“We are nested in this belief and this assumption that we can domesticate wildfires to the point where we will be safe from it. The reality is that with climate change and the scale, the pace, and the severity with which wildfires are currently burning, that’s no longer an assumption we can safely rest upon,” says Kimiko Barrett, lead wildfire researcher at the nonprofit Headwaters Economics.
Let’s stipulate that wildfires are part of the ecosystem in the western United States. They are nature’s way of clearing the forest floor and nourishing the soil. But after decades of misguided policy that pushed for extinguishing fires at first spark, combined with a warming, drier climate, wildfires have grown catastrophically in size, intensity and complexity.
According to a report by the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project, a new ten-unit campground costs anywhere from $400,000 to $1 million to construct, and a single vault toilet costs $20,000 to install—not including annual maintenance. Agencies like the Forest Service simply don’t have the budget or staff for such improvements, but with a new Democrat-controlled Congress in Washington, D.C., they could.
2020 became one of worst fire years on record with more than 10 million acres (4 million hectares) of land scorched and almost 18,000 houses and other structures destroyed, according to federal data and the research group Headwaters Economics.
The research group Headwaters Economics compiled a chart of Gallatin County data titled “All Sectors of the Economy Are Growing Except Farm.”
Like other mountainous regions in the state, affordable housing is scarce in Gunnison County, which includes the towns of Gunnison and Crested Butte. For years, prices have ballooned, and supply has not kept up with demand. Gunnison County’s workers put 32% of their income on average toward rent, compared to 19% in non-tourism-based economies, according to an analysis by Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research firm.
We’re going to have to start to think about all of those climatic hazards in a new way. We’ve all started to wear seatbelts because we just know it’s better for our safety. At some point, we’ll have to start doing that with climactic hazards. We’ll just have to start integrating it into our daily livelihoods because it’s going to reduce risk to ourselves and those around us.
Visitors have flocked to Western communities during the pandemic to soak in the region’s public lands. But how many visitors? While the National Park Service closely monitors visitation, national forests and the Bureau of Land Management lack an efficient and cost-effective way to measure foot traffic.
Yet that kind of information, along with data on state and local lands, is crucial for Western communities trying to balance the good and the bad of increased visitation, said Megan Lawson, an economist at Headwaters Economics. The nonpartisan research group that studies community development recently released a report recommending digital tools to collect such data.
Researchers say that new, more accurate data-collection methods are needed to better inform public lands managers and policymakers of the recreation-based usage of trails as an economic development tool.
Megan Lawson, of Headwaters Economics, a think-tank in Bozeman, says the covid-19 crisis has shown that the mythology of the West is alive and well. When people are thinking of breathing room, she says, “they picture these very iconic landscapes.”
Last year, wildfires destroyed fewer than 1,000 homes and other buildings in Colorado, compared with 3,800 in Oregon and more than 14,000 in California. Since 2005, wildfires have destroyed 89,000 buildings around the West, according to a Headwaters Economics analysis.
A new report could help you analyze wildfire risks to homes in your state, county or community. The nonprofit Headwaters Economics put together this new resource, but it uses data from the Montana research company Pyrologix and Forest Service offices (including the Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula).
A new report on outdoor recreation data suggests ways that land managers can use technology to predict usage trends on trails. Montana-based research institute Headwaters Economics proposed five policy recommendations for agencies, recreation managers and advocates in its research, released this month.
These demographic maps are identifying environmental unfairness, engaging communities, and beginning to spur the redesign of government programs to target limited government resources where they can have the greatest impact.
In a November 2020 article published on the Headwaters Economics website outlining the increased destructiveness of wildfires, Barrett wrote “Reporting the number of structures and lives lost to wildfire contextualizes the profound impacts felt by communities.”
A new nationwide tool allows users to examine how vulnerable their communities are to wildfires.
Headwaters Economics, an independent research group in Bozeman, Mont., created the tool with the Forest Service. The report uses data from the Forest Service’s Wildfire Risk to Communities program, the Census Bureau and the U.S. Geological Survey. All are continually updated.
Rasker said Federal Reserve research is highly revered, so any conclusions it makes could help Western communities understand just how much is at stake when it comes to climate change. He said Western states need to consider things like insurance and their communities’ ability to get bonds.
“Whether it’s a preventative project, like something to deal with flooding, or whether it’s parks and open space, or building a new school, is climate change going to affect the bonding capacity of municipalities?” Rasker asked. “I think it will.”
Zoom towns are scattered across the United States, but the most popular ones seem to be small- to mid-sized, amenity-rich communities, with plenty of public land nearby, from Bend, Oregon, to Flagstaff, Arizona, along with a whole bunch of best-place-to-live-list towns. In most cases, their real estate markets were already overheated. But they exploded in the wake of the pandemic’s first wave, driving home prices to astronomical levels and putting homeownership even further out of reach for the typical working-class person.
For decades, Dr. Barrett said, most of the people moving into fire-prone areas were white and well-off. But rising home costs in cities and suburbs are increasingly pushing lower-income and minority families into those areas, she said, and all levels of government need to change their fire policies to reflect that growing economic and racial diversity.
Research by Headwaters Economics shows we’ve been measuring rural growth wrong. As rural counties add population, they can grow out of their rural category and take their economic growth with them. “Rural America is reported as declining in part because we no longer count as Rural those counties that grew into a Metro classification. We are measuring those counties that stay Rural which, by definition, have not grown,” stated the report.