Forestry Notes Q&A: G. Michael Zupko

G. Michael Zupko is the executive director of the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC), an intergovernmental committee of federal, state, tribal and local officials convened by the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, Defense and Homeland Security dedicated to consistent implementation of wildland fire policies, goals and management activities. Prior to this position, he advised the Southern Governors’ Association on natural resource issues and served as executive director for the Southern Group of State Foresters.

Zupko resides with his family in Monroe, Ga., where he operates his natural resource and sportsmen’s consulting firm. Recently, he shared time with NACD to discuss wildfire management.

Talk about the Wildland Fire Leadership Council and your role in it.

Although the Council has been around since 2002, it had previously been managed by agency staff, who did an excellent job in planning meetings and pulling together notes, but also had day jobs. My primary responsibility is to approach each issue thinking about how it touches each of the 19 members, and how each member can play a role in strategically addressing each issue, collectively and individually.

Fire seems to be one issue that has the attention and support of congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. That said, what key points are you focusing on in your educational outreach to policymakers?

Yes, wildfire is very much in the forefront of both Congressional minds as well as policymakers at the national, state, tribal and local level. Our mission is to provide strategic direction to ensure policy coordination, accountability and effective implementation of federal wildland fire management policy and related long-term strategies. This collaborative environment helps to ensure effective and efficient wildfire management, promote fire-adapted communities, and create resilient landscapes to achieve long-range benefits for society and nature. That said, we don’t directly engage members of Congress unless approached to inform and educate on issues of interest. We work through collaborative strategic priorities and currently are focused on: minimizing air quality impacts from wildland fire and increasing landscape resiliency through active management and use of fire as a management tool; reducing risks to communities; mitigating post fire impacts; cross-boundary and active management coordination; integration of technology and data across the wildland fire system; and increasing fire year strategic engagement and planning.

The general public may hear wildfire and automatically think of California and western states, but fire affects lands across the United States. Talk about wildfire and fire management that you experience near where you live in Georgia.

Wildfire touches all corners of this great nation. As you mention, I work nationally, but am able to live in the southeast where I was raised. Although the southeast usually doesn’t have the large fires that media captures during the western fire season, throughout the fire year the southeast experiences many fires. The number of fires any given southern state experiences is typically much higher than in western states and although they are of shorter duration, it taxes the state and local wildland fire response system. We are also fortunate in the southeast to have both a strong network of roads as well as many local and volunteer fire departments scattered throughout the landscape that are often very effective at catching a wildfire quick. In a given fire year, wildfire can be seen as a progression across geographies. Historically, one region or subregion would experience fires and as they diminished, another region would often increase. Recently, each region is experiencing longer fire seasons which create challenges for those geographies that have their fire starts later in the year. Resources can be tied up or unavailable.

Which recent partnerships/programs or fire management techniques are you excited about?

We have been working closely with public health agencies on helping to better understand the impact of smoke and the differences between wildfire and prescribed fire smoke when it comes to duration, amount, composition and impact from (dispersion) the smoke. The partnerships and opportunity to find common ground around the opportunity to reduce long-term smoke impacts through active management, including prescribed fire, have greatly increased recently. We are investing in understanding both the impacts and the ability to collectively increase the general public’s understanding of this complex issue while building support to reduce the overall impact of wildfires while enhancing ecological and environmental benefits.

Beyond the Wildfire Funding Fix, what steps are needed to reverse fire borrowing so that agencies can return to prioritizing pre-fire management (and fire risk reduction) efforts?

The funding fix goes a long way in helping federal agencies in managing their budgets on an annual basis. Due to the success we have had with fire suppression for decades as well as the challenges that have reduced the use of active forest management for decades (due to a variety of reasons), the funding fix won’t solve the problems with overstocked forests and landscapes that are unnatural and not resilient to wildland fire. Being able to bring forested and range landscapes back to conditions that can handle their regular fire interval is important and that cannot be done in a year, or five, or even 10 years. Thus, the fire funding fix does help with stability within the federal agencies (and federal funds that support state agency programs). It doesn’t, however, immediately fix the challenges that over decades have resulted in vast acres of unhealthy and unsustainable lands. Investing in reducing risk at the community level is another opportunity to reduce the overall risk that wildfires create. This is a responsibility among and between federal, state, tribal and local agencies to work closely to best determine their path forward at the local level. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but coordination is key to knowing what is going on around your area of responsibility and finding ways to leverage what each partner can bring to the table.

What areas of need do you feel are opportunities for conservation districts to help the effort, either pre- or post-fire?

Conservation districts can serve a unique role, as they have strong relationships at the local level, and the challenges to reducing wildfire risk are often inherently known by locals. Additionally, as conservation districts have a broad understanding of natural resources, they often are great at developing projects and approaches that meet several needs, such as considering wildfire risk reduction while also enhancing water quality. I would challenge conservation districts to serve as that local leader and sparkplug in a community to coalesce around in bringing a diverse group of stakeholders together to design methods to work collaboratively on wildfire risk reduction while meeting other needs.

A decade ago, community wildfire protection plans (CWPP) were being organized throughout the west. Are we able to look back and see how those planning efforts helped to expedite response or recovery efforts?

CWPPs have served a positive purpose in many communities and although many are considered “static” or just built for that one snapshot in time, I would argue that the process and development often introduced partners that hadn’t worked closely together to find some similarities. Now, if those partners chose not to work collaboratively, I would not place that blame on the CWPP. Maybe stated in a more positive manner, CWPPs can and should serve as one of the foundations for how a community can approach their wildfire risk. If it has been on the same shelf collecting dust, I challenge the conservation districts (and others in the community), to commit to updating and enhancing their CWPP. There are so many new technologies from when many CWPPs were first built, stemming from the National Fire Plan in the early 2000s. Those technologies can make a static process iterative and interactive, thus engaging multiple partners. Being able to do scenario planning, looking across the landscape and evaluating a variety of management units (or changing the boundaries or approaches) as well as considering the costs associated with a variety of management techniques all can be done at the touch of a button to see what is best for your community – and most likely at a much lower cost of both time and funding than many of the early CWPPs. So yes, CWPPs have had a major impact on coordination and planning across the landscape, especially in the west; but, if they haven’t been reviewed or updated recently, I challenge NACD to help lead the charge!

Check out NACD’s Forestry Notes for more Q&As and stories like this.

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