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Pinchot focus areas:

Climate & Energy
The Growing West
Several trends have been transforming the Western U.S. in recent years. Population in the West grew by 107 percent from 1970 to 2010, compared to 41 percent for the rest of the country.1 With projections suggesting that by 2050 the U.S. could add another 120 million people,2 western counties likely will continue absorbing some of that growth. These growth trends are presenting forest managers and policymakers with new challenges as more and more people are living in closer proximity to western forestlands.

Fundamentally, land-use change and development are caused by population growth, and influenced by incomes, public policies, and other socioeconomic factors. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, population has been growing—with a 76% increase in Washington and a 54% increase in Oregon since 1980. Much of this growth results from in-migration. As other states in the U.S. have experienced their own growth, many western states are viewed as desirable locations for people seeking to re-locate to places offering economic opportunities, less traffic, greater environmental amenities and opportunities for outdoor recreation, among other factors.
Population growth and development in Oregon and Washington

One consequence of these growth trends will be continued fragmentation and loss of forestlands. By one estimate, natural areas are disappearing at a rate equivalent to a football field every 2.5 minutes nationwide.3 A second and related consequence is continued expansion of the wildland-urban interface, which is putting greater numbers of people and homes in proximity to remaining forestlands, and in the cross-hairs of increased wildfire risk brought about by fuel conditions and climate change.

The secondary consequences of current growth trends involve how remaining, more fragmented, private forestlands are managed. Nonindustrial private forest owners, in particular, often vary in their management objectives, with some favoring timber production, and others pursuing other nontimber interests. One study showed that in Oregon and Washington, for example, 20% of nonindustrial forest owners were solely interested in timber production, while 40% had recreation or other nontimber interests, and 40% had both timber and nontimber interests.4 Of forest owners who possessed exclusively recreation and other nontimber interests, they tended to own smaller forestland parcels—averaging about 50 acres compared to 105 acres for landowners having some timber interest —and nontimber owners were half as likely harvest.
Predicted development for Bend, OR vicinity, 2000 to 2040

One reason for this has to do with the economic viability of managing land to produce timber. Doing so favors larger land parcels over smaller land parcels. It likely also has to do with expectations and preferences of in-migrants purchasing those smaller parcels of land, which tend to lean toward securing forest amenities rather than timber production.Whatever the reason, as forest landscapes become more developed, and more fragmented into smaller and smaller land parcels, forest landowners collectively may evolve in their approach to forest management away from timber production and toward amenity protection and other nontimber interests.

The third outcome of population growth and development involves changes in public perceptions and preferences concerning forestland and other open space, and the influence these can have on public support for public policies to address development and related issues. Studies have examined the influence of development and loss of open space on public support for county referenda (or bond measures) to fund local open space protection.5 Open space bond measures are increasingly more likely to be found in places where development has already reduced open space, such that as population and development increase, and open space becomes scarce, people become motivated to protect it.
Predicted likelihood of county open space referenda in the US

What this implies generally is that the public eventually responds to natural resource and conservation when they can see clear evidence of a problem or need. In the case of forestland conservation, much of the political support generally will be in more densely populated and even urban areas—among people who have witnessed themselves the implications of expanding development and a more fragmented landscape.

A similar process may be at work in how people respond to expansion of the wildland-urban interface and the associated wildfire risks to people and homes. Data from a study in central Oregon suggests that homeowners may be fairly savvy about the need to address wildfire risk, and may even be rather accepting of the risks they perceive in the region.6 Seventy-seven percent of central Oregon homeowners conduct defensible space activities around their home to reduce their risk from wildfire. Rather than underestimating their risk, they may tend to overestimate risk, with 68% of homeowners believing a wildfire will occur near their home in the next five years, and 31% believing that such a wildfire likely will damage their home. Such numbers suggest that people can be educated about natural resource issues and they can be persuaded to address issues such as their exposure to wildfire risk. The question is how best to do that if it has not happened already.

For the most part, population growth is inevitable, and outside the influence of forest policymakers and managers. But forest policymakers and managers can influence the manner in which population growth shapes landuse change and development. Land-use policies, at both local and state levels, can be crafted to influence the pace and pattern of forestland development, and expansion of the wildland-urban interface. Public policies also can be crafted to influence how remaining forestlands are managed. For example, financial incentives, and education and technical assistance can be directed toward private forestland owners to assist them in managing remaining forestlands in ways that help to mitigate forest fragmentation, expansion of the wildland-urban interface, and increased wildfire risk. Education programs such as Firewise and assistance tools like the Fire Adapted Communities Network generally are viewed as successful, though as federally funded programs, they remain vulnerable to political trends and budget constraints.

The opportunities for addressing forestland development, fragmentation, and the expansion of the wildland-urban interface at varied governmental jurisdictions (e.g., local, state, federal) is a key factor behind the “all lands” approach to forest management envisioned by the USDA Forest Service. The approach seeks to supplement forest management activities on public lands with complementary activities on private lands, via incentives, education, and technical assistance targeting private landowners, among other policy measures.7 Such “cross-boundary” implementation of forest policy and management and the shared responsibility among local, state, and federal governmental jurisdictions and private landowners for addressing contemporary forest management issues is also embedded within the thinking that produced the “Cohesive Strategy” for fire management. The effectiveness of such a strategy in dealing with continued expansion of the wildland- urban interface is yet to be determined.

Jeff Kline is a U.S. Forest Service Research Forester at the PNW Research Station in Corvallis, Oregon.
Land management agencies use prescribed fire to help reduce wildfire risk to communities and municipal watersheds, to restore natural ecologic processes and functions, and to achieve integrated land-management objectives. Credit US DOI BLM CC BY 2.0

1 Headwaters Economics. 2012. West is best: protected lands promote jobs and higher incomes. https://headwaterseconomics.org/economicdevelopment/ trends-performance/west-isbest- value-of-public-lands/ (last accessed 2- 22-17).
2 Alig, R., S. Stewart, D. Wear, S. Stein, and D. Nowak. 2010. Conversions of forest land: trends, determinants, projections, and policy considerations. In: Pye, J.M.m H.M Rauscher, Y. Sands, D.C. Lee, and J.S. Beatty (tech. eds.). Advances in threat assessment and their application to forest and rangeland management. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-802. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest and Southern Research Stations: 1-26.
3 Center for American Progress. 2016. The DisappearingWest. https://disappearingwest.org/ (last accessed 2-22-17).
4 Kline, J.D., R.J. Alig, and R.L. Johnson. 2000. Fostering the production of nontimber services among forest owners with heterogeneous objectives. Forest Science 46(2):302-311.
5 Kline, J.D. 2006. Public demand for preserving local open space. Society and Natural Resources 19(7):645-659.
6 Olsen, C.S., J.D. Kline, A.A. Ager, K. Olsen, and K. Short. 2017. Examining the influence of biophysical conditions on WUI homeowners’ wildfire risk mitigation activities in fire-prone landscapes. Ecology and Society.
7 Collins, S. and E. Larry. 2007. Caring for our natural assets: an ecosystem services perspective. Gen. Tech. Rep. GTR-PNW- 733. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 11 p.
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