Combining Science with Poetry to Protect Post-Fire Forests: the Activism of Maya Khosla
Maya Khosla has been selected to receive the Fund for Wild Nature’s Grassroots Activist Award for 2023. Maya’s environmental activism involves a remarkable mixture of her roles as a scientist, filmmaker, and award-winning writer that has led to her being a prominent voice in the protection of post-fire forests.
Maya was born in London, where her father has working for India’s foreign service. Her father’s work meant that Maya subsequently grew up in many countries, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bhutan, and Myanmar, as well as the UK and India. She came to the US for college. There she experienced an environmental awakening after the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984 when a chemical leak from a Union Carbide factory killed thousands of people and injured hundreds of thousands more. In response, Maya decided to study aquatic toxicology.
After getting her graduate degrees, Maya moved to California and assisted the National Park Service at Muir Woods on a project cataloguing the many habitat types in the park. She wrestled with how best to share this information with the public. She recalls, “I realized that one had to go beyond the lens of pure science to rivet the attention of the public. It needed to be more poetic. It was about staying with science and stepping out of the science for the first time.” This insight spurred her to write her first guidebook—Web of Water: Life in Redwood Creek—and it would also guide her subsequent environmental protection advocacy.
In the early 2000s, she had the opportunity to return to India to document sea turtle conservation there through the Turtle Diaries Project. As part of that work, she began exploring the documentary films as a way to raise environmental awareness, and she did screenwriting for three short films about the plight of the leatherback, green, and olive ridley sea turtles.
Returning to California, she worked as an environmental consultant, when in March 2014, she was assigned a new project and, as she summarized, “everything changed.” The new project involved studying black-backed woodpeckers in the forests of the Sierra Nevada. The black-backed woodpecker is strongly associated with intensely burned forests. As she learned on the first day of the project from lead researcher Dr. Chad Hanson, black-backed woodpeckers benefitted from the intense forest fires that are often misleadingly called catastrophic fires.
Forest fires burn at a mixture of intensities, and each intensity has an ecological role. Some patches of particularly intense fire result in large numbers of dead trees. It is often assumed that those places are lifeless “moonscapes,” but scientific research was finding that these “snag forests” are actually full of life. A dead tree (a “snag”) can actually provide more wildlife habitat than a living tree. Insects that burrow in dead trees provide an important food source for birds. And woodpeckers are able to carve nests into dead trees that provide homes for themselves, as well as for other birds and mammals that take up residence in old woodpecker nests. Therefore, places with large numbers of standing dead trees can have some of the highest levels of wildlife abundance and diversity of any forest type.
Upon learning about the ecological importance of intense forest fires, Maya was amazed. She said, “This needs to be a film. No one is going to believe us that there is all this life in a forest after a high-severity burn unless I film it.” So, in addition to participating in the black-backed woodpecker study, she also began filming it. And during the next season, she returned with her brother-in-law, acclaimed cinematographer Sanjay Barnela, to record more footage. She also documented the Forest Service’s efforts to clearcut the vibrant post-fire forests.
By the end of 2016, Maya had completed a 30-minute documentary titled Searching for the Gold Spot: The Wild After Wildfire. (The title refers to the gold spot on the head of the male black-backed woodpecker.) She showed her film and gave presentations at more than a hundred events around California as a grassroots outreach initiative. In 2017, PBS picked up her documentary and it subsequently aired on various PBS stations.
The end of 2017 marked another transformative point for Maya. She was living in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, when a cluster of large wildfires known collectively as the Wine Country Fires heavily impacted the region. The fires spread into unprepared suburban neighborhoods, resulting in 25 deaths and about 7,000 destroyed structures. Maya was faced with reconciling the ecological benefits she had seen from large wildfires in forests with the devastating effects of fire on her community.
To aid in this reconciliation, Maya drew on another of her talents—poetry. Maya notes, “Poetry is a language that stands outside time. It is a direct access to the emotion without necessarily using your normal faculties. It is an immersion in a moment. Poetry is at the heart of all my essays. There is a magic in combining poetry and prose informed by science. If it is balanced well, it can have an impact that goes beyond what science alone can do.”
In 2018, Maya received the honor of being selected to be the Poet Laureate for Sonoma County. She took on this role specifically to use poetry as a tool to help her community heal. She organized poetry events that brought people together within the fire’s footprint. It became a way to learn about home retrofits and other steps that could help communities like hers more safely coexist with fire-dependent ecosystems. At the same time, there was a healing process as participants began to better recognize the vibrancy of the post-fire landscape. As she recalled, “I think the magic of the Poet Laureate events is that they led to so many individual moments for people to look around at places that had experienced fire and see that it was not destroyed.” During this time, Maya published an award-winning book of poetry with notable fire themes titled All the Fires of Wind and Light.
Meanwhile, Maya continued to participate in field research and filming in the post-fire forests of the Sierra Nevada. One area of particular interest was in the footprint of the Rim Fire of 2013, which mainly occurred on Forest Service lands near Yosemite. The Forest Service was attempting to log the post-fire forests by claiming that new trees would not grow back on their own in the intensely burned areas. The Forest Service argued that it needed to clearcut the snag forests in order to do tree planting. However, Maya participated in ground-based surveys that found abundant new trees growing even in the largest snag forest patches. Both her scientific research and her filmmaking showed that the Forest Service’s Rim Fire logging project was based on a false claim.
There are many myths about post-fire forests used to justify logging. One is the claim that Pacific fishers—an imperiled member of the weasel family—would not live in intensely burned forests. Maya knew that Dr. Hanson had conducted a field study that showed that claim was wrong. He used specially trained dogs that detected fisher scat in snag forests, but she realized that the public would be more likely to embrace these findings if they could see the fishers themselves in these places. Therefore, Maya began a project that continues to this day, placing wildlife cameras in remote post-fire locations. Her cameras have captured footage of numerous fishers in places where they had not previously been detected and in places where the Forest Service had claimed they would not live. In a recurring theme in Maya’s work, she focused on making conservation science more accessible and engaging for the public.
Maya also worked to make sure that conservation science was applied to guide public policy. She engaged extensively with local environmental groups and policymakers in Sonoma County in the wake of the Wine Country Fires. As a result of this work, Maya was selected to receive Sonoma County’s Environmental Activist of the Year Award in 2020.
One of Maya’s main challenges in her community has been the tendency for logging proponents to use big fires as a justification for extensive tree cutting, often wrapped in eco-friendly language. This can lead well-meaning communities to adopt benign-sounding policies that actually wind up doing significant harm to local forests without really protecting communities from fires. Ironically, some of the worst ecological damage comes from actions done after a fire.
Amid this push for more logging, Maya has witnessed a concurrent effort to promote biomass power facilities that would be fueled by trees cut in her region. Beyond harming forests, biomass power brings many downsides, as compiled in a report from the Center for Biological Diversity. For example, biomass emits more carbon dioxide than coal per unit of energy generated. And vulnerable communities next to biomass facilities are exposed to significant air pollution from these facilities.
The harms from biomass facilities on communities in the Eastern US were documented in the 2017 film Burned: Are Trees the New Coal?. Inspired by the impact of this movie, Maya is now working with the producers of Burned on a new documentary project focused on the growing threat from the biomass industry to communities and forests in the Western US. Meanwhile, she is engaging with local climate groups in her community to address biomass as a false climate solution. And in 2022, Sonoma Magazine selected Maya as one of the “Climate Heroes” of Sonoma County.
For all these reasons, the Fund for Wild Nature has been pleased to support the work of Maya Khosla. The Fund was created by grassroots activists to get more resources to other bold grassroots activists working to protect wildlife and wild places, recognizing how even a small amount of money for these activists can lead to big results. The Fund for Wild Nature depends entirely on annual contributions from the public, which it then redistributes to support worthy grassroots groups throughout North America. In addition to providing grants, the Fund sponsors the Grassroots Activist of the Year Award as another way to promote bold activism. The Fund has presented Maya with a $1,000 check in recognition of her selection as its 2023 Grassroots Activist of the Year.
This article was first published in COUNTERPUNCH on April 14, 2023, and it is republished here with permission.
Douglas Bevington is forest program director for Environment Now, a grantmaking foundation that supports water and forest protection in California. He also serves on the board of directors of the Fund for Wild Nature, which supports grassroots action in defense of wildlife and wildlands in North America. He is the author of The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear (Island Press, 2009).