Shiloh Sundstrom, a doctoral student and teaching assistant in the Department of Geography at Oregon State University, and a keen rancher, forester and conservationist, was tragically killed in a hit-and-run accident near Corvallis on November 22, 2015. He was 34.
Shiloh Forest Sundstrom was born in 1981 on Rock Creek Ranch in Deadwood, Oregon, which lies on the edge of Siuslaw National Forest between Eugene and the Pacific coast. As a farm boy, he enjoyed spending time with animals, particularly horses and cows, and became very knowledgeable about the area.
Sundstrom attended school in nearby Mapleton where he also enjoyed sports, particularly athletics, and was the Class of 2000 valedictorian. He then attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts, studying history with a minor in environmental studies, as well as running for the cross-country and track teams. During his time as an undergraduate, he spent a semester abroad at the School for Field Studies in Kenya, where the land and the people made a huge impression on him.
Having graduated with honors, Sundstrom continued with his studies. At Oregon State University, he gained a master’s degree in forestry then moved to the geography department as a doctoral candidate to pursue his interests in Kenya, specifically the livestock-herding Maasai people. His work investigated the challenges facing Maasai communities and their struggles to maintain traditional culture while adapting to modern pressures and opportunities.
During his first period of doctoral field research in 2014, he spent 5 months in southern Kenya examining the role of community-based conservation and development organizations in helping the Maasai to conserve their land and benefit from wildlife conservation and tourism enterprises. Although he returned with a rich set of data from interviews, he felt that he had much more to learn in order to tell a more complete story about the challenges and opportunities faced by the Maasai.
He returned to Kenya in Spring 2015 to learn more about the role that livestock continues to play in the Maasai’s cultural identity, their efforts to ensure that livestock production remains viable in the twenty-first century, the government policies of privatizing communal lands and settling the Maasai, and the challenges to pastoralism and wildlife conservation from the exploration for oil.
Because of his own deep ties to the land and his long involvement with community-based conservation in the US, Sundstrom was in a very special position to conduct this research, connecting theory and practice, and producing scholarship that demonstrated that conservation and livelihoods can go hand in hand.
Hannah Gosnell, associate professor at OSU and Sundstrom’s doctoral adviser, said that he was “an invaluable bridge between two worlds…interested in the challenge of conserving wildlife while maintaining traditional pastoral life ways – a challenge we have here in the West, too.”
Sundstrom was a student member of the American Association of Geographers and due to present a paper on his doctoral research at the 2016 Annual Meeting in San Francisco entitled “Redefining Conservation without Parks in Kenya's Maasailand.”
He was working on his dissertation at the time of his death and his work will be continued, published, and used for the good it was intended to document and perpetuate. The university has also set up a memorial scholarship fund in his name to help OSU graduate students in geography and forest ecosystems and society who are engaged in research on conservation and livelihoods in rural communities.
However, Sundstrom was much more than a geography student. He was the cattle manager at the family’s Rock Creek Ranch and worked on its forest management projects. He had worked for the Siuslaw Watershed Council and was a conservationist and program director at the Siuslaw Institute in the Siuslaw National Forest. He was also a vocal advocate for more sustainable policies and practices for working landscapes, and was involved in the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC), a network of organizations working on conservation-based community and economic challenges facing the rural West.
Gosnell said, “He was able to navigate comfortably between the halls of academia, theorizing about the political ecology of public lands ranching in the West, and the day-to-day realities and constraints of life on the farm… He was well on his way to becoming an important leader, like his father, in thinking about alternative, more resilient futures for our working landscapes.”
Maia Enzer, who worked with Sundstrom when she was director of RVCC, said that he was part of “a new generation of conservation leaders who are grounded in place—in the rural places they were born and raised—and fully see that the future relies on integrated solutions.”
Sundstrom was driven by dreams of a better world for people and nature, and for a balance between protection and productivity. He was articulate and passionate about the future of rural communities, and a budding leader in the field of community-based conservation who could talk knowledgeably and passionately with environmentalists, agency administrators, and congressional staff alike.
Shiloh Sundstrom will be remembered for his enthusiasm and positive energy, his warmth and gentle demeanor, his generosity and creativity. He will be greatly missed from the tight-knit community of Deadwood to the vast savanna of Kenya. He is survived by his parents, Johnny and Tchanan; his sister, Danell, her partner and their young daughter; and his girlfriend, Rachael.