Our AIM spotlight this month focuses on the Forest Stewards Guild (The Guild), a non-profit that works coast to coast promoting their vision of ecologically, economically and socially responsible forestry. In seeking AIM funding they were looking to complete a prescribed burn and stand up a regional prescribed fire team dedicated to supporting implementation. Known as the Gravitas Peak Wildland Fire Module (the Module), this support team provides job training to underserved and underrepresented youth.
The AIM team recently spoke with Daniel Godwin, the Assistant Director of Fire Management and Assistant Lead on the Gravitas Peak Module, about their goals for the Module. Godwin noted “There is a growing need for the implementation of burning across (jurisdictional) boundaries.”
Federal and state resources are often hampered by institutional restrictions which make it difficult or impossible to continue a prescribed burn from federal to private lands, or to allow fire department personnel to participate in burning on federal or state lands. In Colorado alone, 30% of forested areas are located on private land, so having the flexibility to allow for cross-jurisdictional burning is imperative. As a nonprofit, The Guild has the ability to work and burn on private lands.
The Module is not intended to replace state or federal firefighting resources, but rather to supplement them. Typically, state and federal agencies hire firefighters for the summer season of June – August. With fire seasons that begin earlier and end later and burn much larger acreages, non-seasonal firefighters are being stretched thin. And that’s when accidents, and burnout, will happen. The Module will be available to assist with prescribed burns that often occur in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall.
Another of the Module’s goals involves providing job training opportunities for underserved and underrepresented communities, many of which are already being impacted by wildfire and drought, especially in the West. The Guild’s training program will provide select community members with solid foundations in wildfire suppression and management which will set them up with the opportunity to seek future employment at state, local, or federal level. Currently, the Module supports two apprentices that got their start with the Forest Stewards Youth Corps in New Mexico.
So why stress the importance of prescribed burning? The short answer provided by Godwin, “We can’t cut our way out of this problem. You simply cannot mitigate space between the backcountry and communities in a cost-effective manner without burning.”
Unfortunately, Godwin said, prescribed fire isn’t always addressed as a necessary step, though it is absolutely necessary for fuels treatments in larger areas. It makes forests and grasslands healthier, and protects watersheds and recreation areas. Prescribed fire is a safe way to replicate natural processes and a core ingredient of many fire-adapted ecosystems, like ponderosa pine.
Being a non-profit in the world of fire mitigation has its challenges. There is a lot of institutional inertia built in supporting fire management organizations within established state/federal/local frameworks; however, it doesn’t include non-profits. “The Guild finds themselves in a square peg, round hole scenario,” said Godwin.
Reimbursements and other processes generally work when you are a contractor, state, local or federal partner, but if you are in a nebulous non-profit world it doesn’t always work as well. Finding partners who see value in non-profit work and are willing to help create solutions that can overcome this inertia can be difficult but is so valuable and important.
Godwin says that AIM funding is helping The Guild overcome challenges that would otherwise hinder burning initiatives. For example, he noted, “When you start up a new crew, it takes time and money to establish the procedures and operating guides and make the crew function as a tight cohesive unit. It takes a deliberate effort to dial in training and core competencies. It’s relatively easy to find project funding but not so easy to find funding to establish a crew.”
AIM funding is also allowing The Guild to contribute to a project near Angel Fire, in northern New Mexico, a collaborative burn to be completed with some state funding and local fire department personnel and equipment. The area is of particular importance to The Guild because they have been working for several years to get area residents comfortable with putting more smoke in the air, especially before the population explodes.
The Guild expects to see continual growth of their fire module concept over the next few years. They hope to establish modules in different regions of the country, as their currently limited capacity has forced them to turn down projects. In the meantime, they are working hard to build and strengthen internal operations in Colorado and New Mexico. Once those operating guidelines are established, The Guild will be able to more efficiently and effectively scale out modules in other parts of the country.
Interview with The Guild
What is the Forest Stewards Guild doing?
With financially matched assistance from COCO, The Guild will improve their capacity to complete prescribed burns and stand up a regional prescribed fire support team dedicated to supporting implementation. This support team, the Gravitas Peak Wildland Fire Module (Module) provides job training for underserved and underrepresented youth. This team will work in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Their first projects are slated for Angel Fire, New Mexico and Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Talk to us about the module. What need did you see to create a group like this?
FSG had a number of different needs. 1. There is a need for more people doing implementation out there for Rx fire. You have fed/state resources, but they are often hampered by institutional friction, and as a nonprofit, they are able to work more nimble so they can get on the ground and on private lands. This gives FSG the ability to work on private lands (% on the front range). Getting boots on the ground and torches tipped over!
The other side is to provide a template for Good Fire approach, providing job training opportunities for into underserved and underrepresented communities. These communities are already being impacted by wildfire and drought. Thus providing good green jobs and they can graduate to state/local/federal jobs with solid foundations to wildfire suppression and management.
Implementation and Good Jobs!
How have you put your crew together? Where do they come from and what are their backgrounds?
They have 2 apprentices and 2 overhead, 3 positions in the permanent mid-level crew (squad boss, specialist).
Apprentices are on the module. They are from the Forest Stewards Youth Corps in New Mexico. Providing foresty and fuels experience and training to underserved youth in the rural/urban matrix in New Mexico.
Why do you think increasing Rx Fire is an essential element to reducing risk from wildfires and to communities?
The short version is that we can’t cut our way out of this problem. The zones and Firewise principles, the next step is fuels treatment around the community, then Rx fire, and fire use, managed natural ignition. It provides us the space between the backcountry and communities. We need to full suite of zones to do this. You cannot do all of this in a cost effective manner. Getting into these larger areas that have already been mechanically treated with Rx, this is so absolutely necessary for fuels treatment and is not always talked about as a necessary step. It makes the forest and grasslands healthier, and protects watersheds and recreation areas. Tall Timbers: Prescribed fires is a safe way to replicate natural processes, like good diet and exercise. Prescribed fire is a core ingredient of a healthy forest.
What are the biggest challenges you foresee as you build this program?
There is a lot of institutional inertia that is built to support fire management organizations that are within established state/federal/local frameworks. The inertia was not built to include non profits. FSG finds themselves in a square peg/round hole scenario. Reimbursements and other processes work if you are a contractor, state, local or federal partner, but if you are in a nebulous world it doesn;t always work as well. Finding partners in these jurisdictional authorities who see the value of what FSG is doing and are willing to find creating solutions to work against this inertia, is valuable, difficult and IMPORTANT and allow them to do the work. A lot of work has been completed in New Mexico.
How is AIM helping you to overcome some of these challenges?
AIM is doing 2 things:
When you start up a new crew, it takes time/money to establish the SOPs, Operating guides, to make the crew function as a tight cohesive unit. It takes a deliberate effort to dial in training in core competencies.
It is allowing FSG to bring money to the table for a project in Northern NM a very WUI site that was burned in the past, and it now investing in capacity in that area to get the partners to build together. There will be a collaborative burn in that area, the state has $, the local FD is giving operating space and staff time. Getting people comfortable with putting more smoke in the air before this place explodes in population.
Medium term goal- Do you see growth in this module? Yes, they will continue with work in Tennessee and Minnesota, but the idea is there will be modules in different regions in the country. They are already saying no to projects. In the meantime, build internal operations in the CO/NM area so they can scale it to other parts of the country.
Let’s talk a bit about training youth. Where have you found youth to participate in the program? What is your goal when working with youth? How are you instilling your passion for prescribed fire with your crew?
There is a large highly skilled suppression population (spending too much time in the emergency room, and not enough in the primary care), FSG was very deliberate about how they pay and provide benefits in this module. Also being very deliberate in building a fire management organization that respects individuals as more than just their ICS qualifications. They are real people, with rich inner lives and they want to build an organization that does good work, providing a work-life balance. That is challenging but it is also the right thing to do. We can’t have people that are gone 6-8 months out of the year. It is hard on families and it is a model that does not work anymore and is based on an outdated concept of domestic duties. They hope to recruit and retain not just talent, but real people.