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Bringing Participatory Research to the Forest

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The old-fashioned natural scientist spends long, solitary days collecting samples in the field, returning to a lonely laboratory to evaluate specimens, and publishing results in isolation. The Community Forestry Research Fellowship (CFRF) aims to create a new model. Funded by the Ford Foundation, this UC Berkeley fellowship for urban and rural forestry students from institutions around the country supports and spreads a practice known as participatory research.

Participatory research engages community partners in the study of their surroundings. Community members are brought together to share knowledge and improve the way resources are managed. By utilizing local knowledge, researchers gain a deeper understanding of their study sites, resulting in improved experimental design and more useful results.

Heidi Ballard, a 2001 CFRF Fellow who is now an assistant professor of environmental education at UC Davis, believes her fellowship project was a textbook example of this approach. Ballard,who earned her Ph.D. in environmental science, policy, and management, studied the harvesting of “salal” in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Salal is the rich green backdrop used in fine floral arrangements. It grows exclusively in the U.S. and is exported throughout the world, yielding millions of dollars in yearly revenue.

Ballard found that lax regulation and poor communication between harvesters—often migrant workers—and landowners have threatened the sustainability of the salal harvest. “Instead of using college undergraduates as field assistants, as most studies do, I asked harvesters with local knowledge to work with me,” Ballard explains. “We collaborated on the methods at a level I had not anticipated. This incredible potential for participatory research had been previously unknown to me.” The benefits of her work are still felt today in these communities, in the form of improved communication between harvesters, landowners, and the Forest Service.

While the Community Forestry Research Fellowship program continues to thrive at CNR (which is supporting seven fellows this year alone), Ballard now teaches a course in participatory research at UC Davis.

-Letty Brown

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