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Climate & Energy
Book Review: Living Wild
Char Miller

Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge
By Lincoln Bramwell, with foreword by William Cronon
University of Washington Press, 2014. 344 pp. $34.95.

Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service, called the phenomenon “sprawling into danger.” Most federal land-management agencies use the clunky term “wildland-urban interface” to identify the terrain into which millions of Americans have set up house since the mid-20th century—their teeming presence has deeply complicated the stewardship of our national forests, grasslands, parks, and refuges. But what does it mean to live on the metropolitan edge, within this apparently dangerous interface?

A series of unsettling answers to that question emerge in Lincoln Bramwell’s marvelous new book, Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge (University of Washington Press, 2014). Key to its claims is Bramwell’s coining of the term Wilderburbs to define this contested landscape. These “clusters of homes on mountain slopes and ridges that lay within commuting distance of cities and town centers” come with a set of inherent tensions. For even as well-heeled residents have flocked to wild settings on the outskirts of Albuquerque, Denver, Salt Lake City, or San Francisco, reveling in the natural beauty outside their plate-glass windows, luxuriating in their abodes’ upscale amenities, and banking on a steady increase in their property values, these developments have disrupted the very landscapes their residents have rushed to embrace. Their lives have been disrupted in turn.

Lincoln Bramwell, WilderburbsBramwell, the US Forest Service’s Chief Historian, gained an inkling of this story’s complexity while fighting fires across the west for the better part of the 1990s. At the beginning of his time on the line, firefighting strategies were relatively straightforward—he and his colleagues would “hike up behind the blaze and try to coax like cowpokes on a cattle drive up to the top of the ridge, hill, or mountainside so it could run out of fuel.” But as more and more subdivisions were built into these high and remote grounds, popping up “like mushrooms after a nice soaking rain,” firefighting tactics shifted. They did so because “the public urged fire officials to drop us into the fire’s path to make heroic stands in front of insured and evacuated houses.”

Intensifying the firefighters’ peril is what appears to be a new cultural response to nature itself. Wilderburbs are nestled into the surrounding, fire-adapted ecosystems to enhance homeowners’ encounter with the wild. Yet their love of this land (and their privileged place in it) also sparked some odd behaviors. Including the time that a homeowner yelled at a chainsaw wielding Bramwell to stop clearing a defensible perimeter around her house as a wildfire blew close.However flammable the bushes that had become entangled with her shake-shingle roof and eaves, they represented nature, her nature. She could not give up that vision even if it meant losing her home.

This was not a unique occurrence, and one of the best aspects of Wilderburbs is the careful way it weaves together site-specific details with the larger patterns that these particulars reveal. Framed around four case studies—Foresta, California; Colorado’s Burland Ranchettes; Utah’s Snyderville Basin; and Paa-Ko Communities in New Mexico—Bramwell explores the emblematic issues these developments evoke. Despite differences in how they were constructed, for example, these subdivisions rearranged land-use patterns in their home counties. Fifty years ago, rural economies had revolved around ranching, farming, and/or the extraction of natural resources such as timber and minerals. The arrival of wilderburbs and their occupants signaled a significant shift to a service economy built around tourism and housing starts.

These new residential environs reflect as well the increased pressures that a growing population can have on local water supplies. Given that much of the American west is arid, the creation of water-intensive subdivisions has had a worrying impact on groundwater supplies, made all the more worrisome given how a changing climate is expected to decrease levels of precipitation across the 21st century. If there is not enough water to flush toilets, run dishwaters, or irrigate lawns, the allure of the wilderburb will diminish considerably.

Then there are the close encounters with endemic flora and fauna. People may have moved into the wild, but they are not always thrilled when bears upend their garbage cans, take a cool dip in their pools, or ransack kitchens. Coyotes no doubt are cute, but should your cat or Chihuahua go missing, then their eradication suddenly seems like a good idea. Moose seem sacred right up until that moment when your car collides with one of those rock-solid quadrupeds. The increase in calls to county and state wildlife departments to remove these and other large mammals from their habitat reflects the tension that exists between the idealized natural world wilderburbs promote and the much more messy reality their inhabitants occupy.

Fire brings these contradictions and paradoxes into sharp focus, and Bramwell’s chapter on this subject is compelling. Even as it sketches out the familiar story of the evolution of firefighting on western public lands, it builds an important case for the decided impact that wilderburbs have had on how fires start, why and when they are fought, and at what price. These communities have also become media sensations, and their precarious siting frames our imagination of fire’s place in the land: every conflagration’s news cycle comes replete with breathtaking images of swirling flames sweeping toward McMansions crowning ridgelines, valiant if weary firefighters, Pulaskis in hand, battling these infernos, and the charred aftermath--smoldering structures, torched vehicles, blackened dreams.

Bramwell, drawing on his insights as a firefighter and historian, troubles this hyped narration. “People want to live in a wilderness,” he observes, “yet they do not want a truly dynamic ecosystem that constantly changes through natural processes such as fire.” As these residents have learned, often reluctantly and sometimes only partially, is that what they desire is in constant negotiation with what nature allows, how it responds, and what it takes. That’s a life lesson for us all, wherever we live.

Char Miller, a University Fellow of the Pinchot Institute, is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, CA.
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