Fighting Fire: Private Land Conservation and Wildfires

Wildfire is a growing concern in the west. Many in Bozeman consider August a 5th season, smoke season. While wildfire certainly creates unpleasant skies for our outdoor activities, it is natural and has been a part of our ecosystems in the west forever. Things are different these days. In the west, wildfires are bigger, more damaging, more dangerous, and more expensive than ever before. This shift is caused in part by a warming climate, a history of fire exclusion policies, and more development in fire prone areas.

Voluntary private land conservation is a tool for wildfire management. Land use planning, such as where and how we design our communities and our structures, is key to reducing the effects that wildfires have on communities. Because many conservation easements  protect critical wildlife habitat, a number of GVLT’s conserved properties lie in the foothills of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Undeveloped conserved land and open space can serve as a buffer between the forest and communities, protecting homes and neighborhoods.  This buffer between communities and public land can also provide  space for a fire to be managed for ecological benefits. Conservation easements are a land use planning tool that keep certain parts of our valley, such as foothills and forested areas, undeveloped.  Development is then focused in areas with lower wildfire risk and closer to the urban centers. This matters to us all as taxpayers who will pay less to defend homes from wildfires that are built in high risk, fire prone areas.

Last year, the Black Butte Ranch, a 480 acre GVLT conserved property in Gallatin Canyon south of Big Sky, was threatened by the Bacon Rind Fire. The conservation easement was established by the Patten family, long time friends and volunteers of GVLT, in 1997 to protect wildlife such as bear, moose, elk, wolf, birds and many native fish.  The low intensity fire was determined to be a ‘friendly fire’, improving ecosystem function. The Patten family and the Black Butte Ranch was prepared through ongoing thoughtful planning. They had created a defensible space around buildings, reducing fuel loads and clearing fire lines. Fire staff from the Custer Gallatin National Forest and Yellowsone National Park managed the fire for ecological benefits. The Patten’s preparedness allowed them to protect their structures and support the agencies’ work to manage the fire for the benefit of the forest. The Billings Gazette wrote a piece about the Black Butte Ranch and the Bacon Rind Fire, mentioning the fire “will be good for animals like deer and elk who dine on the new growth that springs to life in the ashes of a fire’s nutrient-enriched soil”.

Healthy and resilient forests require occasional management. Private land conservation is a tool to help public agencies thoughtfully manage wildfires for forest health and improved wildlife habitat.

Further reading:

Our friends at Headwaters Economics have compiled research on the impact of land use planning on reducing wildfire risk.  

The Land Trust Alliance recently published an article, ‘Unwelcome Arrivals’, about how land trusts across the country are dealing with unhealthy forests by promoting resiliency and management. 

Header photo by Billings Gazette, Custer Gallatin National Forest