Reduce fire risk with regulation, restoration of fallow ag lands
from UH News, Oct 23, 2023
Improved regulation paired with additional economic incentives to reduce fire risk on unmanaged grasslands are critical to reduce fire risk across the state, according to a new blog by the University of Hawaiʻi Economic Research Organization (UHERO). UHERO researchers said that such measures are also a cost-effective and economically efficient way to support local agriculture and food production.
Read the entire UHERO blog.
A contributing cause of the devastating Maui wildfires was the abundance of highly flammable and unmanaged, non-native grasslands on adjacent former plantation lands. Fallow agricultural lands now comprise approximately 40% of all agricultural lands or 25% of lands across the state. At the same time, the Legislature and broader society has placed an increasing emphasis on locally produced food. Hawaiʻi once produced an abundance of food, so agriculture could be a feasible industry to diversify the state’s economy.
“In the case of fire risk reduction, agricultural practices can reduce or eliminate fuels and so the benefits become immeasurable and include lives saved and the protection of cultural and ecological heritage,” according to the blog. “While some landowners and managers are already managing land for societal benefits because of their own value systems and non-monetary motivations, they are not adequately rewarded by our current economic system.”
Reducing fire risk across the landscape on every island to a level required to protect public safety is a daunting and expensive task. Doing so will require simultaneously regulating landowners to manage lands to reduce fire risk while also recognizing and compensating land managers, community non-profits, Native Hawaiian practitioners and others.
“We argue that directly targeting the land management practices that generate ecosystem services, including fire risk reduction, is a more economically efficient means of supporting local agriculture than many previous legislative proposals,” the blog said. “Furthermore, it provides a mechanism to ensure that farming systems with adverse environmental impacts (e.g. poor nutrient management, etc.) are discouraged. Establishing the appropriate sets of fire codes and regulations that support acceptable levels of risk across the landscape is the starting point—landowners will then be faced with stronger incentives to commit necessary resources towards land care.”
UHERO researchers said that recognizing and incorporating ecosystem services into decision making and compensating land managers for the ecosystem services their land provides is well-established internationally and nationally.
Suggested policy options
Many ranches and farms are on year-to-year leases, which makes long-term planning incredibly challenging. Without continued and active management, these areas can quickly become unmanaged grasslands, exacerbating the problem.
Since tourists also benefit from well-managed land in Hawaiʻi, it may be economically efficient for at least some of these costs to be paid for from taxes on tourists such as the transient accommodations tax or general excise tax. Options, such as taxes on new real estate developments, which are used to ensure land management strategies that reduce fire risk, could be part of the mix of funding and actors that support this effort. Defining what policy options make sense for Hawaiʻi will require conversations among diverse actors including landowners and managers, Native Hawaiian and other local communities, researchers and policy makers. The authors write that the urgency of the situation means doing nothing is not an option.
“This point in time also presents a critical opportunity to explore how transitioning these lands can provide an important means of job creation and economic diversification for Hawaiʻi, something that has been talked about for a long time, but has been stifled by economic challenges facing agriculture and conservation,” according to the blog. “Overall, when combining the financial benefits of avoiding catastrophic fires with the suite of other benefits these land uses can provide, it is clear that figuring out how to remove obstacles and facilitate these transitions is essential for Hawaiʻi’s environment and linked economy.”
This blog was conceived via conversations among UHERO faculty and fellows from diverse backgrounds. The authors are UHERO Assistant Professor Steven Bond-Smith, UHERO and Water Resources Research Center Associate Specialist Leah Bremer, UHERO Associate Director Kimberly Burnett, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management Associate Specialist Clay Trauernicht and UHERO Research Economist Christopher Wada.
Read the entire UHERO blog.
UHERO is housed in UH Mānoa’s College of Social Sciences.