Photo: Jessica Layton.

Maya Khosla has been chosen to acquire the Fund for Wild Nature’s Grassroots Activist Award for 2023. Maya’s environmental activism requires a exceptional mixture of her roles as a scientist, filmmaker, and award-winning writer that has led to her becoming a prominent voice in the protection of post-fire forests.

Maya was born in London, exactly where her father has operating for India’s foreign service. Her father’s function meant that Maya subsequently grew up in lots of nations, such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Bhutan, and Myanmar, as effectively as the UK and India. She came to the US for college. There she knowledgeable an environmental awakening right after the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984 when a chemical leak from a Union Carbide factory killed thousands of men and women and injured hundreds of thousands a lot more. In response, Maya decided to study aquatic toxicology.

Right after acquiring her graduate degrees, Maya moved to California and assisted the National Park Service at Muir Woods on a project cataloguing the lots of habitat sorts in the park. She wrestled with how ideal to share this facts with the public. She recalls, “I realized that one particular had to go beyond the lens of pure science to rivet the interest of the public. It required to be a lot more poetic. It was about staying with science and stepping out of the science for the 1st time.” This insight spurred her to create her 1st guidebook—Internet of Water: Life in Redwood Creek—and it would also guide her subsequent environmental protection advocacy.

In the early 2000s, she had the chance to return to India to document sea turtle conservation there by means of the Turtle Diaries Project. As element of that function, she started exploring the documentary films as a way to raise environmental awareness, and she did screenwriting for 3 brief 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 related with intensely burned forests. As she discovered on the 1st day of the project from lead researcher Dr. Chad Hanson, black-backed woodpeckers benefitted from the intense forest fires that are generally misleadingly referred to as catastrophic fires.

Forest fires burn at a mixture of intensities, and every intensity has an ecological part. Some patches of specifically intense fire outcome in big numbers of dead trees. It is generally assumed that these locations are lifeless “moonscapes,” but scientific investigation was locating that these “snag forests” are truly complete of life. A dead tree (a “snag”) can truly offer a lot more wildlife habitat than a living tree. Insects that burrow in dead trees offer an critical meals supply for birds. And woodpeckers are in a position to carve nests into dead trees that offer residences for themselves, as effectively as for other birds and mammals that take up residence in old woodpecker nests. As a result, locations with big numbers of standing dead trees can have some of the highest levels of wildlife abundance and diversity of any forest sort.

Upon mastering about the ecological significance of intense forest fires, Maya was amazed. She mentioned, “This demands to be a film. No one particular is going to think us that there is all this life in a forest right after a higher-severity burn unless I film it.” So, in addition to participating in the black-backed woodpecker study, she also started filming it. And for the duration of the subsequent season, she returned with her brother-in-law, acclaimed cinematographer Sanjay Barnela, to record a lot more footage. She also documented the Forest Service’s efforts to clearcut the vibrant post-fire forests.

By the finish of 2016, Maya had completed a 30-minute documentary titled Looking for the Gold Spot: The Wild Right 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 a lot more than a hundred events about California as a grassroots outreach initiative. In 2017, PBS picked up her documentary and it subsequently aired on a variety of PBS stations.

The finish of 2017 marked yet another transformative point for Maya. She was living in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, when a cluster of big wildfires recognized collectively as the Wine Nation Fires heavily impacted the area. The fires spread into unprepared suburban neighborhoods, resulting in 25 deaths and about 7,000 destroyed structures. Maya was faced with reconciling the ecological rewards she had noticed from big wildfires in forests with the devastating effects of fire on her neighborhood.

To help in this reconciliation, Maya drew on yet another of her talents—poetry. Maya notes, “Poetry is a language that stands outdoors time. It is a direct access to the emotion with no necessarily working with your typical 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 effectively, it can have an influence that goes beyond what science alone can do.”

In 2018, Maya received the honor of becoming chosen to be the Poet Laureate for Sonoma County. She took on this part especially to use poetry as a tool to support her neighborhood heal. She organized poetry events that brought men and women with each other inside the fire’s footprint. It became a way to discover about dwelling retrofits and other measures that could support communities like hers a lot more safely coexist with fire-dependent ecosystems. At the very same time, there was a healing approach as participants started to greater recognize the vibrancy of the post-fire landscape. As she recalled, “I feel the magic of the Poet Laureate events is that they led to so lots of person moments for men and women to appear about at locations that had knowledgeable fire and see that it was not destroyed.” In the course of 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 investigation and filming in the post-fire forests of the Sierra Nevada. 1 location of specific interest was in the footprint of the Rim Fire of 2013, which mostly occurred on Forest Service lands close to Yosemite. The Forest Service was attempting to log the post-fire forests by claiming that new trees would not develop back on their personal in the intensely burned locations. The Forest Service argued that it required to clearcut the snag forests in order to do tree planting. Nonetheless, Maya participated in ground-primarily based surveys that located abundant new trees expanding even in the biggest snag forest patches. Each her scientific investigation and her filmmaking showed that the Forest Service’s Rim Fire logging project was primarily based on a false claim.

There are lots of myths about post-fire forests utilized to justify logging. 1 is the claim that Pacific fishers—an imperiled member of the weasel family—would not reside in intensely burned forests. Maya knew that Dr. Hanson had carried out a field study that displaying that claim was incorrect. He utilized specially educated dogs that detected fisher scat in snag forests, but she realized that the public would be a lot more probably to embrace these findings if they could see the fishers themselves in these locations. As a result, Maya started a project that continues to this day, putting wildlife cameras in remote post-fire areas. Her cameras have captured footage of a lot of fishers in locations exactly where they had not previously been detected and in locations exactly where the Forest Service had claimed they would not reside. In a recurring theme in Maya’s function, she focused on generating conservation science a lot more accessible and engaging for the public.

Maya also worked to make confident that conservation science was applied to guide public policy. She engaged extensively with neighborhood environmental groups and policymakers in Sonoma County in the wake of the Wine Nation Fires. As a outcome of this function, Maya was chosen to acquire Sonoma County’s Environmental Activist of the Year Award in 2020.

1 of Maya’s key challenges in her neighborhood has been the tendency for logging proponents to use major fires as a justification for comprehensive tree cutting, generally wrapped in eco-friendly language. This can lead effectively-which means communities to adopt benign-sounding policies that truly wind up performing substantial harm to neighborhood forests with no seriously guarding communities from fires. Ironically, some of the worst ecological harm comes from actions accomplished right after a fire.

Amid this push for a lot more logging, Maya has witnessed a concurrent work to market biomass energy facilities that would be fueled by trees reduce in her area. Beyond harming forests, biomass energy brings lots of downsides, as compiled in a report from the Center for Biological Diversity.  For instance, biomass emits a lot more carbon dioxide than coal per unit of power generated. And vulnerable communities subsequent to biomass facilities are exposed to substantial air pollution from these facilities.

The harms from biomass facilities on communities in the eastern US had been documented in the 2017 film Burned: Are Trees the New Coal?.  Inspired by the influence of this film, Maya is now operating with the producers of Burned on a new documentary project focused on the expanding threat from the biomass sector to communities and forests in the western US. Meanwhile, she is engaging with neighborhood climate groups in her neighborhood to address biomass as a false climate answer. And in 2022, Sonoma Magazine chosen Maya as one particular of the “Climate Heroes” of Sonoma County.

For all these factors, the Fund for Wild Nature has been pleased to assistance the function of Maya Khosla. The Fund was developed by grassroots activists to get a lot more sources to other bold grassroots activists operating to shield wildlife and wild locations, recognizing how even a modest quantity of cash for these activists can lead to major final results. The Fund for Wild Nature depends totally on annual contributions from the public, which it then redistributes to assistance worthy grassroots groups all through North America. In addition to delivering grants, the Fund sponsors the Grassroots Activist of the Year Award as yet another way to market bold activism. The Fund has presented Maya with a $1,000 verify in recognition of her choice as its 2023 Grassroots Activist of the Year.

Photo credit: Jessica Layton

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