A “checkerboard landscape” in land ownership or management means that the landscape is broken into areas owned or managed by different people or entities. A checkerboard pattern typically exists between public and private lands; however, private-land ownerships (such as with industrial and non-industrial lands) can also result in a checkerboard pattern. Checkerboard ownership can present challenges to wildfire suppression activities, the use of prescribed fire, and forest management in general.
Landowners often have diverse management objectives. Private industrial landowners manage their lands for timber production, and public ownership may focus their management objectives around ecosystem services or habitat, while non-industrial private landowners may focus on a host of different management objectives—from timber production to managing for aesthetics. Even if neighbors share an interest in wildfire risk management, competing values can make collaboration difficult. As a result, mixed-ownership landscapes often lack coordination in the reduction of hazardous fuels and have fewer contiguous fuel reduction treatments.
The degree to which each ownership focuses on wildfire risk management also varies. Non-industrial private landowners have different levels of knowledge about wildfire risk; some are very aware and others are unaware. The effectiveness of wildfire risk management in mixed-ownership landscapes is often dependent on the level of participation from all ownerships. Not being informed about wildfire risk or having misinformation or bias can lead a (private) landowner to doubt the benefit of fuels reduction and view it as a waste of time, money, and effort. For example, landowners may be concerned that if they invest in fuel reduction treatments that their neighbors could benefit without incurring any costs. Or, landowners may not understand that some fuel treatments are not as effective unless they are done on a larger landscape level.
The perception that neighbors are not doing their fair share is not limited to private landowners but also extends to the perceived lack of management on public lands. Trust between public and private landowners is further eroded when wildfires on public lands escape to the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), the lands where homes and communities meet the wildlands.
Wildfire is not limited by the boundaries of land ownership. Consequently, a mix of ownerships within a wildfire area poses challenges to suppression. During a wildfire incident, confusion and inefficiencies can result when multiple agencies are responsible for fire management in an area with complex landscapes and ownerships. Difficulties arise when thoughtful preplanning, clear communication, and mutual response agreements are not in place prior to the incident. Incident Management Teams (IMT) are trained to manage complex incidents and adhere to the National Incident Management System (NIMS) when responding to multi-ownership jurisdictions.
What can landowners do to overcome the complexities of managing for fire in a checkerboard landscape? The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (Cohesive Strategy) was designed to facilitate land and fire management efforts across boundaries. The Cohesive Strategy Vision is “to safely and effectively extinguish fire, when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and as a nation, live with wildland fire” (USDI and USDA, 2006). Cross-boundary, landscape-scale management has benefits that include developing an economy of scale by combining efforts to sell forest products, contract services, and hire labor. Other benefits may include efficient management of invasive plants or insect and disease outbreaks, effective response to wildland fires, and assessing and mitigating risk.
While there are many complexities to managing for fire in a checkerboard landscape, there are also opportunities. Private and public landowners can work together through formal and informal collaborations. Using guidance from the Cohesive Strategy, public and private landowners can achieve healthy, diverse, resilient forests at the landscape scale, fire-adapted communities, and safe and effective wildfire response.
The Chiloquin Community Forest and Fire Project
(https://www.klfhp.org/chiloquin/) north of Klamath Falls is an example of cross-boundary landscape management efforts to achieve multiple objectives of managing for forest health, fuels reduction, wildlife habitat, and safe and effective wildfire and structure fire response.
The My Southern Oregon Woodlands Program
(www.mysouthernoregonwoodlands.org) is an example of a partnership between agencies and landowners that seeks to improve forest health, fuels reduction, and wildlife habitat on a cross-boundary, landscape level by connecting landowners with technical and financial resources.
These projects are made possible through the support of the Oregon Forest Resources Institute.