Idaho Gov. Otter and Secretary of Interior Jewell Present Rangeland Fire Protection Plan 

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter happily introduced U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell (left), on her fifth visit to Idaho announcing new strategies to fight fires in Idaho's rangelands. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter happily introduced U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell (left), on her fifth visit to Idaho announcing new strategies to fight fires in Idaho's rangelands.

After the Murphy Complex Fire decimated 650,000 acres of the Bruneau-Jarbridge area in 2007, Idaho Republican Sen. Bert Brackett, a rancher from Rogerson, went to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter saying something needed to be done.

Since then, Otter has collaborated with governors across the Western states, along with the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior to create a plan aimed at stopping the spread of range fires in the Great Basin.

That plan has been finalized into the Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy, which Otter and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell unveiled on May 19 at the Boise Foothills Learning Center.

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"We've been brought closer together over a bird and habitat," Jewell said, referring to the threatened sage grouse, "but really, we're brought closer together because of a shared love of the Western landscapes. ... We now have a much greater appreciation of what's at stake with regard to ecosystems, and what's at stake in regard to the rangelands."

Nearly 100 people attended, including representatives of USFS, BLM, the Idaho Department of Lands, wildland firefighters, the National Interagency Fire Center and nonprofits like Conservation Voters for Idaho. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter sat in the front row. 

One challenge facing firefighting efforts this year is an insufficient budget, according to Jewell. She said firefighters are needed for more of the year that previously, "and the budget has not kept up."

Incorporating more Rangeland Fire Protection Associations will help spread the burden of firefighting. Jewell outlined the plan, explaining that it works to bridge the gap between firefighters and ranchers who don't want to see their land burn. She said the BLM just created a new position—a national rural fire coordinator—who will make sure that those living on the landscape can help fight fires in a way that keeps them safe and in communication with professional fire crews.

"[We'll do] everything that we need to to keep them safe, but also give them a shot at getting those fires put out before we can probably even get our trucks started and on the road," Jewell said.

Mike Guerry has been on the frontline of firefighting, though he's not a firefighter. He's a Basque rancher who leads the Three Creek Rangeland Fire Protection Association in southwest Idaho. He took to the podium to talk about the importance of RFPAs. 

He told a story of a thunderstorm that hit one summer, covering 50 miles and sparking 21 fires. Eleven of those were in his RFPA range. He and his fellow ranchers, trained through the RFPA program, were able to help BLM firefighters keep the fires in check. Despite winds at 60 mph, they all held. 

"The high desert ecosystem developed with fire," Guerry said. "It's just when the fire gets out of balance, we need to bring them back to manageable. I remember in the '60s, when fires were only 3,000 acres. Now, we have 660,000-acre fires. There's nothing manageable about that."

click to enlarge This map shows the various Rangeland Fire Protection Associations already in place throughout the state—a crucial part of fighting fires in rangelands. - BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • This map shows the various Rangeland Fire Protection Associations already in place throughout the state—a crucial part of fighting fires in rangelands.
Enlisting ranchers to help fight fires on the rangeland has been a controversial issue. Fire management agencies see it as a liability, and ranchers get frustrated that they can't put out a fire on their own land.

"The safety is most important. These are my friends and neighbors out there," Guerry said. "I will not be in a position where I have to go to their spouse and say they didn't make it out of the fire. There's not one acre of ground worth that."

The RFPA program helps train and provide ranchers with basic firefighting equipment, and it's something this new plan wants to expand—especially for the upcoming 2015 fire season, which Jewell said could be a tough one. She said climate change is affecting landscapes across the country.

She stressed the importance of protecting the land, not just for aesthetic value nor for the sage grouse and other wildlife—but for the economy.

"From my old day job at REI," Jewell said, referring to her time as CEO of the outdoor apparel company, "I especially understand the economic benefits of having wonderful places like this, like the Ridge to Rivers trail system. This is what urban areas need to attract the kind of companies that Boise's able to attract. It's recreation like this that brings so many people into your area and really drives economic activity."

At the end of the press conference, Jewell signed the new plan into effect. 
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