I used to work as a wildland firefighter. I spent four years with the Forest Service doing that, and I’ve always maintained an interest in policy and developments in the wildfire realm. I happened to learn a couple interesting things last year.
One was, I found a report that Headwaters Economics put out, saying that land use planning could probably be the most effective tool for preventing home losses in the wildland urban interface and maybe even more so than logging, which is frequently cited as a measure to mitigate severe wildfire.
Ray Rasker, who has researched wildfire for more than a decade as the executive director of Bozeman-based nonprofit Headwaters Economics, makes a bold claim about wildfire and its human impacts.
“We don’t have a forest fire problem, we have a home ignition problem,” he said. “As soon as you come to that realization, it changes your view on wildfire.”
Within that understanding, Rasker sees an opportunity for relief. If communities across the U.S. can become better adapted to wildfire by using preventative measures to reduce home losses, the thinking goes, they’ll be more resilient in the face of fire.
More than 50% of local residents spend a third or more of their income on rent, according to data from Headwaters Economics. That number is significantly higher than other tourist and recreation towns that the study examined. In many of these places across the West, government officials and year-round residents are going to extreme measures to attract new employees and keep the community intact.
Like other destinations, Moab is facing an identity crisis: does it cater to the tourists and the wealthy or does it try to salvage its funky vibe that lured desert rats, thrill seekers, artists and immigrants here?
Ever since the end of the last recession, wealthier Americans such as the Nathansons have been moving to small, recreation-focused communities across the West, according to a recent report from the nonprofit organization Headwaters Economics. The influx of new money is transforming once-sleepy logging or ranching towns in ways that are both good and bad — revitalizing communities but driving housing costs beyond what’s affordable for many residents.
“Who is benefiting from these booms in recreation communities?” asked Megan Lawson, an economist at Headwaters and author of the study. “Who is not?”
The report found that since the Great Recession rural and semi-rural Western counties with a lot of recreation opportunities — hiking, biking, snowmobiling and skiing — have grown while rural counties without those amenities continue to shrink.
The Mountain West is home to huge swaths of public land. A new web-based tool is now showing people exactly where that land is and which agency is managing it.
“In general, the more public land a county has, the more growth in per capita income, employment and population,” Ray Rasker says.
In urban counties, public lands offer unique recreation opportunities, something Rasker says offers economic benefits. But, urban areas aren’t the only ones to see these positives, he says.
“You have other communities that are very rural and very isolated, and the role that public lands play in those places might be less about recreation and wilderness, and there might be more related to grazing or resource extraction,” he says.
“It’s not all about timber production anymore,” said Mark Haggerty, a researcher at Headwaters Economics who focuses on rural counties and their relationship with federal public lands and local economic development trends.
Haggerty spends much of his time comparing U. S. Forest Service Timber Cut and Sold Reports with Gross Receipts from Commercial Activities. “The first thing to point out on gross receipts is that this revenue earned by the Forest Service for activities on public lands. That’s what becomes the basis for the revenue-sharing payments back to local governments,” Haggerty said.
Haggerty supports of a different approach to addressing the challenges of county payments from commercial activity revenue: creation of a National Resources Trust. The trust would stabilize payment and eliminate the challenge of annual appropriations through Congressional budgeting.
The trust “gets to the idea of using resources to generate wealth. And you can think about wealth in a variety of different ways, not just in the way of creating annual receipts to fund local governments. It could, in theory, if it were to pass, create a real opportunity for communities and federal land managers to work together to re-think the way we’re valuing public land resources, timing extractions, considering market prices, all of that,” Haggerty said.
“You can throw firefighters at the problem as a defensive measure all day long, but the way to solve this problem is through land-use and building codes,” said Doug Green, fire safety manager with the Sister-Camp Sherman Fire District.
Through a coordinated team of land-use planners, foresters, economists and wildfire risk modelers, CPAW, funded by the U.S. Forest Service, integrates land-use planning with fire management to help communities draft a customized plan to reduce wildfire dangers.