Wildfires Ignite Issues of Land Management and Public Trust in Agencies

The wildfires currently raging in the southwestern United States bring issues of land management into the public eye. Land management actions, such as prescribed fire, grazing, herbicides, felling trees and mowing, can restore native plants and reduce wildfire. However, the public’s view of land management and their trust in land management agencies can pose another obstacle.

Results of a public survey on land management are presented in the May issue of the journal Rangeland Ecology & Management. This survey focuses on rangeland in the Great Basin region, which encompasses large parts of Utah and Nevada and reaches into surrounding states.

Great Basin rangeland, traditionally dominated by sagebrush, is being invaded by nonnative grasses, such as cheatgrass, and woody plants, such as junipers. The effect of this invasion is to alter fire regimes by providing more flammable fuel and to bring about changes in soil fertility and wildlife habitat.

About 70 percent of remaining sagebrush habitat is under federal management, and the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have named restoration of sagebrush lands a top priority. For effective restoration of rangeland ecosystems, the acceptance of specific practices and the confidence of citizens in this region are needed. In the past, these agencies have shown a mixed record of gaining public support for management programs.

In 2006, 1,345 citizens across the Great Basin region completed a survey by mail, offering their perceptions of rangeland health and risks, attitudes toward specific sagebrush management practices, trust in management agencies, and interactions with agency personnel. Overall, the rangeland was rated as moderately healthy, and a substantial number of people recognized the threats that exist to sagebrush habitat.

Differences emerged between urban and rural citizens. When land management issues force trade-offs between economic and environmental values, urban residents favor environmental preservation, showing less concern with economic consequences. Rural residents, who live and work closer to the land, showed more equal consideration of the two sides of these issues. Urban residents were more opposed to the use of herbicides and methods such as chaining to remove trees. Rural residents found grazing and felling trees more acceptable than their urban counterparts.

From these results, land management agencies can take lessons about developing trust through outreach to local citizens. Citizens want interactive communication that allows for give-and-take. Programs that come from local initiatives and help solve local problems are valued, while a top-down national approach is met with skepticism. Overall, urban and rural citizens require different approaches.