The Power of Private Lands
Authors: Emily Hohman
A while back I was walking through a recently completed prescribed burn unit with some colleagues who represented a variety of conservation entities. We were admiring the results — open forest conditions, widely spaced trees — but we were also admiring how close the burn unit was to a community. Managers and partners worked with residents in that community to increase the understanding of the need for managed fire on the landscape. As we talked I pondered the role of private lands in fire management, being that I work entirely with private landowners, including many who are interested in prescribed fire. I was curious what my colleagues thought and asked, “What do you think the role of private lands is in moving the needle on public acceptance of fire management?” The answer surprised me. And it got me thinking.
Look at an ownership map of the United States, and you’ll see the history of politics, land use and settlement written at the intersections of vegetation types and property lines. The East is dominated by private land, with only 6 percent in National Forests. Non-forested areas are almost entirely private. Compare that to the western United States, where 47 percent of forestland is in federal ownership. That’s quite a contrast, but it’s worth noting that 22 percent of western forestland is in private ownership too (and that’s not counting non-forested land); about 81 percent of all land nationwide is privately owned. That’s not an insignificant number. So what is the role of all that private land in conservation, and in fire management in particular?
That day in the woods my colleagues answered me by saying that burning on private land is hard — resources are lacking, landowners aren’t interested, and neighbors would never accept it. I agree … but only partly. Burning on private land is hard. Every landowner has his or her own perspective, concerns and resources. Those with working lands have to balance their livelihood with their ecological management goals, which can create challenging tradeoffs. But, private landowners have the ability to be flexible, nimble and innovative with their management decisions. If they feel it is the right course of action, private landowners can sometimes make decisions that would be unpopular for a government entity to make, like using prescribed fire, and by doing so create space for public partners to move forward. There is often a different tone to the conversation when neighbors talk about land management over morning coffee, in the grocery store, or at their kid’s ball game. Landowners pay attention to what their neighbor does on the other side of the fence — good or bad — and what they see can be more convincing than any workshop or seminar.
In the grasslands of the Great Plains, many landowners have come together to form prescribed burn associations (discussed so well by Lenya Quinn-Davidson in her Science Tuesday: Cowboys and Catalysts post). In the truest sense of neighbors helping neighbors, these individuals are sharing resources to implement prescribed burns that benefit their ranching operations as well as the grassland ecosystem. In that region, where only a small percentage of land is publically owned, having landowners act as strong and active partners in fire management is critical for conservation efforts to have an impact. But, does it have to be a different story elsewhere? What about that 22 percent of private forestland in the West?
In southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, landowners are working to implement prescribed fire. They are requesting technical assistance, funding, equipment, and labor on burn day. They are coming to the table as equal partners, individually or through organizations like the one I represent, seeking collaboration that looks past ownership boundaries to the landscape where the work is needed. Through several collaborative groups active in the region (such as the San Juan Chama Watershed Partnership and the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership, for example), public and private lands are working together to put the principles of the Cohesive Strategy to work on a landscape scale. In some parts of the nation, private landowners are burning as much as, or more than, the public agencies; they have experience and expertise in their regions that are valuable to the wider fire community and cannot be overlooked. Rising water lifts all boats.
Easier said than done, I know. There are always competing priorities and limited resources. But, if implementing prescribed fire on private lands is hard, then it also comes with incredible opportunity. The opportunity to engage communities at a different level, to design burn units that make sense instead of following property lines, to achieve good fire at scale, and to find partners in the very communities fire managers seek to engage. The power of private lands lies in exactly the possibility that private ownership provides — the power to act.