The Forest Service role in fire adapting communities

It’s rare when I run across reporting about the Forest Service taking an official position on development of private land.  Yet the importance of doing so is increasing in a world where more frequent and dangerous wildfires on national forests are affecting human developments.  Here is one of those rare examples.

Grand Targhee Resort in Idaho has proposed adding cabins to its base area of private land, 120 acres surrounded by the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.  This has been controversial, in particular because of concerns about limited access and how the Resort would plan for and respond to wildfire.  The Forest Service has expressed concerns to the county commissioners about the ability to fight wildfires there.

Asked where Targhee fell in his list of wildfire priorities, Jay Pence, Teton Basin District Ranger for the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, said the resort was “towards the upper end.”  “It’s always been that way,” Pence told the Jackson Hole Daily. But, he added, “the new development just adds additional people and additional values at risk.”

To mitigate wildfire risk, Pence asked commissioners to require a few things of Targhee. It would be “helpful,” Pence said, to have “a clear and agreed-to emergency plan for the entire resort” as well as a “loop road” within the resort, and more information about “how the entire development is envisioned to be constructed.”  He also asked for fuels reduction work to be done while the cabins are built.  And Pence asked commissioners to “insist” on a 300-foot setback from the U.S. Forest Service’s property line, hoping to prevent the forest from having to clear vegetation on public land to protect the cabins from fire.

But Pence said any fuels reduction done on the forest will require separate permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act. It would likely require a separate analysis from the ongoing analysis of Targhee’s request to expand its boundaries.

This commercial development of an inholding is kind of an extreme case, but the kinds of things the Forest Service is asking for should be considered in any WUI development.  The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy identifies “fire adapted communities as one of three goals, and “Protecting homes, communities, and other values at risk” as one of the four “broad challenges.  The Forest Service has a “Fire Adapted Communities Program,” which includes “tools of fire adaptation” like, “Wildland urban interface codes and ordinances can define best practices for construction and location of new development in a WUI community …”

I would like to know if there is also any agency guidance for Forest Service land managers for how to promote achieving these desired outcomes.  They need to be able to effectively participate in local planning for private land developments that will become “values at risk” for national forest fire management.  This ranger is doing the right thing, but is there any agency leadership that would encourage more of it?


12 thoughts on “The Forest Service role in fire adapting communities”

  1. I would hope that the types of things that the FS is mentioning here for the ski resort would also be conditions required by the ski resort’s insurance company. If that is not happening, that is a big problem. The FS should not be required to divert scarce funding and resources to doing work to protect a ski resort. There are always tradeoffs – is that the highest priority given the forest health situation on that particular National Forest?

  2. The Forest Service Manual includes language regarding local annexation and zoning. It seems this language would have the opposite effect of getting FS employees involved in local planning to help work toward desired outcomes:

    Forest Service officials must remain neutral to annexation proposals involving NFS land; express neither support nor opposition to such proposals.

    Recognizining the need to engage in local planning processes to meet common goals, maybe it’s time language like this is removed from FS policies?

    • This is interesting language, but annexation does not necessarily create greater risk to national forest resources (it might even promote better planning). However, I agree this language is not helpful and should be reconsidered. (I think there were some efforts to “annex” federal lands as part of the “local control” movement, and the agency was trying to make it clear that this would have no effect of federal land jurisdiction.)

  3. Absolutely not! The last thing the FS needs to engage in is the management of private property. As Ronald Reagan said “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem!”

    FS can advise County planning and zoning, advise private entities, advise County Commissioners, but they should only advise. Did someone mumble “Takings”?

    Good grief, this could strangle the FS and mire it in lawsuits from now on…..

    • Nobody said anything about doing more than advising, and therefore zero relevance of “takings” or lawsuits. This response is typical of the agency’s attitude, though – treating private lands issues like a hot stove, which increases the chance that poorly planned activities on private lands will adversely affect national forest management and its resources. That’s shirking responsibility.

      • “Pence asked commissioners to require (REQUIRE) a few things…”.

        Sounds like a bit of a requirement to me. “Ask the commissioners to consider” is a bit softer to the touch. I stand by my statement; having fought over “Supremacy” and “States Rights”, and of course the good old “Coordination”, in dealing with local governments. It’s better to at least have your head on a swivel, instead of furnishing the chopping block!

        • Pence “asked.”
          The commissioners could “require.” (It’s their decision.)
          This is the kind of thing that proper national guidance could clarify.

          • Exactly, he (Pence) wants to include many items in his “ask to require”! Should not be done, period! Have you ever lost land to the Feds over eminent domain? It’s a legitimate good for all – except for those who lose the land. I have family land that had almost half, and the most productive piece, seized by the Feds to “protect” lands to inundation of a Corps lake. Sure, the valuation was done, but it is never enough. They took way more than any high water could ever cover – no mind, it’s all good.

            Having had a pretty good Fed career, I always balanced that darned “greatest good” concept. It’s a lot easier to see that good when you are not the one losing land/houses/work, etc.

            Keep the Feds out of private land management!

            I’ll be damned if would ever “ask” a commissioner to make life harder on a neighbor!

            • The job of federal officials is not to look after the interests on any private individual. Doing so would put a thumb on the “greatest good” balance. They get paid the big bucks to make hard decisions, not shirk that responsibility. (And eminent domain is not something I have ever encountered in public land management, though you could argue that allowing a pipeline on public lands could be a major contributor to applying eminent domain to the rest of the pipeline on private lands.)

  4. Regardless of Pence’s specific language, the Teton County, Wyoming Board of County Commissioners approved the planned development with only a 10 foot setback from the Forest Service Boundary. The request for a 300 foot setback was tossed out the window by the new County Fire Chief, Stephen Jellie, who said he didn’t know where it came from, maybe “personal opinion” of Ranger Pence?

    In this case, there is a problem with appropriate coordination and cooperation between federal agencies (USFS), local agencies (like Teton County Fire EMS), private land-owners who are also Federal permitees (Targhee Resort). In this particular case, there is also an inability to appropriately coordinate with neighboring Teton County, ID, which contains the only road in and out of the Wyoming resort.

    There is likely no simple solution to this coordination problem, but curious how rules could change that would encourage this type of coordination?

    • Thanks for the local insights. If this question were directed at me, I would suggest “rules” that require managers to represent the national interest in protecting the resources of the national forest. They should make clear the limits of the federal authority, as well as the need to exercise it. I think being able to point to a national policy would strengthen the manager’s position. That may or may not make a difference if there are other ongoing coordination problems, and maybe someone else can offer more thoughts on that.

  5. Democracy in action, good outcome! Now about County Commissioners holding the FS accountable for burning hundreds of homes and tens of thousands of acres of private lands in Rx fire escapes….

    The cut bleeds both ways; we have to be careful of overreach by government officials. Suggestions, closely working with all parties involved, demonstration treatments – that’s how you build collaboratively! I’ve done that, it’s the best of ways……

    We all think we know what’s best for national forest management, might do good to ask the real owners….


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