Guest Opinions

Wildfire: Local knowledge can help ... if it can be heard

Campbell Gardett
Campbell Gardett

Kudos to Gov. Butch Otter for choosing Copper Basin as the site of his annual Governor’s Ride. Copper Basin, located between Ketchum and Mackay, is one of Custer County’s rarest gems. With scenery, wildlife, recreation and long-historic grazing, this is the West at its multiple-use best.

The choice of Copper Basin is especially welcome now, when many of us believe this area is at risk of catastrophic fire. Insect kill, access restrictions and budget constraints all combine to raise the fire threat. This is a resource begging for innovative approaches to wildfire management.

Custer County tried one such innovative approach. Our Natural Resources Advisory Committee identified an area where vegetation restoration was sorely needed, fuel buildeup was occurring and access appeared possible.

Our idea was a coordinated project between the county and the Forest Service. The county would provide the resources and meet Forest Service standards. We worked for two years with the Lost River Ranger’s office. We hoped we might create a model for fast-turnaround projects. But in the end, our proposal just disappeared without ceremony into Forest Service headquarters — missing and presumed dead.

Custer County has little in the way of resources. Maybe our expectations were too high and our performance too low. But at the same time, those of us who were involved can say this for certain: True collaboration between Feds and the county is still at the lip-service stage. Everyone may be for it. But action never seems to happen.

I don’t think any of us on either side quite know how to collaborate. Which is too bad, because local knowledge could have real value. Smokey Bear may still say, “Only you can prevent wildfires.” But how can we help if Smokey is tied up teaching sensitivity classes? Or talking with his lawyers? Only Smokey’s wife knows his existential crisis. He comes home, pours a drink and says, “Only who can prevent wildfires?”

What’s eating Smokey? I think genuine power-sharing collaboration is waiting to be born:

▪  In an age of big data, why keep federal land agencies so insulated from broad-scale input?

▪  In a time when the agencies have been turned into combination dictators and pingpong balls, why aren’t we finding ways to share power and accountability across federal, state and local governments?

▪  In a time of questionable-faith lawsuits, why can’t we use rule-based collaboration to power us from agreement to action, instead of accepting legal purgatory?

Wishing and hoping won’t make any of this happen. We need new tools, new rules and new incentives. The pressure needs to come from high and low. And how about some fiscal and technical support from the state for low-resourced counties such as Custer, as per Utah’s Public Lands Policy Office, and its support for county-resource-management plans?

We should be able to make priorities together and then act. Changing the rules on collaboration; sharing the power more evenly; and trumping bad-faith use of the law — those make a sword that could untangle the knot.

Campbell Gardett lives in Mackay. He is a member of Custer County’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee.