Buy the forest, save the town

Community forests are the infrastructure we all need

Like you, I watch the infernos in California or the walls of water in the northeast, with a mix of horror and numbness. I wonder if you, like me, have a sense that today’s 50- or 100-year “events” seem like a new normal. I hope that I am not the only one who reads another climate report and worries that so many more neighborhoods will be in the cross-hairs of nature’s “juiced up” dynamics.

Washington Post photo of the La Tuna Canyon Fire, September 2, 2017

As the smoke clears from the Camp Fire, I remember another recent blaze that brought so much unexpected destruction. On November 27, 2016, a small fire started on a mountain top in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. The next day, that small fire was fueled by historically dry conditions and fanned by very high winds into a 16,000-acre wildfire that roared through and around Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The fire claimed 14 lives, destroyed more than 2,500 structures (mostly homes) and damaged over $500M of property. The fire was especially destructive in the wildland-urban interface, in the “exurban” neighborhoods that were neither rural nor urban, where homes were built across Gatlinburg’s neighboring foothills. Compare the destruction in the foothills with the comparative survival of the downtown:

Screen capture from ESRI’s “Sevier County Structure Status”

The southeastern United States never had to worry much about wildfire the way the western states do; the wet climate did the firefighting for us. The U.S. Forest Service’s 2012 analysis of the future of southern United States forest explains how today’s (and tomorrow’s) hotter and drier climate of the southeast will increase the kinds of catastrophic wildfire conditions that led to that terrible day in Gatlinburg in 2016. And yet the region’s population continues to grow quickly, where land-use standards are low and new home construction in hazardous areas is often acceptable.

Gatlinburg’s neighbor Dolly Parton made a generous gift to everyone who lost their homes, but Dolly can’t do this everywhere across America! The people of towns like Gatlinburg can take charge of their own situation: they can plan where new single-family home construction will be the most hazardous, and they can acquire those forests themselves. Locally-owned community forests, managed for forest health and wildfire risk reduction, can also generate revenue from timber sales while creating new outdoor recreation centers for mountain bikers, trail runners, and dog walkers.

The 1,400-acre community forest in Milan, New Hampshire generates enough timber revenue to fund its lone elementary school which teaches 140 kids each year. The tourism from the community forest in Ascutney, Vermont keeps the town open for business. As the breakdown in climate continues, public ownership ensures that no at-risk homes will ever be built on those lands. These small towns will never have to respond to fire emergencies in these beautiful remote locations.

Incredible story of what a community forest did for one small town in Vermont (from The Trust for Public Land)

In the “500-year” floods that swamped Rhode Island in 2010, the urbanized landscape of the Pawtuxet River drowned under several feet of water for five days, while only 30 miles away the riverside town of Westerly at the mouth of the mostly-conserved Pawcatuck River saw little flooding. In 2011, Hurricane Irene unleashed historic rainfall over two days in Vermont, wiping out bridges, and washing away whole neighborhoods: property damage in Vermont from Irene totaled $733M.

Community forests and other locally-owned public land can keep floodwaters away from where we live. The town of Middlebury, Vermont was protected by the devastation of Irene’s floods thanks to wetlands protected upstream which saved $1.9M worth of property (according to a 2015 study). The Trust for Public Land recently concluded that every dollar spent to protect land generates nine dollars in benefits to Vermont’s economy. Nationally, a 2012 study showed that communities in FEMA’s Community Rating System program that maximize their open space protection save $946k in flood insurance premiums per community, per year.

Schematic for flood mitigation services by the Upper Otter Creek Wetlands above Middlebury, Vermont borrowed from K.B. Watson, et al. / Ecological Economics 130 (2016) 16–24

Imagine a community forest (or farm! or wildlife/wetland area!) in every town. Imagine a place you can stop by after work on a warm spring day, meeting your neighbors to walk your dogs. Imagine a mountain bike ride up and down forest roads in a charity race with people you haven’t seen all winter. Imagine a quiet afternoon stroll broken only by your kids’ squeal of excitement as frogs leap from the bank into the community-owned stream or pond. Imagine people from all walks of life in your town coming together to make this place a reality. This is the kind of future that community forests and locally-owned public land will bring you, while quietly protecting you and your neighborhood from the wild fluctuations of a changing climate.

As a new Congress comes to Washington, D.C. next month, and as new governors, mayors, county commissioners and other leaders start their jobs, it’s time to apply a tried-and-true approach to protecting and enhancing our rural neighborhoods: let’s re-invest our conservation funding into locally-owned and managed lands of all types. This rural infrastructure is as urgent as broadband, housing, and health care and can often be created together. Think of wireless-enabled ball fields, conservation-oriented housing developments, and increased physical activity levels.

Three billion dollars into the U.S. Forest Service’s Community Forest Program (with some modification to the enabling legislation) would ensure every county in America could create at least one important community forest, farm, or wetland in 2019. This investment is less than one percent of the federal budget. It would attract billions more in private, state, and local funding and it would provide tens of billions of dollars in benefits forever to the thousands of rural communities who do so much of the hard work to feed, warm, and build the rest of the country. Let’s do this, before we get more bad news from a rural neighborhood in climate’s cross-hairs.