Wildfires won’t stop at the edge of public land — sustainability policy shouldn’t either

Nearly 145 million acres of land are at a high risk of catastrophic wildfireacross the West thanks to the overwhelming insect epidemic, drought, decades of fire suppression and years of lack of management of our forests.

This statistic is sure to come up in Tuesday’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing on restoring watersheds and large landscapes. The committee plans to discuss collaborative initiatives between state and federal partners to help restore forests back to health in order to protect our forest resources, watersheds and communities.

We agree, collaboration is key if restoration is to happen across a forested landscape. In order to truly see results, a missing piece of the puzzle must be included in this collaboration — private and family owned land.


Most think of the West as great swaths of public land. But ownership of forests is more of a checkerboard, with federal and state lands neighboring private and family-owned lands. In fact, more than one-third of forests across rural America are collectively owned by private and family owners, often in small 50-acre tracts.

This ownership pattern makes management of forests more complex. Some of the major benefits we manage, flowing clean water along with migrating and long-range wildlife, won’t adhere to property lines. The same goes for the major threats, such as fire and pests — these don’t respect public-private boundaries either.  Therefore, treatment of forests cannot occur solely on federal and state lands — instead a public-private shared steward approach must be taken.

The good thing is family forest owners care about the land and want to do what’s right — both for themselves and the greater good of America’s natural resources. What prevents most from taking action is a lack of technical expertise and the high cost of conducting forest management. For example, to reduce the fuel load of one acre of forest land in the West costs roughly $2,500. These barriers can be addressed with a helping hand from foresters, technical assistance and federal support.

What’s more, including family forest owners, and providing them support, is already taking place and achieving results. Take for example, a new initiative known as the Golden Crown Stewardship Initiative around the Lewis and Clark and Flathead National Forests watershed designed to protect the watershed from the risk of severe fire. The watershed serves an agricultural region known for its wheat production and Great Falls, the state’s third largest city.

Together the American Forest Foundation and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation are connecting with family forest owners who own nearly 31,000 acres of land within the watershed in and around the federal lands. The initiative is providing technical and financial support to landowners for fuels reduction, thanks to support from the U.S. Forest Service and the state — who are also conducting restoration on adjacent federal lands.

Programs such as this are successful because they focus on managing the entire landscape instead of just the tracts of land managed by the federal government. Similar landscape-wide, public-private programs are successfully increasing bird habitat in Vermont, restoring longleaf pine in Alabama and increasing sustainable wood supplies in Arkansas.

In order to encourage more of these true landscape-scale initiatives, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee should tackle these initiatives tomorrow and throw support behind the Empowering State Forestry to Improve Forest Health Act. The bill, introduced by Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) would encourage landscape scale restoration across federal, state, and adjacent private lands, and would direct existing funding and landowner cost-share assistance to these cross-boundary projects.

Already there are family forest champions on the committee. With more, true results on forest restoration is possible.