Photo Credit: “Most landowners want what we want; they just need to be presented with the right opportunity.” Photo by Tim Weaver, Rapid City Fire Department

Last August, I was walking a section of overgrown, city-owned property that’s landlocked by a quilt of private parcels. I was there at the request of a private landowner who was concerned about the dense fuel buildup next to his property. I had heard about this densely wooded, 5.3-acre parcel. It was recently acquired from a nonprofit that wasn’t utilizing it, and was apparently tired of paying the taxes that came with it. It is technically attached to the city’s central park, so the acquisition was a good addition to the park. However, like I said, it also extends into a neighborhood where it is surrounded by private land. The Rapid City Parks Department (the new owners) did not want to deal with it; “no time and impossible to access,” they said. So, since I am “the wildfire mitigation guy” in the city, they tasked me with the responsibility of reducing fuels on this parcel, with the subtext of “good luck.”

Overgrown forest, dense with hazardous fuels

A view of the city parcel in question. Credit: Tim Weaver, Rapid City Fire Department

The lack of access through the park (due to a canyon and its steep terrain) afforded me few options. I have a veteran fuels crew that can do the work; that wasn’t the problem. The problem was what to do with the fuel. Slash piling and burning fuels 80 feet from neighboring houses is not ideal. Also, Rapid City’s mild winters don’t offer many opportunities to burn slash. So, as I was walking on the adjacent private parcel (with permission), thinking of ways to creatively burn piles just outside the kitchen window (and wondering how many winters it will take me), I knew a different solution was in order. Mechanical thinning appeared to be the solution for this particular project, yet that circled me back to the initial barrier: the park didn’t have the public access that I needed for my equipment.

Rapid City Fire Department's Veteran Wildfire Mitigation Crew

Tim Weaver oversees a veteran wildfire mitigation crew in Rapid City. Click on the photo above to read more about his crew’s impressive work. Credit: Tim Weaver, Rapid City Fire Department

Maybe the private landowner and I could help each other out. Saddled with a large piece of property, the landowner’s means to mitigate his own parcel are limited. The cost to mechanically treat his 20 acres is high, even with grant assistance, and regarding piling and burning, he faces my same challenges. In fact, he and I shared many face-to-face visits over the years discussing his options for wildfire mitigation since his property affects many neighbors. Those conversations fostered a mutual bond between us, and I knew that bond resulted in a certain amount of trust. There it was, I thought. He has access; I have the equipment and the means.

So, I put on my deal-making-hat, and an agreement was struck. I gained access for mechanical treatment and speedy fuel removal in exchange for my crew doing the heavy lifting on his property. Although a bit uneasy over the extent of the mitigation, our mutual trust and the chance to help my veteran crew alleviated his concerns enough to strike up a deal. There are concessions on both sides, sure, but in the end, we both get to solve a problem, and build more friendships along the way. That is why we do what we do.

There are concessions on both sides, sure, but in the end, we both get to solve a problem, and build more friendships along the way. That is why we do what we do.

Tim harnessed into a tree

Lieutenant Tim Weaver preparing a tree for removal next to a home in Rapid City. Credit: Rapid City Fire Department

We have timing limitations with regard to mountain pine and pine engraver beetle activity, so the project will start this winter and may extend into next fall. Our standing grant agreement with the Bureau of Land Management for the veteran crew and our city-owned equipment will make the project possible. Using city crews and equipment raises legal concerns for the city, so a simple legal agreement, which outlines the parameters agreed to that August afternoon, was drawn up to alleviate those concerns.

Agreements like these are nothing new, but sometimes they are overlooked or dismissed as a practical solution. I’ve used legal agreements, like Memorandums of Understanding or Joint Powers Agreements, extensively in my quest to alleviate Rapid City’s wildland fire risk. Relationships pave the way for access, and then if needed, these tools solve specific concerns. They can ease the apprehension of landowners who want a say in the mitigation process, and they can be done relatively quickly. The city’s legal department oversees the drafting and execution of these agreements, which is a huge asset. Even when a municipality doesn’t have that kind of support, formal agreements are not the only way to work together; sometimes trust and a one-on-one agreement can be speedy and fruitful.

Most landowners want what we want; they just need to be presented with the right opportunity.

Heavy fuel loading doesn’t always stop at the fence line and private land ownership can complicate things. Extending your hand to private landowners and building relationships and trust may yield a similar agreement for you in the future. These new opportunities can help design fuels reduction projects that make sense, rather than stopping at the property line. Pride in ownership often harbors a sense of responsibility. Most landowners want what we want; they just need to be presented with the right opportunity.

Post by Lieutenant Tim Weaver, Rapid City Fire Department

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