Rural West 2022 identifies key problems and potential solutions related to fire, ranching and water issues
After an interruption to in-person programming due to COVID-19, the Bill Lane Center's Eccles Family Rural West Conference recently returned for its 2022 iteration, convening academics, practitioners and policymakers to exchange ideas and knowledge about rural communities in the American West. Conference organizers, panelists and attendees share a common goal of catalyzing scholarship about and mining solutions to the region’s most urgent problems. This year's conference, "Pressing Climate and Economic Challenges in the Rural West," took place on April 8 and 9 in Pocatello, Idaho, where three engaging panels explored regional issues related to wildfire, the future of ranching, and water.
Wildfire and the Rural West
There are distinctive problems in the rural West that demand the attention of thought leaders; wildfire, ranching and water are arguably among the most salient. With the acceleration of larger and more frequent blazes across the western region, the relevance of the conference's first panel cannot be overstated. "Wildfire and the Rural West" featured three speakers who launched the event with a focus on the ecological, sociopolitical, and policy implications of the growing wildfire threat. Moderating the panel was Craig Thomas, a professor of public policy at the University of Washington, where he teaches and conducts research on collaborative governance and environmental policy.
Using social science to develop sustainable, fire adaptation pathways
Travis Paveglio, a sociologist at the University of Idaho who has been researching wildfire, environmental hazards and natural resource management for over 16 years, opened with a presentation on how communities in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) are adapting to increased wildfire risk. Emphasizing the importance of knowing and understanding the diversity in a population to strategically bring about local adaptation, Paveglio said the first step in creating pathways for change is to analyze community characteristics. From there, wildfire risk reduction programs and approaches can be tailored to the diverse needs of actual people living with the threat. There's not "one magic formula" to get people to adopt wildfire mitigation and adaptation strategies, Paveglio said. Given the nuances of local communities, effective programs have to "work with people where they're at" at a scale that is manageable and sustainable for them, he continued. The pathways to adaptation that Paveglio and his colleagues continue to develop "are combinations of incentives, actions, policies and programs" that preserve community autonomy, taking into account the social complexity of populations along with the environmental hazards they must confront.
Using data to improve fire modeling
While Paveglio offered a sociological approach to the problem of community wildfire adaptation, Alexandra Konings followed with a more technical talk on assessing fire risk in different locations. An ecohydrologist at Stanford, Konings focuses her research in the rural West on understanding the significant effect ecosystem responses to drought have on wildfire risk. Her presentation, "Fire Risk and Live Fuel Moisture Content," demonstrated the power of data in improving the modeling of potential fire hazards.
"Our fire modeling is wildly out of date," Konings noted, which is unfortunate, since one way of mitigating risk is better understanding how a fire would behave in different areas if that fire were to start. The complexity of actual landscapes is not well-represented in current modeling tools, she explained, which were developed in the 70s. Improving the models would mean taking advantage of the "explosion of observational data" that is now available to better predict fire behavior. And some groups are already working on these next-generation fire models, Konings said, giving a shout-out to Pyregence Fire Consortium, which offers short-term forecasts built on new fuel-type satellite data.
Much of Konings' research centers on understanding the factors that influence wildfire spread and severity. One significant factor is live fuel moisture content, or simply how wet the vegetation is that might burn. Current wildfire models don't capture this factor, she shared, and mainly use weather as a predictor.
Ecosystems are more susceptible to fire if vegetation dries out more quickly
Hypothesizing that dry vegetation makes a substantial difference in the likelihood of a wildfire to start, Konings and her colleagues have been engaged in work on a new algorithm using data from the U.S. Forest Service and satellite data to understand what fuel moisture looks like across the western United States. They found that in the event of a possible ignition, dryer vegetation does, in fact, increase the chance of a wildfire by 220%, and that plant-water sensitivity controls wildfire hazard. This work was published in the March 2022 issue of Nature Ecology and Evolution and is significant insofar as current wildfire models barely account for this variability in ecosystem behavior. That is, the actual impacts of the rising wildfire risks and rates have probably been underestimated, Konings concluded.
Trends in California's wildfire-related legislation
Rebecca Miller, a Lane Center affiliate and postdoctoral scholar with the West of Fire project at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, wound up the fire panel with an overview of wildfire public policy trends in California.
With an increase in fire frequency and severity across the state, the California legislature has been paying close attention to wildfires, Miller began, noting that a significant number of recent bills focus on structures destroyed and acres burned. Lawmakers appear to react more to "structures destroyed" than other wildfire outcomes, and this metric is a statistically significant predictor of how many wildfire bills are proposed each session, Miller said. She added that most of the proposed bills addressing wildfire come from districts that have recently experienced one, about half the bills come from rural districts, and bills proposed by Democrats are, unsurprisingly for a blue state, more likely to pass.
Using topic modeling, Miller looked at the content of the bills from 2001-2020, consistently finding that most concern mitigation, or fuels treatment. In the figure above, Miller highlighted that the darkest green bars represent the years 2019-2020, giving the audience a sense of the most salient topics addressed by wildfire legislation in recent years. Other topics include preparedness, response, relief and recovery efforts, and smoke/air pollution. Homeowner's insurance surfaced frequently as well, as Californians are grappling with rising fire insurance costs, Miller noted. She added that the legislature does seem to be paying attention to the most urgent challenges facing Californians with regard to wildfire, and suggested that California's wildfire policies are a sign of what is to come in state legislatures across the American West as a whole.
The Future of Ranching in the West
The conference's second panel turned to ranching, taking up the shifts ranchers face due to a number of ecological and economic challenges in the West. Speakers explored rangeland ecologies, ranching on public lands, and the realities of ranching in the 21st century.
Kicking off the session was owner-operator of Redwing Ranch in Southern Colorado, Christy Wyckoff, whose career as a wildlife ecologist has focused on conservation and ecological land management. Wyckoff moderated the panel and opened by drawing attention to the conflicts between conservation and ranching, which have been "so divisive and so one-sided." This controversy offered important context for the ranching panel and for conversations about the vitality of the rural West in general. As a warming climate is devastating so much of the planet's natural resources, and as meat production is often named a key contributor to climate change, ranchers have been vilified in public discourse in very black and white terms.
Wyckoff urged the audience to remember that "not all grazers are equal. Some cattle graze differently than other breeds. Sheep and goats all have different impacts and roles in the system, and they also have very different histories on the landscape," she said. Moreover, there have been many human disturbances to the land, she emphasized, highlighting how "we've removed the [large mammals] and the predators and fire from the landscape." Grazing practices have become "surrogate" in the face of these disturbances, Wyckoff said, and the grasslands of the West are "disturbance-adapted habitats."
People who live in the city have been gone from the landscape so long they don't understand how it works.
Land practitioner Jim Hagenbarth presented first on the panel, giving an overview of his family's ranch, Hagenbarth Livestock, established in Montana and Idaho in the 1880s. "The cumulative contributions of public land ranchers in the West have knitted the fabric that keeps the holistic management of the working landscape intact. Litigious activists have used emotion and deception to vilify the public land rancher and the livestock in the West," he opened, throwing into relief the ranching/conservation controversy Wyckoff had described in her introduction. "If we've done such a horrible job, why does everyone want what we have?" he added.
Hagenbarth expressed deep respect for the natural world, and for those like his family who spent their whole lives working with their hands, raising livestock and managing rangeland. He also conveyed the increasing disconnect between rural and urban populations, arguing that Americans who live in cities have "been gone from the landscape so long they don't understand how it works."
Grazing can have both positive and negative impacts on the landscape
A second panelist, Briana Swette, presented on how to measure both the positive and negative impacts of grazing on the landscape. Swette operates a small farm in Idaho, and is currently a PhD candidate in the Stanford Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) where she studies rural land use change and governance.
Due to land management and policy factors, grazing on public land has been on the decline since the mid-twentieth century, Swette said, in a presentation titled, "Rangeland Transitions in the High Divide. While reducing grazing is sometimes equated with conservation, removing livestock can lead to surprising and uncertain outcomes, including "decreases in biodiversity, increases in fuel loads for wildland fire, and encroachment of trees and shrubs into mountain meadows." Her recent research showed that reducing grazing did not have a significant role in either promoting or inhibiting conifer encroachment in the mountains of Idaho, and that the vegetation is overall very resilient to grazing. "The role of working landscapes in supporting rural prosperity, protecting against habitat fragmentation, and providing natural climate solutions could be undermined by a loss of ranching livestock grazing," she wrote in her 2021 paper, "Institutional changes drive land use transitions on rangelands: The case of grazing on public lands in the American West." In other words, as Christy Wyckoff noted in her introduction, ranching practices are not black and white. Reduction in grazing could benefit ecosystems, but it could also harm them.
Agreeing with Swette that grazing declines are something to worry about, Karen Launchbaugh gave the final presentation on the ranching panel. Launchbaugh is a professor of rangeland ecology and director of the Rangeland Center at the University of Idaho. She studies how livestock and ranches are viewed in the West, and her talk centered on the importance of rangelands to the region.
"If we're talking about the West we have to talk about rangelands. Rangelands are the fabric of the West, they are the air that we breathe and the soil that we stand on," Launchbaugh began, also noting that she believes rangelands to be a key factor in keeping rural communities alive and connected.
Challenges rangelands are facing, and how ranches can survive
In addressing the challenges rangelands currently face, Launchbaugh shared that increased outdoor recreation poses a problem, as people don't understand the extent to which their activities disturb the ecosystem they are visiting. Also problematic for rangelands is that headlines portray ranchers and grazing as unpopular. Launchbaugh cited survey results indicating that public perception of ranchers is actually far more favorable: most people value farms and ranches, think that sheep and cattle producers are good stewards of the land, and support ranching on public lands, she said.
Though traditional ranching faces a number of hurdles such as rising land costs and an increase in the number of ranches purchased for ambience, recreation and other amenities, Launchbaugh also pointed to some positive trends for the future of ranching. Most notably, ranches provide important ecological services -- things like carbon storage, pollination, wildlife habitat and more.
During a question and answer period, Lane Center Director Bruce Cain asked if perhaps rather than paying to graze on public lands, ranchers should instead be paid for performing these ecological services -- for managing the resources on the land. Jim Hagenbarth said he thinks it's time that happens, and Launchbaugh agreed: "I think we need to quit thinking about a grazing permit where someone pays for the land and start paying people for vegetation management," she said. "I know several people who get paid to graze very strategically for fire breaks, especially in California. And also weed control." She added that she's starting to see people thinking a lot more about using livestock for vegetation management rather than meat.
Water in the Rural West
The third and final panel of the conference explored water in the rural West, particularly in Idaho. Increased drought and aging infrastructure are only two of the many water-related challenges facing the rural American West. Panelists presented on a number of salient topics related to water, such as irrigation, drought management and dams.
Felicia Marcus, currently the William C. Landreth Visiting Fellow at Stanford's Water in the West Program, moderated the panel after giving hope to conference attendees during her keynote address the night prior. Water issues in the West are sobering, and as the region grapples with the driest conditions in recent history it can be difficult for society to face the climate crisis with the resilience needed to forge ahead. But Marcus thinks there's reason to stay the course: We may have "pushed species to the brink of extinction and ecosystems to the brink of collapse," she said, but there are inspiring efforts going on to restore some portion of what's been lost as our societal values have evolved."
We may have pushed species to the brink of extinction and ecosystems to the brink of collapse, but there are inspiring efforts going on to restore some portion of what’s been lost as our societal values have evolved.
Water availability, distribution and use in Idaho
The first speaker on the water panel was Bruce Savage, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Idaho State University, who discussed water availability, distribution and use in Idaho.
Given Idaho's relatively small population (it is the 13th least populous state in the United States) it was surprising when Savage pointed out that the state ranks third in the nation for total water use. It ranks second nationally for irrigation withdrawals, with most of its water used to grow crops (86%). Dams and canals and irrigation systems have been used to capture water, manage the state's supply and allow its agricultural industry to prosper. But as the West contends with a megadrought, like so many other states in the region, Idaho must "figure out how to continue to improve the efficiencies of its irrigation systems," Savage said, "especially as the water supply changes. If we don't figure out how we're going to capture that water, we're going to have some pretty drastic changes coming to us both in the built system and the natural system," he concluded, echoing the message of so many recent climate headlines warning of the dire need for improved water conservation and storage solutions in the West.
Water management in the upper Snake River Basin
Rob Van Kirk, senior scientist with the Henry’s Fork Foundation, a nonprofit conservation organization in Ashton, Idaho, discussed how crops are irrigated in Idaho's Upper Snake River Basin, noting that agriculture is a $10 billion industry and accounts for 95% of the water used in the state. His talk, "Water management in the upper Snake River Basin," covered how water supply, use and administration determine streamflow. He offered the following water-management take-home messages:
The water panel concluded with Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, who started his talk by urging attendees to always be cognizant of the past when thinking about the future of Idaho's natural resources. He said he'd be remiss if he didn't begin his presentation by recognizing that the conference was taking place on the ancestral land of the Shoshone-Bannock peoples, who were subjected to incredible wrongs, and who have often been excluded from the management of so many of the resources discussed by the panelists. He encouraged that Tribes be included in this work.
Hayes went on to review the mission of Idaho Conservation League, which he claimed has been very successful at natural resource protection in spite of being located in a very conservative state.
Showing a map of Idaho's Snake River Watershed, Hayes pointed out the river's very clean eastern side and extremely polluted western side, naming manure from the dairy industry as the culprit: "The Snake River System is not a healthy river system. It is over-appropriated, too much pollution gets into it, and climate change is exacerbating all of it," he warned. And salmon and steelhead are paying the price, being driven to extinction with many of their migratory pathways blocked by dams, he added.
So what solutions did Hayes propose to restore the natural resources and wildlife harmed by the current system and foster climate resilience for the West? He cited proposed legislation by Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson that pushes for strong conservation efforts while maintaining a thriving agricultural economy. He expressed support for Simpson's proposal, and for Biden Administration policies aimed at bringing about climate justice and tribal justice. To Hayes, a sustainable future for Idaho and the West is one where new legislation sets in motion opportunities for individuals and communities to reject the status quo and "fulfill [their] moral and legal obligations to each other."
What can states learn from one another?
Moderator Felicia Marcus closed the water panel by asking what western states might learn from one another about water management. One thing that Idaho did reasonably well, said Rob Van Kirk, was figuring out how to honor tribal water rights. Hayes mentioned that surface water and groundwater are intimately connected, and that he felt California could learn from Idaho about managing surface and groundwater conjunctively. Hayes also said he wished Idaho would learn from other states that "change is coming" - be it social change, climate change or economic change. When David Kennedy, founding co-director of the Bill Lane Center, asked if there is any one state we can look to in the West for water management best practices, Felicia Marcus contended that while each state gets a few things right, no one state gets it all.
Conference goals and next steps
Separated by vast distances, many remote communities in the West are celebrated for their natural beauty and rich heritage while also facing economic, social, political and environmental obstacles, as conference panelists demonstrated. These rural communities often get less attention than they deserve, which is why the Bill Lane Center commenced its Rural West Initiative in the first place. "When you think about how policy happens in the United States, the first part always starts with gathering information and hearing directly from those impacted," said Lane Center Eccles Family Director Bruce Cain at the program's close. Taking shape as the Annual Rural West Conference, the Lane Center's listening campaigns have traveled through seven Western states - Utah, California, Oregon, Montana, New Mexico, Washington and now Idaho - to visit rural towns and exchange ideas with community members, local experts and elected officials. "We can't stop there because information by itself only gets you part of the way," Cain added. "But Stanford and the Lane Center in particular are very interested in partnering," he went on, "bringing what we can to the table to address the distinctive challenges rural communities face." Describing his goals for the conference, Cain elaborated that the Lane Center is eager "to bring the particular strengths of our university and whatever resources we have (and thanks to the Eccles Family, we do have resources) to help the West as a whole."
The Bill Lane Center is very interested in partnering, and in bringing whatever resources we have to address the distinctive challenges rural communities face.
The Rural West Initiative is made possible by generous support from the Spencer F. and Cleone P. Eccles Foundation.