Larson receives $50,000 research grant

March 22, 2018
Dr. Evan Larson
Tree rings
Students participate in hands-on research

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Did humans fundamentally alter fire regimes throughout history? Should today’s wilderness managers consider active fire management to maintain the resiliency and ecological integrity of protected areas while honoring traditional relationships with the land?

Dr. Evan Larson, associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and a team of seven researchers will soon explore these and other questions as they bring together volumes of information from tree-rings, archaeological surveys, ethnographic records and traditional ecological knowledge to improve understanding of how human activities helped shaped Earth’s biological and physical systems in the past.

The research project, “People, Fire, and Pines in the Border Lakes Region of North America,” led by Larson, is possible thanks to a $50,000 collaborative research grant that Larson received from the Coalition for Archaeological Synthesis, a new initiative coordinated by the SRI Foundation of Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Larson and his team are one of only two awards given nationally in this inaugural offering of the CfAS program.

Members of Larson’s research team include archaeologists, descendant community members, federal and state land managers, scientists and storytellers who possess a range of expertise that they will bring to bear on the question of if humans substantially altered the plant communities encountered by European explorers and settlers and, if so, what the implications of those changes are for managing the modern landscape.

“This is one of the most exciting projects I have ever been involved in,” said Larson. “This grant from CfAS will help us take an immense amount of information that has been developed through the work of scientists, archaeologists and, in many cases, UW-Platteville students, view it in the context of archaeological records, traditional land use and important cultural stories, and translate the results into meaningful actions by land managers. This is why we do science – to make our world a more just, healthy and prosperous place.”

The group will merge existing data sets developed by researchers at UW-Platteville, the University of Minnesota and the United States Forest Service to link human actions to specific places and exact times over recent centuries. Following, they will set those results in a cultural context derived from direct collaborations with descendent communities in order to better understand not just when and where people influenced fire regimes, but why they did so, and how consideration of this intent can be integrated into modern wilderness management.

“This project is a beautiful illustration of how viewing the world from multiple perspectives and multiple ways of knowing can produce a more detailed, accurate and nuanced understanding of how our world works,” said Larson. “Using quantitative data, like those drawn from tree rings, to link traditional stories and land use practices to modern land management is a potent way to empower indigenous communities that have lived on this land for centuries, and in many cases millennia.”

Larson noted that some of the data used to justify the new grant were developed by students from multiple geography seminars that explored the relationship between people, fire and landscape, along with multiple guided research projects. He said having UW-Platteville students contribute to this effort has been exciting and inspiring.

“The students who did this work learned how to design and implement a study, how to manage and analyze data, and how to share their work with their peers, other scientists and land managers on questions at the cutting edge of science,” said Larson. “At the same time, these projects forced students to grapple with the philosophical and ethical biases of their own perspectives to develop a more thoughtful approach to life. This is a liberal education in action.”

Students involved in producing some of the data to be used in the CfAS project include those who enrolled in Biogeography in the spring of 2010, Fire Ecology seminars in the spring and fall of 2014 and fall of 2016, and guided research projects by Ben Matthys, Elizabeth Tanner, Nicholas Harnish, Kalina Hildebrandt, Dan Brumm and Adam Donaldson.

One of the products to be produced through the CfAS-funded effort is a grant proposal to the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program at the National Science Foundation which, if funded, will include an abundance of opportunities for student research and course development by expanding ongoing efforts across the Great Lakes Region.

The results of this synthesis will be directly translated into a revised fire management plan for Quetico Provincial Park, a federal wilderness area in Canada, and will be used to advance similar conversations in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In addition to these on-the-ground implications, the research team will produce scientific publications, interpretive materials for museums and a set of new stories that engage the next generation with scientific information steeped in stories drawn from traditional ecological knowledge.

The CfAS will provide Larson and his team with funding for travel, meals, lodging and conference facilities for three meetings over a two-year period. Team members include: Jessica Atatise, Lac La Croix First Nation; Brian Jackson, Quetico Provincial Park; Lane Johnson, University of Minnesota; Lee Johnson, Superior National Forest; Dr. Robin W. Kimmerer, Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry; Dr. Kurt Kipfmueller, University of Minnesota; and Jeff Savage, Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The CfAS is a collaborative network of public and private institutions focused on leveraging existing archaeological data to expand scientific understanding of human social dynamics, redressing injustices of the past, empowering descendent communities and aiding in the formulation of solutions to contemporary problems. The organization solicited proposals from groups interested in addressing a substantive archaeological problem and producing information that will benefit the discipline and products that will inform public policy. For more information, visit

High-impact practices, such as Larson and his team’s collaborative research, are an important component of UW-Platteville’s 2017-2018 strategic work plan, which includes the institutional priorities of improving student learning, data-informed decision making, budgeting and planning, supporting student success through retention and recruitment initiatives, and campus climate.

For more information about fire history research conducted by Larson and his students, visit:

• Larson discusses fire history research on WTIP Radio (Dec. 1, 2017)
• Students win three awards at research symposium (Nov. 15, 2017)
• Students examine tree rings to identify effects of drought (July 11, 2017)
• Students explore fire history of Midwest landscapes (April 5, 2017)
• Student receives internship award to conduct fire history research (March 13, 2017)
• Larson discusses Driftless Oaks project with WPR (Dec. 23, 2016)
• Larson receives $76,000 research grant (Oct. 21, 2016)
• Students present at Midwest Fire Conference (March 10, 2015)
• Geography student wins first place at research symposium (Nov. 20, 2014)
• Larson collaborates on $310,000 research grant from NSF (June 20, 2014)

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, University Relations Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,, in collaboration with Dr. Evan Larson, associate professor of geography, UW-Platteville,


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