New Report Reveals Wildfire is Not Just a Public Lands Issue

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Report from the American Forest Foundation shows Western public water supply at risk due to catastrophic wildfire threat on private and family land; owners motivated to take action

top view of a burned water

Photo courtesy of USFS Chris Stewart

“The four-year drought, plus a record-breaking wildfire season has made protecting clean water an urgent and pressing problem in the West,” said Tom Martin, President and CEO of the American Forest Foundation.

Amid record drought and a record wildfire season in the West, the American Forest Foundation (AFF) today released a new report that reveals private and family landowners offer a solution to helping ensure that clean water in the West is protected from future catastrophic wildfires.

The report Western Water Threatened by Wildfire: It’s Not Just a Public Lands Issue, shows that across 11 Western states, 40 percent, or 13.5 million acres, of the forests and other lands that help protect clean water and that are at a high risk of catastrophic wildfire are private and family-owned.

In addition to revealing this new information, the report also includes findings from a West-wide survey of family landowners that show these landowners want to do the right thing and are motivated to take action that will reduce the risk of wildfire and help protect clean water in their forests. However, what prevents most, is the high cost of implementing management actions.

The report also includes a series of recommendations to help landowners overcome this obstacle, including increased engagement and outreach to private and family landowners to help provide both financial and technical help, policy solutions that fix how wildfire is budgeted for at the federal level and that encourage cross-boundary action, and increased market opportunities to utilize private sector strategies to reduce costs of management actions.

“The four-year drought, plus a record-breaking wildfire season has made protecting clean water an urgent and pressing problem in the West,” said Tom Martin, President and CEO of the American Forest Foundation. “Private and family landowners are ready to act and now, and we need to do everything possible to empower them to ensure that wildfires don’t hurt this limited resource that is vital to all Americans.”

Approximately 64 million Westerners depend on surface water that comes from forests and other lands for their clean drinking water. These lands store water, replenish streams and rivers, and filter pollutants from the water. When catastrophic wildfires burn these lands, they bake the ground, destroying this natural storage and filtration system and creating a hard-packed layer. This causes soil, debris and other pollutants to runoff during the next rain storm, which compromises water quality. Protecting this clean water supply requires action to reduce wildfire risks on public, private, and family lands.    

“Today’s report underscores the urgent need for action to address the runaway growth of fire suppression costs, which continues to erode the Forest Service’s capacity to mobilize resources to reduce fire risk and restore the health and resiliency of the nation’s forests so that we can prevent fires in the first place,” USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie said. “The most important step Congress can take to confront the ever-increasing percentage of the Forest Service budget dedicated to wildfire is to pass the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.”

“Being forest stewards and responsible landowners is very important to forest owners like myself,” said Scott Hayes, a woodland owner near Forest Grove, west of Portland. ”We want to protect our families, our homes, our property and the natural resources like clean water that make Oregon so special. We do what we can, but many need financial and technical support to implement good forest management.”

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The American Forest Foundation (AFF) works on the ground with families, teachers and elected officials to promote stewardship and protect our nation’s forest heritage. A commitment to the next generation unites our nationwide network of forest owners and teachers working to keep our forests healthy and our children well-prepared for the future they will inherit.

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Elizabeth Bender
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