practices and traditions have been viewed as niche issues within the world of conservation. It is thrilling to see this work elevated by the NSF,” Souther said.  

“We are taking a holistic landscape-level approach to understand the threats to these woodlands. Emory oaks are a cultural keystone species for western Apache tribes and the dominant oak in the Madrean oak woodlands, which cover around 80,000 km2 across the Southwest and US-Mexico borderlands,” she said. “Despite this, the Madrean oak system is understudied. In order to conserve Emory oak, we need to quickly learn a lot about this ecosystem, and in particular, we must understand what constrains population growth and viability.” 

Souther’s work has always focused on understanding ecocultural interactions, supporting communities connected to these landscapes and conserving land and traditions. This funding will support these goals, providing the opportunity to rapidly learn about the Madrean oak woodlands as a coupled human and natural system, she said. 

This project builds on work done through the Emory Oak Collaborative Tribal Restoration Initiative  (EOCTRI), a collaborative partnership between NAU, the U.S. Forest Service and five different Apache tribes. Their goal is to restore and protect Emory oak stands to ensure the long-term persistence of Emory oak using tribal traditional ecological knowledge to guide goals and activities. Since 2018, the partners have worked together to identify and assess important Emory oak stands, complete clearances and begin implementing restoration and protection activities for several groves. With this new project, the team’s goals are to expand their knowledge of the Emory oak system, support the goals of EOCTRI—to conserve Emory oak trees and the traditional acorn harvest by Western Apache tribes—and provide knowledge to the EOCTRI group according to the ethics of the Chi’Chil Advisory Committee. Watch this video to learn more about EOCTRI’s efforts. 

Souther’s project also is related to an initiative that was launched to better understand how to manage ecocultural resources on public lands—the Tribal Nations Botanical Research Collaborative (TNBRC), a U.S. Forest Service Citizen Science program in which volunteers collect information on traditionally used plants that have cultural, medicinal or economic values important to tribal communities. They record observations of these plants using the iNaturalist app on their cell phones. Scientists gather and analyze the data and use it to shape conservation and land management goals for increased sustainability. 

Research related to Souther’s roots in rural Appalachia 

“My work with the Emory oak builds on my past research on traditional use plant conservation in Appalachia,” Souther said. “I grew up in West Virginia, which has a rich heritage of harvesting wild plants for food, medicine and other essentials. It wasn’t until I went to Paraguay, as a Peace Corps volunteer, that I realized how much of this traditional knowledge had been lost in Appalachian culture. In Paraguay, small children knew the names and uses of all the plants growing in forests and fields nearby—which meant that most children had a working knowledge of hundreds of plants. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, most of this ecological knowledge was held by the elderly and was not actively passed down to youth. I could see our Appalachian culture disappearing, and for me, this ecocultural erosion was devastating. Harvest expeditions in Appalachia, whether to pick ramps (wild onions), blueberries or pawpaw (a fruit related to custard-apples), were part of the experience growing up in West Virginia and important for connecting with family and the land. More broadly, I feel that maintaining human connections to the land is key to human health and well-being and critical to inspire conservation of our wild spaces.” 

Project designed to involve students from underrepresented groups  

Souther is dedicated to outreach, mentorship and training to promote the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM, and she is using this project as an opportunity to hire several students. Souther is also a co-PI with Amy Whipple on another project designed to increase diversity in STEM targeting post-baccalaureate training for underrepresented groups, principally Indigenous communities.  

Coming from rural Appalachia, I connect with students who may feel like outsiders in STEM fields. It is extremely important to me to support underrepresented groups as they navigate graduate school and academia. My commitment to increasing diversity in STEM fields is personal, since support from NSF and university faculty launched my career, and also practical, because I believe that the sciences will be strengthened by diverse opinions and thinkers.” 

The team will recruit four graduate students for this project as well as undergraduate students to support field work in the summer. Applications are available on the lab website. 

“The broader impacts of this project will be to advance understanding and predictive modeling of stochastic drought events, which will likely drive ecological change in the Southwest and other arid regions,” Souther said. “Integrating information from Native American tribal collaborators, we will contribute to diversity and inclusion in environmental resource management, ensuring that Indigenous perspectives and needs are incorporated into decision-making.” 

She is also working on a two-year project funded through a $538,203 award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration entitled, “Projecting socio-ecological impacts of drought in southwestern ecosystems to prioritize restoration initiatives.” Stuart and Steven Chischilly from the Navajo Technical Institute are co-PIs on this project. 

Top photo: Sara Souther, left, working in an Emory oak grove with students Megan Quinn, Brandee Joe and Timberlee Castillo as well as Anna Jackson, center, a citizen of the Yavapai Apache Nation. Credit: Sierra Bryan, KNAU


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