Photo Credit: “Surprisingly, a goshawk nest was discovered behind the homes following a forest thinning treatment. Here, we could all agree on an important point: understory burning would be an ideal tool to improve the habitat while maintaining fuel loadings at a safe level for the adjacent neighborhood. This pushed us all outside of our comfort zones, but it also revealed that wildlife and community fire protection goals are more compatible than may appear at first, especially when viewed at a landscape scale.” Photo by Bettina Arrigoni shared via Flickr Creative Commons


Having served as a community forester for years, I tend to view forest management through a “community wildfire protection and preparation” lens. I confess that sometimes that lens means that wildlife issues seem like a constraint that might limit or delay my project. I’ve certainly had numerous aha’s suggesting the opposite, but one in particular sticks out: observing goshawk (a protected raptor) nests first in a recently thinned forest, and then in another forest that was only a 30-second walk from a neighborhood. I imagined the treatment not having been implemented and a wildfire threatening it all — the nests, the homes, the forest. That’s when it hit me: our human and wildlife communities aren’t competing priorities. In this instance, at least, we all need the same thing: restoration.

We Don’t Have the Full Picture

In 2001, a list of communities at risk from wildfire in the vicinity of federal lands was published in the Federal Register. The notice provided the federal government’s first official definition of the wildland-urban interface (WUI), and it set the stage for the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 and its guidance for creating Community Wildfire Protection Plans. Designation as a “Community at Risk” affects your community’s eligibility for some federal and state assistance funds. Since 2001, most states have added additional communities to the list. According to the National Association of State Foresters, today, there are over 75,000 Communities at Risk in the United States.

Through a recent field day hosted by the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership (or Lake Tahoe West, which I discuss in a previous post), I learned that these lists of at-risk communities may still be woefully incomplete, with countless communities completely missing.

Lake Tahoe West convenes land managers, scientists, conservation groups and community representatives to design landscape-scale restoration projects. The greatest innovations and breakthroughs often arise when diverse disciplines intersect.* In our experience, field visits have proven to be one of our most effective tools to merge disciplines, create shared experiences, and forge relationships that lead to innovative solutions.

*Frans Johansson explores the concept of managing for innovation in his book The Medici Effect.

Large group of people talking together in the forest

Lake Tahoe West partners discussing potential treatments that create more resilient wildlife habitat and protect communities. Credit: Lake Tahoe West

On the aforementioned field day, we explored the intersection of wildlife conservation and community protection goals and created possibilities for landscape restoration that meet both goals. We visited a Protected Activity Center (PAC) for northern goshawk that we had also concluded had a high wildfire risk, equipped with tablets loaded with the data that lead us to that conclusion. (This data was produced by Lake Tahoe West’s Landscape Resilience Assessment; PDF, 11.7MB.) By bringing our assessment data into the field, we were able to build improved connections between our assessment of the landscape and conditions on the ground.

More on PACs

Protected Activity Centers are areas on federal land surrounding smaller areas with known activity regarding sensitive wildlife species. They delineate the “best available habitat” for one or more species. Traditionally, “best available habitat” for goshawk is associated with an aversion to management because these birds need dense forests containing large trees. However, at some point, the density of a forest can ironically jeopardize the habitat in regard to the potential for high-intensity wildfire.

Many of Tahoe’s current forest treatments exclude Protected Activity Centers because of this traditional perspective about preservation being the primary approach in PACs. But in the field, we recognized that strategic forest thinning near the critical habitat area was in fact needed to protect the habitat and provide strengthened wildfire management opportunities. We realized that we can, and must, simultaneously protect neighborhoods and wildlife habitat.

Two field tour participants looking at data on tablet

A local fire district representative and land manager examine overlays of high-quality wildlife habitat and fire risk metrics. Credit: Lake Tahoe West

In the afternoon, we visited another Protected Activity Center — the one I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It was a 30-second walk away from a high-risk neighborhood and along a popular trail network. Surprisingly, a goshawk nest was discovered behind the homes following a forest thinning treatment. Here, we could all agree on an important point: understory burning would be an ideal tool to improve the habitat while keeping fuel loads at a safe level for the adjacent neighborhood. This pushed us all outside of our comfort zones, but it also revealed that wildlife and community fire protection goals are more compatible than may appear at first, especially when viewed at a landscape scale.

Through my work in communities, I’ve gained an intuitive sense of how management affects community well-being. We can ask our communities, and they can answer. We can use social science to check our conceptions of the imagined public. For wildlife, on the other hand, we’re completely dependent on research and monitoring to understand the impacts and benefits of our actions. By creating environments conducive to shared learning, and by valuing the diversity of people, disciplines and ideas, we can start to shift our own filters through which we view problems, and develop breakthrough solutions.

So what’s missing from the nation’s list of Communities at Risk? Ecological communities.

Two graphics of the "triple bottom line;" one with a ven diagram where circles labelled "Economy," "Society" and "Environment" overlap, but not entirely. This version is labelled as "weak sustainability." The other version, labelled "strong sustainability" has nested circles, where the "Economy" circle is encompassed by the "Society" circle which is then encompassed by the "Environment" circle

Ecological communities provide a suite of ecological and cultural functions. They are the foundation for human communities, and a sustainable approach to creating fire adapted communities must recognize how they influence and depend upon biological systems.

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