The Line Between Fire Adapted Communities and Fire Resilient Landscapes Isn’t Just Invisible; It Doesn’t Exist
While looking through an old hard drive, I found a homework assignment from an undergraduate silviculture class. The assignment was simple: develop a prescription for a full rotation of an even-aged stand of timber, including intermediate management, harvest and ultimately regeneration. Tools like yield tables and software models made the process straightforward. A stand of trees will always be a stand of trees, and they grow and react to things like competition, insects and disease in a relatively stable and predictable way. But the complexity of real-life forest management greatly shifts once we recognize that people and the built environment are also part of the “landscape.”
In the Lake Tahoe Basin, we recently dissolved our preconceived division between human communities and landscapes. After the passage of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, Lake Tahoe Basin partners created some of the first Community Wildfire Protection Plans in the country, which included a designated wildland-urban interface (WUI) boundary. The WUI started at the edges of private properties in towns and neighborhoods, and it extended outward into forests that are mostly managed by state and federal governments.
When it came time to update the boundaries in 2014, we recognized that in our area, most homes are surrounded by continuous tree cover, fine fuels, abundant flammable shrubs, and ladder fuels. Not only are these homes at risk, but they’re our greatest opportunities for mitigation. We hence redefined our WUI to include the built environment, as we realized that there isn’t a line where fire adapted communities stop and fire resilient landscapes begin. This new perspective has resulted in the prioritization of shaded fuel breaks and defensible space projects in and around communities, across jurisdictions.
A similar shift in perspective is taking place through the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership (Lake Tahoe West). Lake Tahoe West is an interagency initiative of the California Tahoe Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service, California State Parks, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the National Forest Foundation and the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team. Its goal is to restore the resilience of Tahoe’s west-shore forests, watersheds, recreational opportunities and communities to such threats like persistent drought, climate change, overstocked forests and a potential beetle epidemic.
Lake Tahoe West integrates scientists, managers and community stakeholders into designing landscape-scale restoration projects. Our team recently completed a landscape resilience assessment. Critically, the assessment recognizes that the built environment and the humans within it are intrinsic parts of that landscape.
We realized that there isn’t a line where fire adapted communities stop and fire resilient landscapes begin.
Resilience has many definitions, but Lake Tahoe West defines it as the “capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks” (Walker, 2004). With Lake Tahoe West’s expanded definition of landscape, ecological integrity is considered to be as important as the values and services that the landscape provides to the human community.
The team recently worked with stakeholder groups to identify landscape variables and indicators that are critical for both ecological and human community function. We developed indicators not only for ecosystems but also for recreation, public health and community safety. The social and ecological indicators have substantial overlap, and they demonstrate the connected nature of both. For example, several canyons were later identified as priority restoration projects that would improve both ecosystem function and public safety.
We recognized that residents depend on this ecosystem for its recreation opportunities (and associated economy), clean water, and health benefits as much as they rely on their homes. As we move forward in developing strategies for long-term restoration, this resilience assessment is providing a framework for prioritization, communication and science integration. Even though it wasn’t as simple as a silviculture assignment, it was an important step toward achieving our vision of resilient landscapes.