It's part of the political landscape of the West: The idea that there's a deep distrust between landowners and the government agencies that manage so much of the Western landscape.
After more than a century, it's an issue that's still playing out, and it's driven events such as the Sagebrush Rebellion or, more recently, the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. (It's even one of the issues in the background of the $1.4 billion timber lawsuit that Linn County is pursuing against the state.)
In rural communities, though, the picture is considerably more nuanced. If you look closely, you can find examples of communities pulling together, of rural Westerners finding common ground with government agencies.
And maybe nothing illuminates that common ground like a big rangeland fire — or, more specifically, the efforts to fight those fires.
In that light, it was encouraging to read about a new study from Oregon State University that looks at the work being done by Rangeland Fire Protection Associations, entities that organize and authorize rancher participation in fighting blazes alongside federal firefighters (typically, in the case of rangeland, the firefighters come from the Bureau of Land Management, which manages about 70% of these lands in the West.) These organizations started forming in the 1960s in eastern Oregon, but really have taken off over the last 20 years. Oregon now has 24 such associations that offer fire protection over 16.5 million acres of land. Idaho's program, which was established in 2013, has nine associations covering nearly 9 million acres.
Historically, long-simmering disputes over federal authority and firefighting strategies and tactics have fueled tensions between agencies and ranchers. But the new study, published recently in the journal Disasters, finds that Rangeland Fire Protection Associations have helped to ease some of those tensions. (And to answer your question: Yes, there is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal named Disasters. You have to appreciate the bluntness of the title.)
The study's lead author, Emily Jane Davis, an assistant professor and Extension specialist in OSU's College of Forestry, said that finding ways to bridge the gap between landowners and firefighting agencies, especially in vast rangeland areas such as the Great Basin of Oregon and Idaho, makes sense: "They're closest to the land. They know it the best."
The associations, she said, "harness the power of local landowners in fire suppression."
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For the study, Davis and colleagues at the University of Oregon, the University of Idaho, and the University of Georgia, dug deep into the work of the associations. They examined public documents, developed case studies of four associations (two in Oregon and two in Idaho) and conducted 59 interviews with leaders from the associations as well as BLM and state officials.
The key question in the interviews, Davis said, was this one: "How did forming the Rangeland Fire Protection Association change things for you?"
The encouraging answer, she said, is that the associations drew generally positive reviews from participants. In some ways, that only makes sense: "Working on the fires together formed bonds," she said. Ranchers on the firelines learned more about fire and how the agencies operate; the agencies, in fact, offer firefighting training to the ranchers. Agencies learned more about the land, especially the terrain where fires are burning. That works out well for everyone.
Everyone has something at stake, especially as wildfires burn with increased intensity throughout the West. Ranchers, who in many cases have leased grazing rights from the BLM, have a stake in protecting their livestock and forage. These lands also tie into other management objectives, such as sage grouse habitat conservation.
There's another factor at work as well, Davis said: People on both sides are neighbors who share a commitment to the lifestyles of rural communities. They meet each other at the grocery store or at community gatherings. "If you're working together on a problem over time," she said, inevitably you feel as if you have skin in the game. (The same sort of relationships explained why residents of Harney County united against the takeover of the Malheur refuge, as Peter Walker showed in his recent book "Sagebrush Collaboration.")
The Rangeland Fire Protection Associations help to focus those community relationships in a real way to address a real issue. Everyone has a reason to come to the table — or, in this case, to gather on the fireline.
"They're cooperating," Davis said, "in a meaningful way on something tangible."