Kayakers navigate the roaring whitewater of some of the nation’s most pristine rivers as hikers wind through old-growth ponderosa pine. Oregon’s familiar rain falls against anthropologist Kendra Wendel’s window as she contemplates the dynamic environment of the Pacific Northwest and the cultural and economic conditions it fosters.
Wendel, a graduate of Portland State University (PSU) with a master’s degree in anthropology, helps promote healthy forests and rural livelihoods in the Pacific Northwest as a participant in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Research Participation Program (RPP).
The USFS-RPP helps train a diverse and highly talented pool of scientists and engineers to address agricultural, natural resource and technology issues in fields of specific interest to the Forest Service.
At the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station based in Portland, Wendel is part of a team that fosters sustainable forest and range management approaches through increased collaboration between scientists and the general public, including specific population groups such as ranchers and Native Americans.
“I am part of the Goods, Services and Values program. The main research goal of this program is to advance understanding of how and why people interact with the natural environment and what impacts these interactions have on landscapes, markets and communities,” she said.
Wendel, under the mentorship of USFS Research Social Scientist Susan Charnley, Ph.D., contributes to several projects involving public lands grazing and hazardous fuels reduction, among other topics. Wendel conducts workshops, focus groups and interviews; assists with literature reviews; analyzes data and writes papers to help inform decision making about natural resource management.
For example, as part of a public lands grazing project, she identifies environmental stressors, such as drought and wildfire. She also identifies social stressors, such as litigation faced by ranchers who graze livestock for part of the year on national forestlands in the Blue Mountains ecoregion of northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington.
The Blue Mountains ecoregion is characterized by open forests, extensive shrublands and grasslands, and it specializes in wood products and cattle production. The region is threatened by issues associated with climate change, the legacies of past management and intractable social conflicts over natural resource use.
Wendel investigates how stressors affect ranching operations and livestock management strategies. She also examines how national forest management can help support sustainable livelihoods in local ranching communities while ensuring that natural resources are protected.
Wendel works with partners to distribute surveys and conducts interviews around Oregon and Washington to understand natural resource management practices. She also collaborates with research partners from her alma mater, PSU, and the National Forest System.
“I enjoy traveling and getting to see new places and people throughout the Pacific Northwest, but I also relish my time in Portland, hunkering down and digging into the data,” she said.
So far, the research team she works with has identified innovative approaches to ranching and public lands grazing. These approaches may help promote coexistence between fish and livestock in the Blue Mountains ecoregion by reducing the impacts of grazing on riparian areas. She has made progress on her other projects, too, a feeling that reinforces her passion for learning and discovery.
“I value the opportunity to benefit from interviewees’ firsthand knowledge of the land,” she said. “I also enjoy the feeling that our research contributes not only to the agency, but also, hopefully, to the interviewees.”
Wendel’s interaction with stakeholders has piqued her interest in public affairs and science writing, but for now she plans to continue along the environmental social science research route.
“I find the research stimulating and feel lucky to be doing professional applied research in a field I find so interesting. It helps that I’m surrounded by so many intelligent and accomplished folks at the research station,” she said. “I would absolutely recommend this program to others.”
The U.S. Forest Service Research Participation Program is funded by the USDA U.S. Forest Service Office of Sustainability and Climate and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.