Millions of Americans own forests at high risk of wildfire. They need help to protect them.

The work of foresters like Pettigrew is funded by a mix of federal and state money, with state forestry agencies matching U.S. Forest Service funding. But he’s one of just two stewardship foresters in 6,000-square-mile Klamath County. 

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

Oregon has about 75,000 family forest owners, and the whole country has more than 10 million. Few will do management work without government outreach and assistance. The most recent Forest Service survey of private landowners with more than 10 acres of forest found that about 25 percent don’t do any management and that only 11 percent have written plans for their property. The report noted that few are even aware of assistance programs.

The budget for the federal Forest Stewardship program plunged from 2007 to 2014. The wildfire crisis has continued to worsen since then, but the program’s budget stayed essentially flat. In that time, the cost of fighting fires ballooned, and needed funds were “borrowed” from Forest Stewardship and other programs. Congress put a stop to the borrowing starting with the 2020 budget, but even with that fix, the stewardship program still had just half as much money in 2020 as it did before its budget began to decrease.

While that budget languished, the amount of federal grant money available to help landowners has grown a lot in the past decade. The largest grant program, the Agriculture Department’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, gave nearly $150 million to small landowners for forest improvement in fiscal year 2021 — more than triple what it gave in 2009. 

The growth, an Agriculture Department spokesperson said in an email, “is due to state outreach efforts and increased interest by forestry landowners/managers in accessing conservation assistance.” Even with such an expansion, she said, demand still far outweighs available funds and, on average, the program has to turn away more than two-thirds of all applications it receives.

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

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

The administration’s new 10-year strategy seeks to massively increase the number of acres that are treated to reduce hazardous fuel and promises to pour money into fire prevention programs.

“Combating wildfire risk and restoring forest health depends on engaging private landowners,” said Jaelith Hall-Rivera, the Forest Service’s deputy chief of state and private forestry. “Landowners provided with a management plan through the program are three times as likely to implement best management practices.”

Increasing 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 that needs treatment still far exceeds promised funds and workforce capacity. 

Darrell Jacobs thins his forests between paying logging jobs.NBC News

For now, while there are many sources of grants and assistance, they can be challenging for landowners to find and competitive to get. Jacobs applied unsuccessfully for two state grants this year and is now applying for a federal one. He has already started clearing brush and damaged trees himself, however, saying he doesn’t want to wait for funding that might not appear.

‘Absolutely essential’

When the funding does come, 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. Back in 1997, the couple purchased 40 acres of forestland and a log cabin just 10 miles from the Jacobs property. They have been driving the six hours from their home south of Portland to take their three-generation family to the cabin almost every summer weekend since.

When they bought the property, Ken said, they had no idea how to take care of the overgrown forest. “We thought we were doing the best we could … but we accomplished almost nothing except restoring the cabin.” 

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

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