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Fall 2011 | Volume 7 | Issue 2


Using Q-methodology to identify local perspectives on wildfires in two Koyukon Athabascan communities in rural Alaska

Lily Ray
Natural Resources, Kawerak, Inc., PO Box 948, Nome, AK 99762 USA (email:
Graduate School of Geography, Clark University, Worcester, MA 01610 USA
Resilience and Adaptation Program, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK 99775 USA

Sustainable resource management depends upon the participation of resource-dependent communities. Competing values between community members and government agencies and among groups within a community can make it difficult to find mutually acceptable management goals and can disadvantage certain resource users. This study uses Q-methodology to discover groups with shared perspectives on wildfire policy in the Koyukon Athabascan villages of Galena and Huslia, Alaska. Before the study, participants appeared to disagree over the amount of wildfire suppression needed, but Q-method results showed three perspectives united around deeper, less oppositional concerns: Caucasian residents and resource managers who preferred natural processes; older Koyukon residents concerned about losing local control, small animals, and cultural places; and younger Koyukon residents who felt subsistence activities were resilient to social-ecological change. Additionally, both Koyukon groups suspected it was cheaper to suppress all wildfires while small. These results imply that community frustration with wildfire management may be reduced through collaborative research with Koyukon elders on locally important issues, cultural site mapping in order to extend some level of wildfire protection, and greater agency transparency about wildfire-suppression costs. The results also indicate that age may be an understudied driver of community resource-use preferences. This study proposes that without identifying resource user-interest groups and their main concerns, it is difficult to develop equitable environmental goals. It shows how Q-methodology provides a systematic approach for identifying the stakeholders and issues needed in resource management.

KEYWORDS: natural resource management, wildfire suppression, community involvement, environmental policy, stakeholders

Citation: Ray, L. 2011. Using Q-methodology to identify local perspectives on wildfires in two Koyukon Athabascan communities in rural Alaska.Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 7(2):18-29.

Published online September 28, 2011

Introduction: Communities and Natural Resource Management

Rural residents often disregard resource-use regulations that are incompatible with traditional use patterns, especially when communities distrust the resource-management agency (Dolsak & Ostrom, 2003; Ostrom, 2005; Berkes, 2007). As policy enforcement may be impossible, sustainable resource management depends on local cooperation, which improves when agencies include communities in environmental planning. Additionally, rural residents often have local environmental knowledge, culturally appropriate resource-management institutions, and a vested interest in sustainable management (Ciracy-Wantraup & Bishop, 1975; Berkes, 1987, Acheson et al. 1998; Berkes & Folke, 1998; Ostrom, 2005; Tsing et. al 2005). Finally, democratic principles imply that communities have a right to participate in decisions affecting their well-being, as good governance includes stakeholders (Western & Wright, 1994).

Unfortunately, community environmental practices may not fulfill nonlocal conservation goals. Many community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) projects struggle with competing environmental values between communities and outside organizations and even within communities (Walters, 1997; Kruse et al. 1998; Agrawal & Gibson, 1999; Kellert et al. 2000; Robbins, 2000; Tallis et al. 2008; Clark & Slocombe, 2009). Some CBNRM projects force communities to meet government objectives and ignore community goals (Schroeder, 2005). In divided communities, CBNRM projects can further disempower women, minorities, or poorer residents (Rocheleau et al. 1996; Tsing et al. 2005). Additionally, it is often unclear which stakeholders need to be included in decision-making processes and which problems management should address (Hjortsø, 2004).

Some researchers address poor CBNRM outcomes by investigating the conditions under which community management succeeds (e.g., Ostrom, 2005; Padgee et al. 2006; Kareiva et al. 2008). Other scholars search for values and scientific errors in government or conservation-organization goals that conflict with community goals (e.g., Blaikie, 1985; Berkes, 1987; Berkes & Folke, 1998; Holling et al. 1998). Although both approaches recognize value differences, neither offers a methodological tool to address competing interest groups. Agrawal & Gibson (2001) argue that groups sharing territory or physical characteristics may disagree about resource management and that “imagined communities,” or people with shared values, are more likely to manage resources sustainably. Blake (1999) concurs, explaining that “there are different communities that form and disperse around particular issues and concerns.” This study proposes that without identifying resource user-interest groups and their main concerns, it is difficult for CBNRM projects to develop equitable environmental goals. It demonstrates how Q-methodology provides a systematic approach for identifying the stakeholders and issues that should be included in sustainable resource-management policies.

Public Participation and Wildfire Management


Since the year 2000, the need for sustainable wildfire management in the United States has become clear, as catastrophic wildfires have burned millions of hectares and caused fatalities, home losses, and unaffordable suppression costs (Machlis et al. 2002; Steelman & Kunkel, 2004). Climate change, wildfire suppression-induced changes in forest structure, and wildland-urban interface expansion all exacerbate wildfire damages (Pyne, 2001; Brown et al. 2004; McKenzie et al. 2004). Social changes, such as community risk-reduction planning and lifestyle modification to accommodate natural burning, may reduce wildfire losses, indicating a need for increased public engagement (Dombeck et al. 2004; Kauffman, 2004; Steelman et al. 2004). Recent policies, such as the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, provide incentives for community-led risk reduction at the wildland-urban interface (Machlis et al. 2002; Steelman et al. 2004). Additionally, federal regulations in the United States (e.g., the National Environmental Policy Act and the Department of Interior mandate) require that wildfire managers consider public values, making community participation an essential part of any sustainable solution (Machlis et al. 2002).


Many residents of Koyukon Athabascan1 communities in rural Alaska have advocated for wildfire management that accommodates traditional livelihoods. This study focuses on Galena (population 675) and Huslia (population 293), Alaska, two small, predominantly Koyukon Athabascan communities located, respectively, along the Yukon and Koyukuk Rivers in the Koyukon homeland (Figure 1), a remote subarctic region dominated by vast lowlands, lakes, and boreal forest (Nelson, 1983; U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). Fire management is important throughout much of the area due to highly flammable black spruce forests (Viereck, 1973) and local livelihoods dependent upon wild resources such as moose, bear, waterfowl, small game, fish, furbearers, berries, and firewood (Nelson, 1983; Marcotte, 1986; 1990; Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2008). Wild food-use estimates conducted in the 1980s showed that Galena residents annually harvested an average of 358 kilograms (787 pounds) of wild food per person, and Huslia residents averaged 492 kilograms (1,082 pounds) per person per year (Marcotte, 1986; 1990). The communities are not connected to the road system, formal employment opportunities are limited, and nonwild food is expensive because it must arrive by plane or barge. As such, local food security depends upon wild-food harvests. Additionally, residents consider wild foods to be healthier than store foods, and harvesting activities such as hunting, fishing, and berry picking are an important part of local cultural identity.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980 created the Koyukuk and Innoko National Wildlife Refuges, bringing federal land management to Koyukon traditional use areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Galena office manages the 1.8 million hectare Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge (Koyukuk NWR) and 304,000 hectare Northern Unit Innoko National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2008). The ANILCA legislation protects subsistence, which is the customary and traditional use of wild products on federal lands, but harvesters must follow federal regulations (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011). Currently, federal employees manage wildfires in traditional Koyukon territory, which frustrates some residents due to the hardships wildfires create for local livelihoods.

Figure 1 Study area.
Figure 1 Study area.

Many Koyukon residents feel that wildfires impede subsistence uses, as downed trees complicate access, and important species such as moose and furbearers rebound slowly. Hunters need to hunt every year and to teach their children, so a decade of scarce wildlife or complicated access causes major problems (Chapin et al. 2008). Additionally, wildfires can displace caribou because their main winter forage, lichen, may not recover for up to 80 years (Rupp et al. 2006). A review of the ecological literature indicates that after wildfires forage for moose, bear, and marten may improve, but that these species probably need mature, unburned forest for shelter from predators, denning, and/or hibernation (Nelson et al. 2008). Thus, a mosaic of stand ages may provide the best habitat for subsistence species. In practice, suppression near villages may cause a shortage of younger stands, whereas areas without suppression may lack older stands due to recent warming-induced increases in wildfire extent (Kasischke & Turretsky, 2006; Chapin et al. 2008). Climate, not forest age or wildfire suppression, drives this wildfire expansion (Johnson et al. 2001). Given the warming Arctic climate, the areal extent of wildfires in Interior Alaska will likely continue to increase (Chapin et al. 2008).

The Koyukuk NWR wildfire-management plan (FMP) emphasizes wildfires’ beneficial effects and encourages managers to“[m]aintain fire-related ecological processes to the maximum extent feasible” (Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2005). The plan suggests protection of human life and property, important wildlife habitat, and cultural or historic sites, but recommends that managers use wildland and prescribed fires for resource management when possible. In contrast, many Koyukon residents favor more extensive suppression to protect subsistence uses. The FMP mentions local resistance to wildfire and describes an outreach plan, stating that “[i]t will take some time to educate the local public of the ecological benefits of wildland and prescribed fire” (Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2005).

Q-Methodology and Resource Conflicts

Q-methodology, developed by psychologists to investigate people’s subjectivity, or internal frames of reference, gives researchers a detailed view of respondents’ perspectives (Brown, 1996; Robbins & Krueger, 2000). Participants complete a Q-sort on a specific topic by ranking statements drawn from the respondents or similar people (McKeown & Thomas, 1988). Researchers then use factor analysis to group participants with similarities in their statement rankings, thus discovering “imagined communities.”

Existing case studies provide ethnographic detail on resource conflicts (e.g., Agrawal & Gibson, 2001; Brosius et al. 2005), and various innovative methods describe rural resource use (Slocum et al. 1995). The Q-methodology’s mix of ethnographic detail, statement ranking, and factor analysis is different, however, because the process uncovers patterns not apparent from qualitative analysis, while allowing more respondent control than most quantitative analyses. When qualitative research discovers participant concerns, it may be difficult to determine which are representative of other community members. Q-methodology reveals broadly shared concerns, as respondents rank many local concerns, and factor analysis uncovers patterns in the responses. Respondents’ perspectives predominate because, rather than responding to researcher-designed questions, participants rank community-generated statements. Thus, community priorities drive the analysis. Additionally, participant comments and ethnographic observations give context for the factor analysis. Q-methodology has been lauded for its systematic approach to human subjectivity and its ability to discover points of consensus and conflict, to identify groups responding to specific issues, to more clearly define competing viewpoints, to discover criteria important to participants, and to guide policy creation and improvement (Peritore & Peritore, 1990; Steelman & Maguire, 1999; Nijnik & Mather, 2008).


This study, conducted in Galena and Huslia, Alaska, between March and July, 2008, used Q-methodology to group community members and resource managers with similar perspectives on wildfires. For detailed instructions on conducting a Q-method study, see Brown (1993).2

The first step in Q-method is to develop a statement set representing perspectives on an issue (McKeown & Thomas, 1988). In this study, statements about wildfires were drawn directly from area residents. First, statements representing Koyukon reactions to wildfires were collected from one-on-one semistructured interviews conducted with a purposive sample of 41 Koyukon forest users over the age of 45 (23 from Huslia and 18 from Galena; 21 male and 20 female). Second, statements representing the perspectives of local resource-management agencies on wildfires were collected from policy documents, resource-manager comments, and educational brochures. From these two collections, 27 statements were chosen to represent Koyukon and resource-manager viewpoints (Table 1).

Table 1 Q-sort statements and average statement rankings for each group. Opposing statements pairs are grouped together.
Table 1 Q-sort statements and average statement rankings for each group. Opposing statements pairs are grouped together.

To ensure equal representation, statements were roughly balanced to provide a negative and a positive option on most topics. For example, “It just isn’t possible to fight all wildfires, especially if they are far from villages” and “It is cheaper to fight wildfires while they are small, even if they aren’t threatening villages” were considered an opposing pair. Respondent phrasing was preserved, although some resource-management language was simplified. Koyukon Q-sort participants were often surprised to see Koyukon concerns formally represented and were happy to rank locally meaningful statements.

The next step in a Q-method study is to choose respondents representing a wide variety of potential perspectives. Q-methodology discovers distinct perspectives on an issue, but does not predict their rate of occurrence in the larger population. As such, a purposive sampling scheme targeting people with different viewpoints and backgrounds ensures maximum representation of possible perspectives (McKeown & Thomas, 1988). In this study, a sample of 46 such respondents sorted the selected statements in one-on-one sessions with the author. Agencies represented included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the Alaska Fire Service (N=10). One agency employee was a Koyukon resident of Galena and another was Athabascan from another area. Caucasian residents not employed by resource-management agencies also participated (N=8). Finally, Koyukon residents of both Galena (N=14) and Huslia (N=14) not employed by resource-management agencies were part of the process. Respondents were chosen to represent diversity in age, gender, employment, town of residence, views on wildfires, and experiences using the boreal forest. It was not possible to exactly balance all demographic categories, and unequal numbers of men (N=26) and women (N=20) participated. A sufficient number of respondents from both genders were included so that any differences would be reflected in the analysis.

The next step, the Q-sort, requires respondents to rank the statements according to level of agreement. First, participants sorted cards containing the 27 locally generated statements about wildfire into three piles: “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Not Sure.” They then further sorted cards onto a template with a fixed seminormal distribution (Figure 2). Categories ranged from “Most Disagree” to “Most Agree.” While participants sorted the statements, their comments were recorded as notes. In addition, respondents provided basic personal information including age, gender, and participation in outdoor activities. When they finished, statement rankings were recorded as scores ranging from -3 for “Most Disagree” to +3 for “Most Agree.”

Figure 2 Q-Sort template.
Figure 2 Q-Sort template.

Once participants ranked the statements, the next step was to analyze their responses and identify clusters of people with shared views. This procedure was done in the standard manner for Q studies: principal component analysis (PCA) with Varimax rotation, using PQMethod software (Schmolck, 2002). PQMethod software creates a correlation matrix among participants based on overall statement rankings, performs factor analysis on this matrix, and rotates factors orthogonally to increase the number of respondents with high factor loadings. Squared factor loadings show what fraction of the variance in an individual’s sort is explained by each factor. Respondents were matched to the factor explaining the most variance in their statement rankings if that factor explained more than half of the common variance and factor loading was significant at p < .05. Factor loading (a) was significant at p < .05 if a > (1.96/√ (number of statements)), where the number of statements was 27 (Schmolck, 2002).

PQMethod requires researchers to choose the number of factors to analyze. Each factor effectively represents a grouping of respondents with similar Q-sorts. A three-factor solution was selected where 41 of 46 respondents matched to factors. These factors explained 49% of the total variance: 24% for Factor 1, 12% for Factor 2, and 13% for Factor 3. Statistically, eight factors were significant, but the fourth through eighth factors did not represent coherent perspectives in the local context and using more than three factors resulted in fewer respondents matching to factors. McKeown & Thomas (1988) explain that researchers may use theoretical as well as statistical considerations when deciding how many factors to analyze. This study did not aim to discover every possible perspective, but rather sought to reveal dominant perspectives shared by larger groups. For triangulation, results were compared with ethnographic data (see below) and reviewed by participants.

In a Q-method study, the factors explain the participants, or cases, and not the statements, or variables (McKeown & Thomas, 1988). Respondents matching to the same factor have some similarities in statement rankings and thus represent a perspective. Once respondents match to factors, PQMethod creates average statement rankings for each factor and reconverts these averages into the scale of the Q-sort (-3 to 3) to create a composite Q-sort. This study interpreted each factor’s “perspective” from its composite Q-sort. The composite Q-sort represents a factor group’s general outlook, but does not describe each member’s exact viewpoint.

To provide context for the Q-method, this study drew on six months of ethnographic fieldwork in Galena and several weeks in Huslia. Ethnographic information was used to further explain the factor groups in terms of participant livelihoods and history. The primary methods were participant observation, recorded semistructured interviews about experiences with wildfires, and informal interviews about resource issues (Slocum et al. 1995; Bernard, 2006). The interviews, as described in the beginning of the methods section, were used to produce the Q-sort statements while still in the field. These interviews were later transcribed, entered into ATLAS.ti,3 and coded for researcher-determined and emergent themes (Marshall & Rossman, 1995).


Average statement scores were calculated from the respondents significantly matched to each factor (Table 1). Each factor represents a group of respondents with similar perspectives as expressed through their Q-sort.

Interestingly, factor groups separated by age, ethnicity, resource use, and employment (Tables 2 and 3).

Table 2 Factor demographics, organized by declining resource use.
Table 2 Factor demographics, organized by declining resource use.

Table 3 Demographics of factor matches. Rows represent study participants. Bold numbers indicate a factor match.
Table 3 Demographics of factor matches. Rows represent study participants. Bold numbers indicate a factor match.

Both resource management-agency employees and Caucasian residents not employed by agencies loaded higher on Factor 1 than Koyukon residents not employed by agencies (Figure 3). Older Koyukon residents generally loaded highest on Factor 2, and younger Koyukon residents loaded highest on Factor 3 (Figure 4).

Figure 3 Respondents’ factor loading on Factors 1 and 2. Respondents displayed by ethnicity and occupation.
Figure 3 Respondents’ factor loading on Factors 1 and 2. Respondents displayed by ethnicity and occupation.

Figure 4 Koyukon respondents’ factor loadings on Factors 2 and 3. Koyukon respondents displayed by age.
Figure 4 Koyukon respondents’ factor loadings on Factors 2 and 3. Koyukon respondents displayed by age.

Factor 1: Natural and Necessary

Factor 1 represented an abstract, ecological perspective on wildfires and its highest ranked statements came from resource managers (Table 1). This group, largely comprising Caucasian residents and resource managers, believed wildfires were important natural processes and worried that wildfire suppression would result in overgrown landscapes. For Factor 1 matches, wildfire was a tool to produce moose browse, and suppression was problematic because it limited moose browse. These respondents believed total suppression was impossible and that science should drive wildfire planning. Fifteen of the seventeen people matched to Factor 1 were resource management agency employees or Caucasian residents (Table 3). The majority was from Galena because Huslia has few Caucasian residents and no resident resource managers. Resource managers were enthusiastic about wildland fire and hoped it could increase moose populations through habitat improvement. In general, managers supported local subsistence activities and felt wildfires improved subsistence opportunities by maintaining a mosaic of successional stages on the landscape. Managers recognized local resistance to wildfire, but hoped education and in-town risk reduction would garner support for allowing wildfires to burn naturally.

Negative Factors 1 and 3

In Q-methodology, positive numbers represent agreement with statements and negative numbers signify disagreement. This means respondents opposed to a factor’s perspective match to the negative of that factor (McKeown & Thomas, 1988).

Four respondents scored as either negative Factor 1 (3 respondents) or negative Factor 3 (1 respondent). As Factor 1 represented the resource-manager position favoring wildfires, negative Factor 1 matches opposed most resource-manager statements, trusted local knowledge more than science, and felt wildfires damaged the landscape. As Factor 3 represented respondents less concerned about cultural places or local knowledge, the negative Factor 3 match believed wildfires threatened cultural sites, local knowledge was more important than science, and losing a trap line made teaching subsistence to grandchildren difficult.

All four negative factor matches were older Koyukon respondents, with an average age of 65 years. Semistructured interviews and participant observation with older Koyukon showed that childhood experiences shaped their perspectives. As children, they spoke Koyukon Athabascan, moved with their families between seasonal camps, and learned subsistence activities and traditional rules dictating respect for animals from their parents and grandparents.

Older respondents distrusted government agencies due to a lifetime of negative experiences, such as forced attendance at boarding schools where they were prohibited from speaking Koyukon Athabascan.4 Moroever, some of these elders had observed relatives punished by nonlocal game wardens for traditional food harvesting and felt outsiders should not regulate Koyukon subsistence activities. Older Koyukon respondents had experienced drastic changes over their lifetimes and feared an increase in wildfires could further damage traditional livelihoods.

Factor 2: Local Knowledge and Cultural Places

 Factor 2 matches, most of whom were older Koyukon, worried that wildfires could harm small animals, asserted that local knowledge should inform decision making, and distrusted decisions made in the name of “science.” These respondents disagreed with the statement “Wildfires are good because after a wildfire there is more unfrozen soil above the permafrost. This means that more things can grow.” As one respondent commented, “The more we lose our permafrost, the more we lose our land.” Factor 2 matches felt that the loss of old portages and camping sites to wildfires threatened cultural history. Overall, these respondents were connected to local landscapes and did not regard area forests as wilderness. This group also suspected it was less expensive to suppress wildfires while they were small. Many Factor 2 matches, although concerned about wildfire-induced subsistence hardships, agreed that wildfires were natural and could improve moose habitat. Basically, this group considered wildfires to be complex, with both positive and negative effects, and wanted more local involvement in decision making. Most supported statements from both elders and resource managers (Table 1).

Eight of the ten respondents matched to Factor 2 were Koyukon over the age of 50 (Koyukon average age 60) who used the boreal forest frequently and valued traditional knowledge. Factor 2 matches explained that large boreal forest wildfires complicated access, as trees fell across trails, and the lack of shelter hindered winter travel. In addition, many older residents described favorite places transformed by wildfires into impenetrable areas of fallen trees and ash. These respondents feared subsistence in affected areas would not recover during their active years. Finally, older Koyukon worried about small animals burning, as, according to Koyukon culture, disrespecting animals prevents successful subsistence.

Factor 3: Take It as It Comes    

Factor 3 matches, mostly young or middle-aged Koyukon, believed wildfires were natural and could improve trapping, landscape diversity, and moose habitat, but did not feel wildfire suppression would cause an overgrown landscape. They thought it might be cheaper to suppress wildfires while they were small. This group worried about small animals burning in wildfires but thought that losing camps, trap lines, or historic places did not threaten cultural history or subsistence. Overall, these respondents indicated that both subsistence and culture were resilient. Factor 3 matches mostly agreed with resource-manager statements, but they supported some statements from Koyukon elders (Table 1).

Eight of the ten people matched to Factor 3 were young or middle-aged Koyukon (Koyukon average age 40). Participant observation showed that younger Koyukon engaged in subsistence activities. Unlike older Koyukon, most younger respondents did not live in seasonal camps or speak Koyukon Athabascan as children. Instead, this generation grew up in villages and pursued subsistence activities on day trips or during stays at family camps. Younger Koyukon prioritized subsistence, but did not express the same sense of loss or distrust of management as older Koyukon.


Koyukon respondents reviewing the results of this study agreed that the separation of younger and older Koyukon into distinct factor groups accurately reflected local realities. Value changes by generation have been noted locally, as well as documented around the world (Inglehart & Baker, 2000), but age-related differences in resource-management preferences have received less interest than categories such as ethnicity, class, livelihood, or gender (e.g., Rocheleau et al. 1996; Agrawal & Gibson, 2001). The lack of gender differences on this issue did not surprise respondents, who were, however, struck that no differences emerged between Koyukon residents of Galena and Huslia, as Galena is larger, 25% Caucasian, and considered less traditional.

The results indicated that older Koyukon were the group most dissatisfied with current wildfire management and most interested in participating in resource management. These elders believed local knowledge should drive management decisions and feared scientific management could not protect area livelihoods, ecosystems, and culturally significant places. Caucasian residents shared resource-manager perspectives and younger Koyukon were less frustrated with current management. This finding indicates that resource managers should target older Koyukon more than other groups for inclusion in management and supports Steelman & Maguire’s (1999) suggestion that participatory projects, rather than randomly recruiting large numbers of participants, can use Q-methodology to select participants representing important perspectives.

Some CBNRM programs have been criticized for forcing resource-dependent communities to meet government priorities (Schroeder, 2005). In a Q-method study no perspective dominates, as participants rank both community and resource manager-generated statements. The issues that arise are genuinely important to the different groups, and participatory processes addressing these issues are more democratic than programs focused only on government priorities. Additionally, democratic participation, as defined by Arnstein (1969), means stakeholders must be included in decision making, and not simply give opinions to decision makers. As such, the following policy suggestions address both the issues raised in the Q-sort and methods for giving residents some decision-making power.

Policy Suggestions

1. Conduct Collaborative Research Projects to Address Locally Important Issues

Koyukon elders strongly disagreed with the statement “Decisions about wildfire policy should be made using science” and some felt science was used to discredit traditional knowledge and local experience. One resident explained that he felt “science means not us.” As such, research projects that bring together traditional knowledge and science should be a management priority. Management decisions based upon collaborative research will be strengthened by elders’ traditional knowledge and long observation and will have more credibility with community members. Research should address topics important to Koyukon elders, such as small animals burning in wildfires or the effects of wildfires on important subsistence species or permafrost.

Older and younger Koyukon shared a concern about wildfires killing small animals such as furbearers and birds. Koyukon follow an ethical code dictating respect for animals, as disrespecting animals prevents success in subsistence activities (Nelson, 1983). Elders worried about wildfires during denning and nesting times. To address this concern, managers and elders could list species of concern, map denning or nesting areas, and determine high-risk time periods. Applicable methods include that of Kangas et al. (2008), where residents map important areas, or of Hytönen et al. (2002) that combine respondents’ qualitative descriptions, such as “old growth spruce forest,” with forest-inventory data. As the Koyukuk NWR FMP already protects sensitive biological communities such as peregrine falcon habitat or critical caribou habitat (Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2005), this approach would not conflict with current policy but rather extend it by having elders help determine sensitive habitat.

2. Work with Elders to Map Cultural Sites and Prioritize Some for Protection

Older Koyukon respondents’ attachment to cultural places separated them from other groups. The Koyukon sense of place is not an anomaly, as many traditional cultures value place, not just as a space that produces material goods, but as an important part of cultural identity (Thornton, 1995; Basso, 1996; Watson & Huntington, 2008). Roth (2004) claims that traditional and resource management-agency knowledge cannot be reconciled without considering the spatial dimensions of knowledge, use, and management practices. Additionally, Kangas et al. (2008) argue that participatory spatial planning can be more useful than value-based surveys and describe a method for mapping respondents’ place-based values. Managers could help elders prioritize important cultural places, using Kangas et al.’s (2008) method or Hytönen et al.’s (2002) technique for weighting important places. The Koyukuk NWR FMP already allows cultural and historic site protection, but a “Regional Archeologist or Cultural Resources Specialist” must identify these sites (Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2005). Extending this policy to allow local elders to identify cultural and historic sites needing protection could help diminish anxiety about cultural losses in wildfires.

3. Provide More Information about Wildfire Suppression Costs

Finally, all Koyukon groups suspected it cost less to fight wildfires while they were small. The Koyukuk NWR FMP suggests wildfire-ecology education, as recommended by the biological literature, to help the public accept wildfires (Dombeck et al. 2004; Kauffman, 2004; Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2005). Since wildfires cause direct material losses for Koyukon residents, frustration with wildfire policies persists even after education and outreach efforts. Some residents suspect that managers have the funding to suppress wildfires but choose not to do so because of the agency position that wildfires are ecologically beneficial. If areas burn because suppression is too costly or dangerous, managers should explain this, as many residents would find that to be a more acceptable reason. Any flexibility in the allocation of suppression funds could be passed to residents through a structured value referendum, in which respondents read about the predicted costs and benefits of various options and then vote for their preferred option (McDaniels & Thomas, 1999).


Although sustainable resource management depends upon community participation, engaging communities has proven difficult, sometimes due to value differences. This study shows how identifying resource user-interest groups and their concerns can help projects develop equitable environmental goals. Q-methodology was used to identify the stakeholders and issues that should be included in equitable wildfire management on public lands traditionally used by Alaskan indigenous communities. The analysis shows that only one stakeholder group, older Koyukon, strongly desired participation, suggesting that future participatory processes should reach out to these knowledgeable elders. Additionally, the study generated policy suggestions to address Koyukon elders’ concerns about wildfires affecting cultural sites and ecologically sensitive areas. Results also indicated that among societies in transition, age may be an understudied driver of resource-use preferences. As this case study demonstrates, Q-methodology provides a practical approach to resource-management conflicts; the act of systematically describing user groups and their concerns can generate novel solutions to policy disagreements.


I would like to thank Terry Chapin and Billie Turner for support throughout the research process, the residents and agency employees in Galena and Huslia for their participation in this study, and Bob Lambrecht, Dianne Rocheleau, John Rogan, and Jody Emel for support early in the research process. The work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (Graduate Research Fellowship Program and Grants 0620579, 0654441, and 0732758 to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks as part of the Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research Program, the Resilience and Adaptation Program, and the Ecosystem Services Project of the International Polar Year), and the Community Forestry Research Fellowship Program. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge, provided extensive logistical support in the field. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Community Forestry Research Fellowship Program.


1 An Alaskan indigenous group with a traditional territory along the Koyukuk River and the middle Yukon River in Western Interior Alaska.

2 For an earlier, online version, see

3 A qualitative data analysis software program.

4 Boarding school education, which ran from the late 1800s until the mid-1970s, was a U.S. government policy intended to assimilate Native American and Native Alaskan children into Western culture. Children were sent far away from their home villages and unwilling parents were threatened with imprisonment.


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