April 29, 2021

$1 million project helps tribal nations adapt to climate change

Ecologists working with tribes to preserve ecosystems and plant species

Author: Jules Bernstein
April 29, 2021

UC Riverside ecologists are leading a $1 million plant protection project that will help Southern California’s tribal nations adapt to climate change. 

Oak trees and acorns hold special significance for Southern California tribal nations.

The goal of the project is to preserve plant species and ecosystems that enable the continuation of native tribal cultural practices. Currently, some of these species are facing threats including hotter temperatures, prolonged drought and increasing urbanization.

“Many plants that are integral to tribal tradition and spirituality are also key for maintaining biodiversity in this region,” said Helen Regan, a professor in UCR’s Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology Department, and co-principal investigator of the project. “Everyone benefits from ensuring the survival of these species.”

Regan and co-principal investigator Janet Franklin, distinguished professor of biogeography in UCR’s Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, are working closely on the project with a number of collaborators including ecologists from San Diego State University and the Climate Science Alliance, an organization that brings people together to collaborate on regional climate resilience projects.

Members of more than 20 Southern California nations comprise the Tribal Working Group, who are advising and guiding the researchers about the restoration that’s needed on their lands.

“I’m honored to be working with tribal leaders on a project that could create a positive, lasting impact on this land and all the life that depends on it,” Franklin said. 

One key study subject includes the oak tree, since acorns once formed a significant dietary staple for area tribes. Dried, powdered and made into porridge, acorns offered an important source of protein and good fats during winter months when game was scarce. But they have nearly disappeared from native diets.

“We have been resilient through a long history of colonization, but we have also lost a lot of knowledge about our life ways and our food was especially impacted,” said William Madrigal Jr., a Cahuilla and Luiseno California Indian, and adjunct Native language professor at UCR. 

Madrigal Jr. is the Tribal Partnerships/Capacity program manager for the Climate Science Alliance, and a member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians tribe. He also sits on UCR Chancellor Kim Wilcox's Native American Advisory Board.

“Going back to our acorns and teaching our ways to the next generation will enable us to continue and strengthen our traditions,” he said.

The Resilient Restoration project will include public education and outreach components to share science and solutions with managers, leaders, elders, youth and community members across the region.

Funds for the three-year project were awarded through the California Strategic Growth Council’s Climate Change Research Program. The program is part of California Climate Investments, which puts billions of cap-and-trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy, and improving public health — particularly in disadvantaged communities.

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