Reducing fire risk and restoring value to fallow agricultural lands

Clay Trauernicht, Climate Adaptation, Ecosystem Services, Steven Bond-Smith, Leah Bremer, Kimberly Burnett, Payments for Ecosystem Services, Christopher Wada, Blogs, Environment

This blog was conceived via conversations among UHERO faculty and fellows from diverse backgrounds from environmental economics, ecosystem services, economic diversification, and fire and ecosystems. It is meant to stimulate conversation, research, and action towards pathways to address the critical problem of fire risk from unmanaged grasslands and opportunities to support more generative landscapes. We look forward to broader conversations.

By Steven Bond-Smith, Leah Bremer, Kimberly Burnett, Clay Trauernicht, and Christopher Wada

*Author order is alphabetical

Summary: The devastating impacts of the recent Maui fires to human lives, homes, cultural heritage, ecosystems, and the economy highlight the critical importance of reducing fire risk on un-managed grasslands across the state. In this blog, we argue that improved regulation coupled with additional economic incentives targeting fire risk reduction for public safety are also cost-effective and economically efficient ways to support local agriculture and food production.

The crisis

A clear root cause of the devastating August 2023 fires on Maui is the abundance of highly flammable and unmanaged, non-native grasslands on adjacent former plantation lands. For many years, scientists and other community members have warned of the impending risk these unmanaged landscapes pose to communities like Lahaina (See Figure 1). The area burned across Hawaiʻi has risen abruptly and dramatically in direct correlation with the decline of plantation agriculture and ranching both because of tall, unmanaged grassland fuels and also because of an absence of former boots on the ground to detect and respond to fire. These fallow agricultural lands now comprise approximately 40% of all agricultural lands or 25% of lands across the state, pointing to the scale of the challenge (See Figure 2). In the context of climate change and increasingly common “worst-case” climate conditions, the time to address this land management, and ultimately economic and societal crisis, is now. 

At the same time, the legislature and broader society has placed an increasing emphasis on locally produced food. Part of this logic is that Hawaiʻi once produced an abundance of food, so agriculture could be a feasible industry to diversify our economy, while also supporting a suite of other environmental and social benefits. Among several similar examples, House Bill 612 proposes an income tax credit for farmers, ranchers and fishers to incentivize growth in agricultural production. While these types of proposals include a number of stated goals including “economic, social, ecological, and public health benefits”, the incentive is focused on subsidies that do not directly incentivize or internalize these environmental, cultural, social and economic benefits. They also do not directly reduce the actual cost of producing food—taxpayers simply fund the cost difference. 

Of course, links between food and human well-being are not purely defined by the quantity produced or direct monetary transactions. There are many other well-established societal benefits or ecosystem services provided by local food production and well-managed agricultural land, including reducing fire risk for public safety, reducing erosion which impacts coral reefs, providing healthy, culturally relevant foods, aesthetic beauty, among others (see for example, studies on the diverse benefits of Indigenous agroecological systems like loʻi kalo (taro) and  agroforestry systems, diversified organic agriculture, and well-managed rangelands). Some of these benefits can be translated into dollars whereas others are better expressed in qualitative terms, but all fundamentally support community well being and way of life in Hawaiʻi. 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.  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. This can make it difficult to sustain and scale these management practices and adequately compensate those doing the vital work that underpins our economy and well-being.

The opportunity

While the abundance of fallow agricultural land presents a major crisis and challenge, transitioning these lands to less fire prone types via significant improvements in existing state and county fire codes and their enforcement coupled with positive ecosystem incentives, also presents an opportunity to (i) increase the overall social value of these lands by incentivizing land management practices that provide ecosystem services; (ii) reduce the price of and overall cost of land-management and locally-produced food by explicitly coupling food production with required large-scale fire risk reduction costs; and (iii) diversify Hawaiʻi’s economy if fallow agricultural lands can once again contribute to Hawaiʻi’s economic outputs. Reducing fire risk across the landscape on every island to a socially-agreed upon 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 for the other societal benefits or ecosystem services provided by various types of agricultural and ecological land care. 

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 previous legislative proposals. Furthermore, it provides a mechanism to ensure that farming systems with adverse environmental impacts (e.g. poor nutrient management, etc.) are discouraged. Stricter fire risk regulations across the landscape will further enhance the benefits of transitioning away from abandoned grasslands and into lower risk agricultural and other land management systems, by helping landowners and land managers to comply with stricter fire code regulations. 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. Gaps in funding and capacity could then be filled through additional ecosystem incentives, such as payments for ecosystem services or subsidies targeting well-managed landscapes that provide multiple societal benefits. At present, these regulations are inadequate or not enforced and incentives are largely absent, thus the accumulation of thousands of acres of unmanaged grasslands and ultimately fuels for fire.

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.  At the international level, ecosystem services have been adopted by conservation and development organizations, development banks, and others; at present, 144 countries have signed on as partners to the International Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.  At the federal level, in 2015 the Obama administration required that all federal agencies take into account ecosystem services in their decision making and planning, and the White House also recently published new guidance on how regulators can include ecosystem services in cost-benefit analyses for regulatory changes. There are examples from around the world where governments, businesses, and others (often in collaboration) compensate landowners for ecosystem services associated with land management, including agroforestry and other types of well-managed agricultural land. These are often coupled with land use regulations such as forest codes that require, for example buffers around waterways. Within Hawaiʻi there are watershed partnerships that support conservation efforts for biodiversity and groundwater recharge, though most of this work is grant funded. The state also partners with grazing lessees at Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a Forest Reserve to collaboratively manage fire risk around sensitive biological resources, but lacks the policies and budgets to pay for grazing as a service, as practiced elsewhere. The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Stewardship Program and  Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) also provide cost share support for best management practices on agricultural land. Recognition of the dire fire risk presented by unmanaged grasslands presents an opportunity to build on the logic of these programs and create effective economic incentives to transition and/or maintain land to reduce fire risk while also providing a suite of other valued ecosystem services. This, in turn, provides an opportunity to support a local agriculture industry in a way that reduces both the price of locally-produced food and the overall social cost of poorly managed lands to Hawaiʻi residents. 

The task

Transitioning these lands is financially and labor intensive, but there are multiple land-use options to choose from, many of which can provide important economic and societal benefits on top of fire mitigation, as mentioned above. A number of potential land uses such as Indigenous agroecological systems, grazing, native habitat restoration, and a variety of diversified agriculture strategies already have communities, ranchers, farmers, and other groups (e.g. Hawaiʻi Wildfire Management Organization) who have the knowledge, skills, and desire to implement these activities, but financial and political (i.e. land tenure and access) obstacles have stifled their broader implementation. 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. 

While landowners across Hawaiʻi will need to commit to working towards landscape fire risk reduction, the scale of this task will require financial and technical support. Well-designed incentives (e.g. watershed scale payments for ecosystem services programs, government subsidies, coupled with credible penalties for non-compliance with fire risk reduction regulation), technical, and research support can be usefully coupled with regulations that require fuel management to optimally support landscapes with lower fire risk while also providing other societal benefits. 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. Bringing together interdisciplinary researchers, community groups, Native Hawaiian practitioners, landowners, and land managers to work out how caring for these lands can be materially supported will provide benefits for Hawaiʻi’s people, environment, culture, and economy going forward.

Figure 1: Many communities in Hawaiʻi are at high risk of devastation from wildfires. Many of these are surrounded by fallow agricultural lands (Source: Hawaiʻi Wildfire Management Organization, 2013; these maps are being updated)

Figure 2: Active and fallow agricultural lands across Hawaiʻi. Pasture and fallow agricultural lands dominate. Without continued active management and grazing of pasture (ranchland), these areas can quickly become un-managed grassland emphasizing the importance of ongoing support of ranches. Layers used: State Land Use Zoning; Agricultural Land Use Baseline (2020).

Policy options

There is an opportunity to restore large swaths of former plantation agricultural lands to provide ecosystem services, including wildfire risk reduction. At the same time, we need to support the farmers and ranchers who are currently managing agricultural lands. For example, 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. Valuing ecosystem services, including fire risk reduction, and compensating those who manage this land provides an opportunity to support a local agriculture industry in a way that reduces both the price of locally-produced food and the overall social cost to Hawaiʻi residents, all while contributing to a more diverse Hawaiʻi economy. In other words, initiatives to guard against future fire risks also provide an economically efficient means to indirectly support local food production. Since tourists also benefit from well-managed land in Hawaiʻi, it is also economically efficient for at least some of these costs to be paid for from taxes on tourists such as the TAT or GET. Likewise, options like 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. Ultimately, 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, but the urgency of the situation makes doing nothing not an option. These conversations, and the actions that come from them, will need to elevate Indigenous knowledge, practice, and rights given the demonstrated benefits and potential for restoration of Indigenous agriculture as well as to ensure that policy and economic instruments increase, rather than stifle access to land and opportunities for restoration by Native Hawaiian practitioners and communities.

Steven Bond-Smith is an Assistant Professor at UHERO specializing in regional economic growth and economic development policy.

Leah Bremer is a UHERO and Water Resources Research Center faculty member who works on land and water management and policy, including Payments for Ecosystem Services.

Kimberly Burnett is a UHERO faculty member with training in environmental and natural resource economics.

Clay Trauernicht is Extension faculty in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at UH Mānoa, specializing in wildland fire and ecosystem care.

Christopher Wada is a Research Economist at UHERO, specializing in natural resource and environmental economics.

11 thoughts on “Reducing fire risk and restoring value to fallow agricultural lands”

  1. James Roumasset

    To avoid a black hole of subsidies paid out according to political criteria, payments for ecosystem services should be financed out of their generated benefits (see UHERO’s “PES Pricing and Finance”). The first step would be to institute something approximating an optimal fire avoidance program with fire prevention mandates for land owners and a well-funded public program of fire prevention and response. Now efficient subsidies for risk-reducing landscapes can be calculated according to the savings generated from the fire-prevention program. In practice, this would mean that landscape investments that have social benefits greater than costs are likely to be already close to being commercially viable, e.g. agroforestry projects.

  2. Kudos for addressing the crucial issue of fire risk stemming from unmanaged grasslands in Hawaiʻi. This comprehensive perspective underscores the potential of improved regulations and economic incentives in both reducing fire risks and supporting local agriculture. It’s vital to act swiftly in order to safeguard lives, ecosystems, and the economy in the face of climate change.Denizli en iyi Avukat; avukat 🌿🔥🌏 #Hawaii #FireRisk #Sustainability

  3. Wayne Tyson Tyson

    Agriculture essentially destroyed indigenous ecosystems. Abandonment of agriculture resulted in alien weed invasion and dominance in the absence of indigenous ecosystems. Agriculture is not an ecosystem; crops are only faintly, if at all connected to the remaining ecosystems. Flame fronts consume fuels less than 0.5″ in diameter; smaller fuels like alien weeds/grasses ignite more quickly and more easily than thicker, indigenous plants. Before launching into an expensive (i.e., more short-term profitable) mega-project based on presumed efficacy/effectiveness, why not develop some scientifically-valid research/demonstration (albeit fairly large) trial plots on a fairly uniform/homogeneous typical site to compare alternatives? An initial ecosystem restoration plot could be driven by available funding through the use of widely-spaced colonies of the COMPLETE suite of organisms that make up ecosystems on undisturbed/weedless comparable sites. Repeat the experiment, of course, and monitor changes and expansion of coverage over time, say five years?

    1. If growing food crops were profitable, there would be far less fallow ag lands to worry about. Why not place our energies into assisting farmers to earn a reasonable living out of farming?

      1. Thanks for your comment Jason. This is exactly the point. Agriculture is often also promoted as an industry requiring support to reduce food imports and support our local economy. But people in other industries also struggle to make a living in Hawaii, so why support agriculture over anything else? Since agriculture reduces fire risk, then the same question arises, why pick agriculture (or any specific type of agriculture) over any other measure that reduces fire risk?

        Rather than picking agriculture, or any other industry, or any specific type of agriculture, it is more efficient (i.e. cost effective) to directly incentivize fire risk reduction. By strengthening the fire-risk regulatory and support regime, it then changes the economics of agriculture in a way that would contribute to supporting its revival. If we have a system in which farmers are incentivized by both their production and their ecosystem services including fire-risk reduction, then they can make a better living than a system in which they’re only rewarded for their production.

        1. Please specify exactly what systems you envision would incentivize both production and a farmer’s ecosystem services.

  4. What are the main factors that caused the devastating forest fires on Maui in August 2023, and how will they impact various aspects of life, including human safety, cultural heritage, ecosystems, and the local economy?

    1. Wayne Tyson Tyson

      Non-native dried grasses/weeds and dried plant stems/leaves less than 0.5 inches in diameter (all that burns in flame fronts) growing on fallow, abandoned agricultural operations. Ignition. Lots of oxygen (wind). Firebrands/embers lightweight enough to be transported downwind but with enough mass to remain hot enough long enough to ignite fuels where they land/accumulate on ignitable fuels, including cultural materials, including buildings, which then produce much hotter, longer-burning fuels that ignite nearby structures in a chain of fire, by radiation, convection, and larger wind-borne pieces of combustible cultural materials.

      Ecosystems displaced/destroyed by agriculture are less likely to burn catastrophically. While actual plantation crops may resist fire, lands not maintained will continue to harbor highly-flammable, quick to ignite, non-native weeds that can result in similar burns.

      Preventing losses of cultural capital will minimize adverse effects upon the economy.

      Rebuilding properly with sufficient separation between buildings and other flammable structures and/or independent, automatic, on-site fire suppression systems with a dedicated water supply to extinguish all airborne burning materials and capable of extinguishing and/or preventing the ignition of cultural materials/structures upon ignition.

      Depending upon conditions/context, a comprehensive, integrated fire management plan that includes timely actions/options for survival and minimization of injury, including sheltering in place and evacuation.

  5. Ha-ha. JimR and I learned this at Wisconsin fifty years ago. Repeat after me: make a market. Make a market. Someone has to pay for environmental services so that somebody can get paid for environmental services. The ecopious believe that someone owes them environmental services. Do the right thing because it’s pono? How’s that been working out? I’ll be dead and gone before somebody finally makes a market and everybody be saying “wait, we could have done this one half century ago, before personal computers?” Ha-ha, wish I could live to see the day.

  6. James Roumasset

    As Kim explains on the video, the stick is enforcement of county fire codes; the carrot is payments for ecosystem services. This leaves the question of how to finance said payments.

    An alternative to financing ecosystem services out the general budget is financing them out of their generated benefits. Payments for recharge-enhancing landscape changes can be financed via changes in the water prices collected by the water utility.
    Payments for wildfire risk-reduction services can likewise be financed from their beneficiaries, including property owners, insurance companies, and government agencies that can reduce fire-risk at lower costs.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) welcomes online comments to stories that are posted on our website or social media pages. Comments are intended to be a forum for open, respectful, and family-friendly discussion. UHERO reserves the right to remove anything posted on our website or social media pages that is deemed inappropriate. All comments are moderated and will therefore have a delayed post time.
Some guidelines (not an exhaustive list) we use when moderating/approving comments include:

  • Do not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.
  • Do not post content that is hateful, threatening or wildly off-topic; or do anything unlawful, malicious, discriminatory or defamatory.
  • Observe confidentiality laws at all times.
  • Do not post spam or advertisements.
  • Observe fair use, copyright and disclosure laws.
  • Do not use vulgar language or profanity.

UHERO may amend this policy from time to time.