Recent global environmental and social changes have created a set of “wicked problems” for which the nature of the problem is poorly defined, the future conditions uncertain, and there is no optimal solution. Athabascan communities in Interior Alaska have confronted this situation for thousands of years and adopted a resilience approach that maximizes a diversity of livelihood options, none of which may be optimal for a narrowly prescribed set of conditions.
We describe the ecological and cultural context for this strategy, discuss its vulnerability in a narrowly defined modern western economy, and speculate about the lessons it provides to addressing wicked problems of rapid global change. Warming has increased the areal extent of wildfire in Alaska, which increases fire risk to rural Athabascan communities and reduces short-term subsistence opportunities. Current fire suppression policies minimize the direct negative impacts of wildfire, while creating secondary problems of fuel buildup and continuing decline in subsistence opportunities near communities. We describe the diversity of activities, including fire-fighting employment, that individual families use in their mixed cash-subsistence economy. Co-management of fire regime by communities and agencies could address both the economic and ecological challenges of changing fire regime by harvesting flammable fuels for heating public buildings and using wildland fire for habitat enhancement in surrounding forests. This is consistent with Athabascan traditions of resilience in confronting a constantly changing and uncertain future.