USFS Wilderness Research Fellowship Focused on Prescribed Fire in Wilderness, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute

Missoula, MT

Position Title: USFS Wilderness Research Fellowship Focused on Prescribed Fire in Wilderness

Organization: Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute

Location: Missoula, MT

Organization Overview: The Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute (ALWRI), a program within the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS), is the only Federal research group in the United States dedicated to development and dissemination of knowledge needed to steward the 111-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS), all 800+ units managed by two Departments and four agencies, from Puerto Rico to Alaska. They have a long history of conducting and sharing science in support of the NWPS, as well as collaborating with management, tribal, academic, non-governmental organization, community, and other partners within the U.S. and internationally. 

Position Overview: 

ALWRI is appointing a Wilderness Research Fellow to conduct research on the challenging topic of prescribed fire in wilderness. This project is collaboration between ALWRI, Western Colorado University, and University of Wyoming. The Wilderness Research Fellow will develop novel research, literature syntheses, scenario-based evaluations, and partner engagement that advances wildfire management in wilderness. In particular, the fellow will explore the benefits, costs, challenges, and opportunities to implementing prescribed fire in wilderness.

Research Problem:

One of the key tenets of the Wilderness Act is that wilderness remains ‘untrammeled’, meaning that wilderness should not be subject to manipulations that hinder natural forces. The default strategy for most fires in wilderness remains suppression, which is clearly a form of trammeling. Fires are allowed to burn in the absence of fire suppression in only a handful of wilderness areas. The consequences of fire exclusion are well documented, one of which being that forests are less resistant and resilient to a range of disturbances, including the inevitable fire that cannot be suppressed. Therefore, in addition to trammeling, fire suppression also negatively impacts the ‘natural’ character of wilderness because of the longer term and indirect consequence of altered vegetation and fire regime characteristics.

Prescribed fire is commonly used outside of wilderness to make forests more resistant and resilient to wildfire. Yet, because prescribed fire is a management action and may be considered inconsistent with the Wilderness Act (trammeling), it is less-commonly implemented within wilderness (though this varies among managing agencies).

Given that many wilderness ecosystems are negatively affected by fire-suppression’s longer-term effects (i.e. low resilience to the inevitable fire), perhaps it is time for the wilderness community to revisit the use of prescribed fire. We ask several questions: why are we willing to aggressively suppress fire in wilderness, but we are less willing to put fire back into the system through management actions? Is it possible that aggressive fire suppression causes more short- and long-term damage to wilderness character than prescribed fire? Because Indigenous peoples regularly and purposely ignited fire in many regions prior to Euro-American colonization, does wilderness management need to accommodate prescribed fire in order to sustain the historical role of fire in these systems? We will appoint a Wilderness Research Fellow to take on this issue and clearly articulate the benefits, costs, challenges, and barriers of implementing prescribed fire in wilderness.

Duties: The Wilderness Research Fellow will focus on prescribed fire in the context of wilderness management. This project will evaluate the benefits, costs, and challenges of implementing prescribed fire in wilderness through research, syntheses, literature reviews, scenario-based evaluations, and partner engagement. Collaborating with research scientists and faculty from ALWRI (Dr. Sean Parks), Western Colorado University (Dr. Jonathan Coop), and University of Wyoming (Dr. Melanie Armstrong), the research will be co-produced with tribal partners and managers from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service to ensure relevance. As such, a key role for the Wilderness Research Fellow will be building effective relationships with agency personnel and other partners. The appointment is located at the ALWRI office on the University of Montana campus in Missoula, Montana. 


The qualified candidate should have received a master’s or doctoral degree in one of the relevant fields or be currently pursuing one of the degrees with completion by June 30, 2023. Degree must have been received within the past three years.

Preferred Skills:

The Wilderness Research Fellow should demonstrate proficiency in wilderness policy, prescribed fire and/or wildfire, historical and/or cultural fire regimes/ecology, oral and written communication, writing, and partner engagement.
The official title (e.g. Wilderness Research Fellow) is negotiable.

Start Date: May 2023

Salary/Pay: $50k-$70k per year, depending on qualifications

Application Deadline: March 10, but applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis.

How to Apply: Please use the online application to view the full job description as well as how to apply.