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Thursday, September 26, 2019

HERS Student Explores Cultural Losses Imposed by Ghost Forests

Rae Billiot-Bruleigh in Colorado during a HERS field trip
      Following her college graduation, Rachel (Rae) Billiot-Bruleigh explored summer research opportunities in ecological restoration and Indigenous health. More specifically, her interests focused on wetlands, ethnography, cultural inventories, and mapping kinship patterns. She found that the 2019 Haskell Environmental Research Studies (HERS) Institute, provided the perfect opportunity for her to combine these interests into a unique research experience.
     The HERS Institute is an 8-week paid summer internship program where students spend six weeks on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus learning about climate change and developing individual research projects. The HERS Institute is one of the many workforce development and education initiatives supported by the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS)Dr. Jay Johnson, Professor and Associate Chair of Geography & Atmospheric Science, the Director of The Center for Indigenous Research, Science, and Technology (C-FIRST) at the University of Kansas (KU), and member of the MAPS workforce development and education team supervises the program.
     Being a native Louisianan with a love for the land, the environment, and wildlife, Rae decided to research the changing habitats of the freshwater Live Oak forests in Southeast Louisiana and investigate how those changes impact their surrounding Indigenous communities. She titled her project, Lost Among the Skeletons: Mapping the Potential for Live Oak Ghost Forests in Southeast Louisiana & Exploring Cultural Losses. Rae explained her research as follows: “'Ghost Forests' describe stands of dead trees left behind after saltwater invades freshwater forests. The freshwater Live Oak forests in Southeast Louisiana are becoming largely fragmented and considered imperiled environments because of anthropogenic developments that prompt the influx of saltwater. Human activities such as canal dredging or natural events such as storm flooding are a few examples of what might cause the freshwater ecosystem to change and the native plants to migrate. Eventually, the saltwater invasion leaves behind ghosts forests of dead skeleton trees. Sadly, some of the Live Oaks impacted are over a hundred years old.
     When Live Oak forests are healthy, they provide many important biocultural resources and protections for their surrounding Indigenous communities. These healthy Live Oak ecosystems produce food and medicinal plants; serve as wildlife refuges for the Louisiana Black Bear, the Bald Eagle, and wetland migratory birds; are seen as guardians for sacred burial grounds; and provide shelter against intense heat, hurricane winds, and storm surges. When saltwater floods the freshwater forests, these biocultural resources and protections are at risk. I wanted to explore the potential biocultural losses Indigenous communities in Southeast Louisiana face as they experience the changing freshwater habitats and disappearing Live Oak forests. To do this, I utilized previous studies on remnant Live Oak forests, Geographical Information Systems (GIS) data, map comparisons using overlay analysis, and transcripts from informal interviews with tribal community members. GIS provided imaging and visual analysis of the forests' decline. The map comparisons of canals, pipelines, oil and gas fields, and land loss due to erosion highlighted the risk factors in the area. Datasets and mapping materials came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), ArcGIS, National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS) Public Viewer, and Google Earth. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) sources, such as articles featuring ethnobotanical plants or informal interviews with local members of the United Houma Nation were used to explain the connection between the Live Oak forests and the Indigenous culture as well as to identify ecological/cultural losses associated with the saltwater conversion.” Rae concluded, “All of the remnant Live Oak forests examined in my research are at risk of becoming ghost forests due to saltwater intrusion. With the increased rates of land loss and the abandonment of impacted areas due to the cost of protection efforts, the Live Oak forests will die, become skeletal remains in brackish marshes, and eventually erode into open waters." She added, "Live Oaks are elders that teach us lessons about community, support, change, and generosity. In return, we need to protect them and the natural communities they form."  Rae presented her research at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) poster session in Boulder, Colorado in July.

Rae's poster presentation

    Throughout the HERS program, Rae was advised by her research mentor James Fischer, a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at KU. Her favorite parts of the HERS experience included the fieldwork training at UCAR, the weekend spent at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in the Flint Hills of Kansas, visiting the wetland lab at the Haskell-Baker Wetlands, and working alongside other Indigenous students passionate about environmental issues. As for what she learned from the HERS experience, she said, "I learned about Hydrology and Water Quality Testing, Wind Speed Recording, using compasses with GIS data, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), map overlay analysis, the differences in wetland species, how to network, and how to prepare for graduate school." Rae added, "I personally learned that our wetlands in Southeast Louisiana are different from the Lawrence/Haskell wetlands, and these differences were greater than I thought they’d be. One big example I noticed, is that in Louisiana we have forested wetlands with trees like the Live Oak, Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo that can live in standing water and require a boat to maneuver through them. The Lawrence/Haskell wetlands definitely do not."
     Rae is from Gretna, Louisiana and is a member of the United Houma Nation with shared Chitimacha heritage. She graduated in the spring of 2019 from the University of New Orleans (UNO) with a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (BIS) in Cultural & Environmental Studies. While attending UNO, Rae worked as a research assistant with the UNO Center for Hazards Assessment, Response & Technology (CHART) and participated in a project that integrated scientific knowledge with Traditional Ecological Knowledge provided by United Houma Nation tribal members. She said, "This integrated scientific knowledge is used to support the Indigenous community response to natural and technological disasters and climate change." In 2018 she won the UNO Outstanding Promising Scholar award and completed an internship with the South Central Climate Adaptation Center. Rae was also involved with the National Student Exchange program and, while in O’ahu for the school semester, volunteered at the Hawaii Nature Center assisting with the removal of invasive plant species from local wetlands." She gained additional research experience when she participated in the Alaska Indigenous Research Program on Promoting Resilience, Health, and Wellness in Health Research Fields in Anchorage, Alaska. As for her other extracurricular activities, Rae served as a camp assistant for the Lower Coast Native American Society teaching Southeastern Native American history, storytelling, traditional games, and cultural dances to children, and she volunteered as an equine therapy side walker at the Greater New Orleans Therapeutic Riding Center assisting children with disabilities as they participated in therapeutic horseback riding.
     As for Rae’s future plans, she said, “Currently, I’m exploring more educational opportunities in ecological restoration and Indigenous health. My evolving research interests include concepts surrounding the One Health Initiative in which the health of people, animals, plants, and the environment are interconnected with cultural knowledge and environmental conservation." She added, "I look forward to opportunities where I can work hands-on with these topics and can build more positive relationships between land, people, and wildlife. She continued, “Future short term goals include working with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and AmeriCorps, and long term goals include pursuing careers in forest and wetland conservation, Indigenous farming and agriculture, and/or equine-assisted therapy.

Workforce Development, Education and Outreach funding for the  HERS Institute is provided by the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006 titled: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas. The grant's workforce development and educational objectives are designed to enhance STEM education in Kansas by supporting activities that will lead to an expanded STEM workforce or prepare a new generation for STEM careers in the areas of aquatic, plant and soil microbiome environments and ecological systems.