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Millions of Americans own forest lands at high risk of wildfire. Protecting her is an arduous task.

The work of foresters like Pettigrew is funded by a mix of federal and state money, with state forestry agencies matching funding from the US Forest Service. But he is one of only two stewardship foresters in Klamath County, covering 6,000 square miles.

“The main driver of our workload is the amount of funds available for landowners to carry out work,” he said. He works with a few dozen landowners at any given time, but estimates his agency could help as many as 1,500 landowners in Klamath County alone.

Oregon has about 75,000 family forest owners and the country as a whole has more than 10 million. Few will do management work without government awareness and assistance. The Forest Service’s most recent survey of private landowners with more than 10 acres of forest found that about 25 percent do no management and only 11 percent have written plans for their property. The report noted that few are even aware of the aid programs.

The federal forest stewardship program’s budget plunged from 2007 to 2014. The wildfire crisis has continued to worsen since then, but the program’s budget has remained essentially stable. Around this time, the cost of firefighting skyrocketed and needed funds were “borrowed” from Forest Stewardship and other programs. Congress halted borrowing starting with the 2020 budget, but even with that fix, the stewardship program still had half the money in 2020 than before its budget started shrinking.

As that budget languished, the amount of federal grants available to help homeowners has grown significantly over the past decade. The largest grant program, the Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program, awarded nearly $150 million to small landowners for forest improvement in the fiscal year. 2021, more than triple what he gave in 2009.

The growth, an Agriculture Department spokesperson said in an email, “is due to state outreach efforts and increased interest from forest owners/managers in access to preservation aid. Even with such an expansion, she said, demand still far exceeds available funds and, on average, the program has to turn down more than two-thirds of all applications it receives.

There are signs in Washington and state capitals that officials recognize the problem and that budget deficits will soon ease.

The Biden administration and various state governments are investing billions of dollars in programs to reduce risk, from community preparedness to ecosystem restoration and fuel reduction.

Administration is new 10-year strategy seeks to massively increase the number of acres that are treated to reduce hazardous fuels and promises to pour money into fire prevention programs.

“Combating wildfire risk and restoring forest health depends on the commitment of private landowners,” said Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry Service. forest. “Landowners who receive a management plan through the program are three times more likely to implement best management practices. »

Raising funding is a good start, experts say. But forest management is a slow process – most plans are designed to take 10 years – and the amount of land to be dealt with still far exceeds the promised funds and manpower capacity.

Darrell Jacobs thins his forests between paid logging jobs.BNC News

For now, although there are many sources of grants and assistance, they can be difficult for landowners to find and competitive to obtain. Jacobs unsuccessfully applied for two state grants this year and is now applying for a federal grant. However, he has already started clearing brush and damaged trees himself, saying he doesn’t want to wait for funding that might not show up.

‘Absolutely essential’

When funding arrives, it can make all the difference. For Ken and Linda Dollinger, a stewardship plan was the reason their beloved family cabin survived the Bootleg Fire. In 1997, the couple bought 40 acres of forest land and a log cabin just 10 miles from the Jacobs property. They drove the six hours from their home south of Portland to take their three-generation family to the cottage nearly every summer weekend since.

When they bought the property, Ken says, they had no idea how to deal with the overgrown forest. “We thought we were doing our best…but we’ve accomplished next to nothing other than restoring the cabin.”

That changed in 2011, when the state Forest Department began helping them create a stewardship plan.