Bringing Private Landowners into the Fold: A Day in the Life with Ed Keith
Authors: Ed Keith
Has FAC always been a part of your job duties in your current position?
Yes, I’d say FAC has always been a part of my current job, though we may not have called it that early on. My title, county forester, leads some people to think that I primarily manage Deschutes County’s forests, but really, the focus of my job is assisting private landowners and homeowners with wildfire preparedness.
When you get to work on Monday morning, what are your top priorities for the week?
Monday morning is usually the time I look at my calendar and make sure that I’m ready for the meetings I have scheduled with our external cooperators. FAC initiatives involve working with numerous partners, which calls for purposeful communication and a calendar full of meetings and field visits. I work with a broad range of partners that includes federal and state agencies, local fire departments, community members and private landowners. This week, I’m headed out to a project that has been many years in the making, more on that a little later. I’ll also be checking on the ongoing fuels reduction projects we are conducting in cooperation with a few private landowners. I currently have five contracts for fuels reduction work in different communities throughout the county. One of my main priorities is making sure that I get out to these work sites during the week, so that I can be sure that the work is going according to plan.
Who might you see in person?
One person I can usually count on seeing at some point in the day is Alison Green. Alison is the program director for Project Wildfire, which coordinates the FAC efforts across the county. We work together on several projects, including our county’s Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs), Firewise communities and fuels reduction projects on private land. With seven CWPPs and a desire to keep them up to date, we are constantly working on revisions so that they stay relevant. Currently, we are also organizing visits to the communities that are interested in having a chipping project completed. Those visits will help us decide which communities are prepared to turn their interest into a project. I’m the chair of Project Wildfire’s steering committee, so over the past few months, we have also met several times with the rest of Project Wildfire’s steering committee to capture what we have accomplished over the past five years and to discuss what our direction and priorities will be for the next five years.
Tell us more about one of your projects with a private landowner.
The county is wrapping up one project that has been about eight years in the making. We first identified the project area as a high treatment priority in 2009, while revising a CWPP for Bend. The area is a privately owned 120-acre parcel that is surrounded by high-density development. At first, the landowners didn’t fully recognize the risk that their overgrown vegetation posed to the surrounding subdivisions. Eventually, they accepted that their property needed fuel reduction, but then finding funding was an issue. After a few years, they budgeted for a share of the costs, and we secured grant funding to cover the difference. In the meantime, a wildfire occurred on their property, and although it was contained before causing any structural damage, the event heightened both the landowners’ and the surrounding residents’ sense of urgency. With an increased motivation, we established the scope of work. This required identifying project boundaries, what trees would be removed, and generally how the property would look once the work was complete. It’s important to incorporate the landowner’s objectives with the wildfire risk reduction objectives that we bring to the table, which makes every project somewhat unique. Now that we had the buy-in, the funding and a plan, we’ve moved on to the easy part, getting the work done on the ground. It takes perseverance on everyone’s part to get these projects to the implementation phase, but it is really rewarding to see them completed.
Are you working on any projects that involve a large group of partners?
We currently have several efforts that involve multiple partners. One of those is the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project (DCFP). The DCFP is a collaboration between the Deschutes National Forest and many community organizations and individuals. It is focused on restoring 270,000 acres of forest through thinning and prescribed fire. The DCFP involves people interested in wildlife and water, forest industry professionals, community members, as well as scientists and researchers. The one thing we all have in common is that we care deeply about the forest.
Early on, the DCFP saw a need to build consensus around the importance of forest restoration. Since forming, the group has provided recommendations to Deschutes National Forest regarding the restoration of several forest types. We’re starting to see some of that planning come to fruition through the implementation of multiple projects. It’s been a big investment of time and now those investments are paying dividends. Ultimately these projects are making our communities safer, our forest industry more vibrant and our forests healthier.
When you get back to your desk, what unexpected thing has come up that needs your attention?
It’s pretty common to get back to the office and to need to return a phone call from a community member or landowner that may have a variety of questions. Topics range from contracting opportunities, to tree thinning specifications, to looking for project funding, to requesting a site visit. Sometimes, it is someone I haven’t heard from before, but quite frequently, it’s someone who I’ve been working with over a period of months or years. It generally takes a while to go from talking about fire-adapted concepts to concrete action.
When you need some inspiration, what FAC accomplishment do you relive?
I can think back to several communities where I’ve been involved with fuels reduction and defensible space work that later experienced wildfires. Instead of home loss or injuries, the fires were contained and everyone got to go home. Working in fire-prone areas, your work is eventually tested by fire and those successful outcomes keep you working hard to finish the next project.
Work is over; another long but fulfilling day behind you. What’s next?
Being lucky enough to live in central Oregon means the possibilities are nearly endless. During the week, it might be something as simple as getting outside to enjoy a view of the sunset over the Cascades. If it is the end of the week, I’m likely headed out camping and fishing. I’m addicted to kokanee fishing and can’t seem to get enough of it.
Any closing remarks for our readers?
Truthfully, it takes a lot of cooperation and communication between many people to accomplish fire adapted communities work. Even after focusing on this work for several years, the variety of people I get to work with keeps the job interesting and always presents a new challenge.