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Managing fire risk in the forests of the U.S. inland Northwest: a classic "wicked problem" in public land policy

Author(s): Matthew S. Carroll, Keith A. Blatner, Patricia J. Cohn, Charles E. Keegan, Todd A. Morgan
Year Published: 2008
Description:

In their classic article published in the Journal of Forestry in 1986, Gerald Allen and Ernest Gould stated that the most daunting problems associated with public forest management have a "wicked" element: "Wicked problems share characteristics. Each can be considered as simply a symptom of some higher order problem-The definition is in the mind of the beholder and how that person chooses to explain the problem determines the scope of the search for a resolution. Furthermore, there is no single correct formulation for a wicked problem, only more or less useful ones (p. 22)." This description seems to fit very well the difficulties associated with managing the increasing risk of wildland fire in much of the western United States. The cause of the current state of affairs is a complex mix of physical, ecological, economic and social developments which occurred during a more than one hundred year period. Proposed steps to improve the current situation involve equally complex dynamics which do not lend themselves to simple linear thinking. Using the Inland Northwest region of the U.S. as a primary example, this paper explores these complex dynamics as they relate to possible improvements and the dilemmas inherent therein. Among the elements of the problem examined include longstanding political polarization over public land management, patterns of residential development in the so called Wildland-Urban Interface, a longstanding social belief that fire is the "enemy" of the forest, uncertainties concerning tolerance for and health effects of smoke from prescribed forest burning, the economics of utilizing small diameter wood as a byproduct of forest thinning, impacts of forest treatments (or lack thereof) on wildlife habitat and the impacts of controlled and uncontrolled fire on carbon sequestration and release. We conclude that any "solutions" to the problems associated with fire risk involve complex tradeoffs that demand careful scrutiny and public deliberation.

Citation: Carroll, Matthew S.; Blatner, Keith A.; Cohn, Patricia J.; Keegan III, Charles E.; Morgan, Todd. 2008. Managing fire risk in the forests of the U.S. inland Northwest: a classic "wicked problem" in public land policy. In: Armando González-Cabán, technical coordinator. Proceedings of the second international symposium on fire economics, planning, and policy: a global view. PSW-GTR-208. Albany, CA: USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. p. 253-264
Topic(s): Fuels, Fuel Treatments & Effects, Risk, Risk assessment, Wildland Urban Interface
Ecosystem(s): Subalpine wet spruce-fir forest, Subalpine dry spruce-fir forest, Montane wet mixed-conifer forest, Montane dry mixed-conifer forest, Ponderosa pine woodland/savanna
Document Type: Conference Proceedings, Synthesis, Technical Report or White Paper
NRFSN number: 11066
FRAMES RCS number: 12996
Record updated: Mar 5, 2019