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Conversation hopes to spark stronger wildfire policy

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According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 75 large fires have burned more than 3.7 million acres across 11 states with more than 30,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel assigned to the fires. 

In a recent Conservation Conversations webinar, hosted by the Ecosystem Workforce Program in collaboration with the University of Oregon’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment and Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, panelists provided a wide range of perspectives about how people who live in the Western U.S. might live with fire in the 21st century and how conservation policy might initiate action to address the risk of wildfire on both public and private lands. 

“This is a particularly challenging moment to be talking about wildfire policy, but perhaps it brings home the incredible urgency of engaging in really touchy conversations about how we manage fire, particularly in the American West,” shared session host, Dr. Cassandra Mosely, interim vice president for Research and Innovation at the University of Oregon and senior policy analyst at the Ecosystem Workforce Program. 

Wildfire a policy paradox

“Wildfire is simultaneously a natural, necessary and oftentimes, beneficial force,” said Director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and Colorado State University Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship Professor Dr. Tony Cheng. “We have policies, mandates and missions, and many of our agencies oversee wildfire to promote its use and operation on the landscape.”

“Fire is a very fuzzy and ill-defined problem,” Cheng noted. “This poses a policy challenge because an essential characteristic of any good policy is a clearly defined, framed and tractable problem that then has corresponding clear, tractable solutions.”

Cheng explained the authority and responsibility for wildland fire is greatly distributed across different agencies and jurisdictions of all levels of the government. Different missions, mandates, values, capacities, budgets and cultures, on top of different land ownership, including on private lands, has created a fragmented landscape, according to Cheng. 

“Now, there is a lack of policies and institutional framework to make a collection of action happen,” Cheng stated. 

He continued to share how the past is a poor guide for the future in terms of wildfire management. 

“How we have managed in the past and what we understand about how fire has operated ecologically is insufficient for informing what to do in the future,” Cheng shared. “There is plenty of documented evidence and research now showing recent and forecasted future climate changes are going to increase wildfire frequency, size and severity as well as the length of the fire season.” 

“The ways in which we think about, respond to and manage fire have not been part of a future-forward climate solution policy dialogue thus far,” said Cheng. “We have no frame of reference at this point for policy learning, so the hope is that we can start initiating those conversations.” 

Private land provides opportunities

“Although federal agencies manage a majority of the lands in most western states, private forest and rangeland owners are a really important part of the picture,” said Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University Dr. Emily Jane Davis. “Private lands pose both a potential conservation asset and risk when we think about wildfire across the landscape.” 

While many private landowners might have different management objectives than their neighbors, there also might not be any communication between landowners on two different sides of the fence. Davis noted wildfire might provide opportunities for conservation and a stronger connection across private forests and rangelands in the larger landscape. 

“Wildfire is a manifestation of climate change that is very real for private landowners,” Davis explained. “Wildfire and drought are topics that, depending on the landscape they are located in, are very concerning to them” 

“Many landowners are motivated to thin their forest land to reduce the risk of fire,” she continued. “In doing so, they might also create co-benefits for forest restoration and resiliency and help bring that stand back to better ecological conditions.” 

Davis also noted disasters such as fire motivate landowners to participate in cross-boundary projects and programs, such as the Joint Chief’s Landscape Restoration Program of the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

“There are many landowners in both forest and rangeland settings who recognize the natural and historic role of fire in creating and maintain ecosystems in which they own the land,” said Davis. “They want to use controlled, prescribed fire when safe and effective to actually reduce future wildfire risk.” 

Gathering for collective fire suppression actions in rangeland fire protection associations (RFPAs) has brought together landowners, ranchers and land management agencies who provide fire response training and have also created an environment where all those involved are working for a greater cause. This tends to lessen tensions between groups, according to Davis. 

“Landowner conservation and stewardship programs need to continue to be fully funded,” Davis stated. “We also need to address barriers to the widespread safe implementation of prescribed fire in western states, and although the really substantial issues with liability will have to be addressed by state policy arenas, there is research which suggests there is still outstanding need for training resources and incentives for increasing prescribed fire that could be more deeply supported by federal agency leadership directives.” 

Policy changes needed

Tyson Bertone-Riggs, who works as a policy analyst for the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition, shared the role fire plays in the future of wildland fire management. 

“I think the scientific consensus is there is no future of conservation in the West that doesn’t involve the reintroduction of fire,” he said. “I want to point out this reintroduction of fire is not just a question of conservation value but also of reducing fire risk and fire severity in places we want it to happen.” 

The current policies of federal agencies responsible for fire management are not aligned in a way that promotes the use of fire, according to Bertone-Riggs. He believes the policy challenge lies in building fire management, using fire, into the agencies.  

“Right now there is a significant lack of funding to achieve this kind of fire risk reduction work we need to have,” he explained. “There is an old model that trees equal money, and while that may be true in some locations, it is generally inversely related to the level of fire risk. We should recognize, like any pre-disaster mitigation, this work will require funding.” 

Bertone-Riggs also shared the need for staffing changes within the agencies. 

“We currently have a fire suppression model based essentially on seasonal employment,” he said. “Often, the idea is we have college kids that are there for three months in between school terms. Not only is the fire season longer, but we really have this need to do proactive fire risk reduction work, even when fires aren’t actively burning.” 

“In terms of real opportunities to be expansive in the way we think about policy changes, there is a real opportunity for economic growth and benefit to rural communities,” Bertone-Riggs said. “Unfortunately, when we see disasters, there is more awareness of the problem at hand. I think particularly with climate change, it is harder to ignore this need for policy reform.”

A House Agriculture subcommittee meeting was held Sept. 24, to examine the response and recovery efforts during the 2020 wildfire season. Prior to the meeting, Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) introduced legislation called the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act, H.R. 7978, to help streamline management projects on federal lands and encourage low-value timber use. 

Averi Hales is the editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to roundup@wylr.net.

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