CORVALLIS, Ore. - Improved communications and relationship building at the local level may offer at least a partial solution to the complex fire management and fuel buildup issues in western forests, according to experts at Oregon State University. Success stories in this arena offer lessons for others.
To help bring these lessons and techniques to a much broader audience, forest social scientists at OSU have produced a free training video and brochure to aid land managers, interest groups and the public in creating more effective citizen-agency partnerships - an attempt to replace traditional conflicts with communication and cooperation.
"It's been clear for a while now that some of the problems that always seem to end up in court at a state or national level can actually have solutions at a local level," said Bruce Shindler, a professor in the OSU Department of Forest Resources. "And these solutions seem to have a lot more to do with trust, personal relationships and communication than they do with forest science or ecology. So what we're trying to do is identify what has worked and help more people use these approaches."
Toward that goal, Shindler and graduate student Ryan Gordon created a 25-minute DVD, "Communication Strategies for Fire Management," and a written supplement, "A Practical Guide to Citizen-Agency Partnerships." Both are free on request, via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
The underlying problems are huge, the scientists say.
"Almost everyone in the West is aware of the critical situations facing many of our forests, which have trees at high density, decades of fire suppression, problems with disease, insect infestations and catastrophic wildfire," Shindler said. "And this is not just a rural or natural resource issue. The National Fire Plan indicates there are 11,000 communities in the West facing serious risks from wildfire."
In recent years, forest researchers and ecologists have developed a fairly broad range of tools to help address these problems - everything from controlled use of fire to thinning, selective herbicides, understory mowing and other approaches. But fuel reduction and land management strategies have often failed when they lack a buy-in from local communities, residents and interest groups, Shindler said.
In studies in eight western states, Shindler has examined how people work together on natural resource issues, what the general public knows, how they feel about agency actions and competency, and many other topics. Mistrust of government agencies is often high, and the recent past has been marked more by failed initiatives and courtroom combat than active programs to restore forest health.
"The scientific knowledge base about fuel reduction and land management has improved dramatically and we're still learning more all the time," Shindler said. "But the problem is not that simple. We find success when the local community is involved in fire plans from the beginning, feels they are part of the solution, where relationships are built, and people understand the complexity of the issues."
Three success stories where that has actually occurred are outlined in the new OSU video, from case studies on the Sisters Ranger District in the Central Oregon Cascade Range; the "Seven Basins" area near Rogue River in Southern Oregon; and at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park.
The advances made near Sisters, Ore., are particularly interesting. A local interest group called Friends of the Metolius has worked with Forest Service officials in intensive public meetings and outreach efforts. Local residents even contributed about $35,000 to set up demonstration sites, where people can see the results of prescribed fire, thinning, mowing and other forest treatments. Local leaders helped organize tours after a recent fire in the nearby Cascade Range. A bus driver volunteered her time to help take dozens of affected residents into the burned areas and agency resource specialists led discussions about the effects of the fire. And a 14,000-acre land management plan with many progressive features has been largely embraced by everyone from agency officials to community leaders and environmental interest groups.
In Southern Oregon, the OSU Extension Service also became involved with local citizens, and the results again look promising - small groups of involved people, out in the woods, discussing the issues and becoming part of the solution.
These "bottom-up" approaches, Shindler said, are almost the opposite of top-down leadership by high government or agency officials. The process is grass roots, and it seems to work.
"I knew it was going to take a lot of personal commitment on my part to build relationships and trust," said Bill Anthony, district ranger on the Sisters Ranger District. "That only comes from spending time with people, interacting with them, sitting down in the middle of them."
When officials realize the problems are as much about trust and relationships as they are about science and land management techniques, the door is often open to progress, Shindler said.
"It's not always easy," he said. "These are fire managers, not public relations professionals. But that's what our new video and support materials are about, to help show more people what has worked elsewhere and might also work in their communities. We hope more people can take advantage of it."