Though wildfires and natural disasters have been making headlines on the West Coast of the United States in recent years, interior forest lands are also at risk of disastrous wildfire incidents that can quickly spiral out of control. Threats to these national forest lands present a clear ecological, as well as economic, risk to communities that derive extensive economic activity and benefits from their local connections to these forest lands.
A Regional Voice and Convener
Southeastern Illinois Regional Planning and Development Commission (SIRPDC) works with five rural counties along the Ohio River to advance economic and community development opportunities in its communities. The region, intertwined with the Shawnee National Forest, is known for its dense forested areas and has become a local and statewide travel destination for outdoor recreation tourism in past years as well as a key site for regional timber production and mineral extraction (see the SIRPDC 2021-2026 CEDS for a regional economic breakdown). The 2017 U.S. Forest Service report Shawnee National Forest Benefits to People notes that total spending related to tourism in the national forest accounts for $16.8 million in annual spending. Along with sales tax revenue that is generated for local governments from this spending, this outside spending brought in from other regions and states significantly supports local businesses.
Due to the volatile and broad impact of wildfires, regional organizations are well-suited to coordinate emergency response planning, address risks across multiple county and municipal jurisdictions, and support efforts to promote regional and local resiliency. More rural and under resourced areas can be weak points in a regions’ wildfire defense and response strategy. Geographically farther away from emergency management personnel bases with smaller, unpaved roads, and under-resourced and underequipped rural volunteer fire districts, rural areas can be at a higher risk of wildfires spreading out of control.
In partnership with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency which provided planning funds, the local Shawnee National Forest Supervisors Office and SWCA Environmental Consultants which provided technical expertise, SIRPDC staff aimed to address issues challenging their rural fire districts and developed Community Wildfire Protection Plans for two of its most rural counties: Hardin and Pope. The Shawnee National Forest is a major presence in the region with 24% of Hardin County and 35% of Pope County comprised of federally protected forest land.
Outcomes from the Planning Process
These protection plans came together by synthesizing the strengths, needs, and challenges of the region sourced from local stakeholder input meetings, data analyses of the regions’ geographic and topographic features, and analyses of the local capacity to prevent and respond to wildfire risks. SIRPDC was well-suited for this role due to staff experience conducting the CEDS and other regional planning opportunities. Outlining strategies for hazardous fuel reduction, proactive forest management, and prescribed fires, the plans provide SIRPDC and its partners with a framework for improving and protecting one of the region’s most valuable economic and natural resources. SIRPDC staff and SWCA consultants identified specific community resources related to the outdoor recreation economy in the Shawnee National Forest that were at an outsized risk in the event of a wildfire. These resources included specific campgrounds, cabins, trails, signage, and roads throughout the national forest, all of which would be costly to replace in the event of a wildfire and are vital existing resources to the outdoor recreation economy.
Out of these discussions and deep dives into the data, the region learned that the existing fire districts that cover much of the rural counties were severely lacking in equipment and staff capacity to effectively respond to wildfire risks. As many of these local jurisdictions border federally protected land, a wildfire risk in communities is a wildfire risk to the federal land and to the region as a whole. Building these local capacities, including providing expanded equipment purchasing opportunities and training local fire districts volunteers in wildfire prevention and education, creates regional resiliency from the local level up. Identifying this equipment and training need has started conversations in the region about expanding collaboration and coordination between the U.S. Forestry Service and local fire districts.
Additionally, the process identified that stepping up fire safety education and public advertisements to tourists in the region can play a large role in ensuring that small-scale fires do not quickly escalate to a regional threat. With a high volume of outdoor recreation tourism, the risk of a stray campfire or a tipped-over grill is a seemingly minor, but real threat to the region. After this planning process, expanding these fire safety and wildfire risk education opportunities for visitors and tourists has become a fruitful collaboration opportunity for the U.S. Forest Service staff, SIRPDC staff, and local county and municipal partners through roadside billboards with fire safety and prevention tips as well as reading material, signage, and other highly visible advertisements provided at local municipal, county, and U.S. Forest Service offices.
CEDS and Hazard Mitigation Integration
SIRPDC staff learned through this process that the CEDS and local regional hazard mitigation planning can go hand-in-hand. Protecting natural assets like the Shawnee National Forest is vital to the economic success of the region and economic development planning should also include extensive analysis of the economic risks associated with certain region-specific likely hazards. In the SIRPDC region planners aimed to ask: How would the local tourism economy react to shocks like a widespread outbreak of wildfires? Could it sustain itself without relying on the national forest lands?
In areas with certain natural economic resources and assets, hazard mitigation planning, economic resiliency planning, natural resource preservation and conservation, and land-use studies can all contribute to a region’s economic success. This plan coordination becomes even more vital as inland regions that have not traditionally experienced effects from climate change are now seeing more disruptive climate and weather patterns. Improving a region’s climate resilience is dependent on starting planning conversations before climate patterns are too disruptive and hazardous to local economies.
Now that these rural areas have their Community Wildfire Protection Plans finalized and in place, the real work must begin to implement the recommendations. While resource constraints have prevented large-scale implementation of some of the recommendations, SIRPDC staff are confident in the ability of the rural communities’ leaders to begin working collectively to pool resources and begin searching for outside grant funding for projects. SIRPDC has served in this leading role, unifying the local governments around a common issue area, cataloging assets and challenges, and facilitating conversations with the federal and state partners in the region to identify where resources can best be allocated. SIRPDC will continue to serve as the regional voice in representing its most rural communities and ensure that these previously underserved areas have the resources they need to contribute to regional fire safety and broader regional economic resilience.
This case study was written by Andrew Coker, NADO RF Regional Development Researcher
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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.
Joe has thirty-one years of experience having served in city, county, regional, national association, and government management since 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a candidate for a master’s degree in Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.
McKinney has provided congressional testimony on numerous occasions regarding the importance of regional development organizations in helping shape the nation’s economic growth. He is nationally recognized for promoting innovative solutions in areas such as planning and economic development, workforce development, transportation and transit, and aging services.