Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Western Water: It's Not Just a Public Lands Issue

Report cover. Photo by Chris Stewart, USFS. 
Water is the arid West's most precious and vulnerable resource.  In order to protect clean water, it is vital to protect the forested ecosystems that play a critical role in capturing, filtering and storing this resource. Today's severe wildfires pose a threat to our drinking water.

While the West is a checkerboard of different land ownerships, public lands dominate the landscape.Yet, fire does not respect the jurisdictional lines we draw on a map. In a first-of-its-kind spatial assessment conducted across 11 Western states, the American Forest Foundation brings new light and answers to these key questions: Who owns the forests at greatest risk of wildfire? How much of these forests at high risk of fire overlap with important water supply watersheds? How much of this risk is borne by private non-industrial landowners?

Of the 34 million acres across the West both at high fire risk and in watersheds of important water supplies, more than 13.5 million acres fall on private and family lands, 3.5 million of which are owned by family forest owners. In some states, these private and family landowners own more lands at risk in key watersheds than the federal government.

The clear conclusion is fire in the West is not exclusively a public lands problem. Understanding the distribution of risk can and should inform the strategies and approaches to mitigating that risk, particularly in areas where a critical public good such as water is implicated.  

"Looking ahead, greater attention must be given to action not only on private and family lands as this report suggests, but also to partnerships that work across public and private land boundaries. There are thousands of family forest owners eager to become part of the solution by restoring Western forests to more healthy conditions, which reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire, which in turn helps protect clean drinking water. There is need and opportunity for federal and state agencies, universities, national and local non- profit organizations to invest and work in partnerships to engage private and family landowners to complement the forest resilience work of their neighbors, whether public or private. Coordination and collaboration across jurisdictions has never been as important. "

Read full report here

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