Take a walk on the wild side

Take a walk along the narrow mountain roads of a typical East Mountain neighborhood, and this is what you see: First there is a house in a cleared area. The cleared area is surrounded by widely spaced ponderosas, piñons and junipers. Beneath the trees, patches of grass and wildflowers fill in the open spaces. The composite resembles a park, albeit one that is natural rather than cultivated.

Next to this house you see a different kind of property. It may have a house that is rented or no house at all. The land is covered with dense groves of trees, some more than 60 feet tall, others dead or dying. A tangle of brush, fallen branches and rotting trunks litter the ground.

The checkerboard sequence repeats itself endlessly.

The house in the clearing surrounded by thinned woods would have a good chance of surviving a wildfire. At least it would if it were not for the overgrown properties beside it. In a wildfire winds can whip sparks as much as a mile in advance of the main blaze and spread the fire so far and so fast that almost nothing can withstand it.

The East Mountain homeowners I know have worked hard to survive amid native forests, to make civilization compatible with nature. Creating what has come to be called “defensible space” around a house and thinning more distant woods to reduce fire danger have become part of the East Mountain culture.

But a majority of the land in the East Mountains does not belong to people who live on it. Absentee owned, it has not seen a chainsaw or an ax in a long time.

People who live here care; it is a matter of survival, their own, their families’ and their neighbors’.

Many people who don’t live here, who bought land as an investment or a future home or rental property, seem to care a lot less, if at all. Of course, it’s unreasonable to expect renters to invest money and effort in property they only briefly occupy. But landowners are a different story, including absentees. The neglect of their own land can endanger the property and lives of neighbors who do live on their land and who do care.

Although we in the East Mountains often harbor the myth that we are rugged individualists each going our own way, in reality we are members of a community whose fates are intertwined and mutually dependent.

We in the West, and especially the mountain West, celebrate our freedom to live our lives as we wish. But have we the freedom to do—or more to the point, not to do—anything we want with our land? The short answer is no. It defies reason that we can manage our own land in a way that endangers people who live next door.

It is an example of the old saw that one person’s freedom stops at another person’s nose.

The key question is what to do about it. In the past I have proposed various kinds of enforcement actions addressed only to absentee owners, but the more I have thought about it, the less practical and more unfair that formulation seems. Although the offenders are overwhelmingly absentee owners, enforcement, to be fair, needs to be addressed at all landowners in what is often called this “urban-wildland interface,” the delicate and vulnerable areas that large numbers of people people share with wilderness.

Photo by Thelma Bowles

There are many ways that landowners can be held responsible. Zoning can be linked to good land management practices. A county could designate special areas in which care of the land to reduce wildfire danger is a requirement.

Property taxes could be used to reflect the need for fire prevention. After all, if fire breaks out, government organizations will have to pay dearly for extra policing, evacuations, water use, fire trucks, manpower and on and on.

Thus property taxes in special zones like the East Mountains could reflect subsidies for those who do right by the land. Alternatively, they could include penalties for those who fail to clear land around houses and thin surrounding woods.

The kind of voluntary system we currently have depends entirely on talk therapy. Our political leaders and scientists and naturalists and first responders over and over and over again advise us what to do and warn us about the consequences if we fail to heed them.

This may be enough for those who live here, who attend fire prevention meetings, who talk to their neighbors and work to do the right thing. But those who do not live here are not exposed to such advice, warnings and incentives. They can blithely go on their way and ignore consequences. But their action or inaction endangers the rest of us, and something needs to be done about it. 

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