Philanthropic Gift Establishes Berman Western Forest and Fire Initiative at SEAS

ANN ARBOR — The University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) announced today that it received a significant philanthropic gift to establish a program that will advance socially engaged, problem-oriented research on western forests, fires, and communities.

The gift, from Steve (BS ’76) and Kathy Berman, will provide start-up funds for the Kathy and Steve Berman Western Forest and Fire Initiative (WFFI), which will improve society’s ability to manage western forests to mitigate the risks of large wildfires, revitalize human communities, and adapt to climate change.

Unlike other programs that focus on wildfires as a forest management or fire management problem, the WFFI is unique because it approaches western forests and communities as a complex and changing social-ecological system that involves forests, fire, climate, and communities, said Dr. Paige Fischer, an associate professor at SEAS whose research focuses on human behavior in the context of environmental change, specifically in forests. The WFFI’s goal, through collaboration with practitioners and other researchers, is to develop new ways of understanding and managing this social-ecological system.

“Forests and communities in the American West are facing an existential crisis,” Fischer said. “With each wildfire season—as millions of acres of land and thousands of structures burn—more people are asking what will happen in the future to the forests we rely on for so many ecosystem services? What will happen to communities in fire-prone areas? How will they continue to function under such heightened risk and rapid change?”

Wildfires in the western United States and around the globe have been increasing in frequency and intensity in recent decades, due in large part to warming temperatures caused by climate change. The 2020 wildfire season, in particular, was a catastrophic one for the United States.

Fischer will lead a transdisciplinary U-M team of five faculty, one visiting professor of practice, six postdoctoral researchers, and numerous master’s students from the fields of ecology, engineering, economics, policy and planning, and behavioral sciences, who will work closely with experienced practitioners and other researchers in the western United States to better understand and manage the complex interdependencies between the health of forests and the health of communities.

“The stakeholders we are seeking to develop partnerships with are those that are well positioned to understand and develop solutions to the complex problems the social-ecological system is facing because they are already working at the intersection of forest, fire, climate, and community issues,” Fischer said.
By serving as a research hub and a bridging organization, the WFFI will pursue four main objectives:

  1. Improve scientific understanding of western forests and communities as a complex social-ecological system;
  2. Support the network of western-wide stakeholders in communicating and coordinating their programmatic and policy efforts;
  3. Build the capacity of future western scholars; and
  4. Create a robust agenda and strategies for policy and management changes.

Through the WFFI—which has received additional funding from the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and the Searle Family Foundation—emerging practitioners, postdoctoral fellows, and master’s students will be trained on how to solve complex social-ecological problems, giving them broader perspectives and fundamental knowledge to work in fire-prone forests and communities. 
A SEAS student master’s project team already has helped to identify WFFI stakeholders, and it is exploring a “stewardship economy” model in which the WFFI’s research could be utilized in other communities. Building on this work, a SEAS master’s student, who later will be joined by a postdoctoral researcher and a second master’s student, is mapping organizations that work at the intersection of forests, fire, climate, and communities to identify ways to improve communication and cooperation, with the goal of eventually developing a shared understanding of the problem and how it ought to be addressed. In addition, five postdoctoral fellows will join the team to tackle specific research needs identified by the western practitioners.
“SEAS brings together knowledge from scholarship and practice to solve the most pressing sustainability challenges of our time. Climate change is driving change everywhere, and the wildfire crisis in our western forests is a stark example of this change,” said Jonathan Overpeck, the Samuel A. Graham Dean and William B. Stapp Collegiate Professor of Environmental Education at SEAS. “We need solutions that work both for nature and the people living in and around the forests, and this is what the WFFI is all about. Collaboration is critical to our approach, as is research into key pieces of the problem, and then putting the pieces together to enable sustainable economies and jobs to be at the center of managing forests—and all they provide to society—for change. What is a western challenge now is becoming a global challenge, and it’s important to get ahead of it. It’s wonderful to have partners like the Bermans, who are helping us solve a problem that has broad societal implications.”
The Bermans, who live near Seattle and have experienced the poor air quality that results from forest fires, wanted to help establish the WFFI as a means of “preserving the forest ecosystems of the West and advancing environmental justice efforts by helping to create opportunities for individuals who may have been displaced by the disruptions these mega fires cause,” said Kathy Berman. Steve Berman, the co-founder and managing partner of the law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, credits his U-M education with fostering that environmental stewardship. “The University of Michigan’s world-class professors instilled in me a lifelong sense of duty to protect our planet and its western forests, which were a focal point at the School of Natural Resources (now SEAS), even when I was enrolled,” he said. “Having volunteered as a firefighter myself, I know well how fragile western forests are. Kathy and I are hopeful for the future of these ecosystems because of endeavors such as this, and we are proud to be involved.”

The U-M School for Environment and Sustainability is transforming higher education and its impact through research, teaching, and engagement in society. It is focused on solving the climate crisis and creating a world that is economically robust, environmentally sound, sustainable and just, from the scale of watersheds and communities in Michigan, to the entire nation and planet.


University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS)


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