Mary and a team of indigenous fire practitioners are building a support network across North America that enables indigenous communities to revitalize their traditional fire cultures in a contemporary context. This work exemplifies TNC’s global initiative directed toward elevating the voices of indigenous land stewards. Mary also supports TNC staff regarding the scientific literature on fire ecology, fire behavior, social-ecological fire systems and the juxtaposition of Western fire science and traditional knowledge.
Mary started with TNC as an intern in 1985, walking the woods at the Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Ohio and documenting populations of rare plants. TNC and its partner, the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, had noticed that the prairie openings (barrens) that supported many of the rare plants were closing in with shrubs and trees. They wanted to know if applying carefully planned controlled burns would remedy the situation in a sustainable way. Tracking plant populations before and after experimental burns was key.
Mary also worked in an innovative collaboration at TNC’s Kitty Todd Preserve in Ohio, developing a partnership with the Metropolitan Park District of the Toledo Area. Among the projects was restoring ecologically-based burns to fire-dependent ecosystems. Indigenous peoples had shaped these ecosystems with fire for millennia; in fact, today’s ecological dependence upon fire was cultural in origin. Mary was attracted to managing lands with controlled burns because the practice is challenging intellectually, physically and even emotionally.
In Florida, at TNC’s Tiger Creek Preserve and Lake Wales Ridge, Mary helped build fire management partnerships with seven agencies and organizations, including the Archbold Biological Station. Sound science driving land management partnerships was her specialty.
Mary moved to Colorado in 2004 to complete a PhD in forest and fire sciences. During that time she conducted fire behavior research in Alaska and studied community-based fire management in pine-oak ecosystems on an ejido in Chiapas, Mexico.
Mary is now a member of the North America team that focuses on Living with Fire. The Living with Fire strategy is working to reform the U.S. fire management system, in part through re-imagining communities’ relationships with fire. Living with Fire recognizes the interconnectedness of human communities and ecosystems, and works to increase resiliency in both.
“As I look back on my experiences caring for beautiful places filled with plants and animals that needed our help, I realize that my own mindset was all about Western ways of knowing, experimenting and measuring things to understand proactive management treatments, and engaging others in that work,” Mary says. “Although I had read accounts of burning by Native Americans in the 1800s, it never occurred to me that the descendants of these very people were still thriving and that they would remain concerned about relationships to their ancestral lands and waters forever. Why hadn’t I just contacted them and asked them to walk with me on our preserves? After all, every place where TNC works is someone’s ancestral territory and most likely those original keepers retain deep and abiding connections. They are forever people connected to their forever places. This has become my passion: raising opportunities for indigenous peoples across North America to elevate their voice, choice and action to help solve contemporary fire problems.”
Huffman, M. 2014. Making a world of difference in fire and climate change. Fire Ecology 10(3): 90–101. doi: 10.4996/fireecology.1003090
Huffman, M. R. 2013. The many elements of traditional fire knowledge: synthesis, classification, and aids to cross-cultural problem solving in fire-dependent systems around the world. Ecology and Society 18(4): 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-05843-180403