The second application window of a federal grant program for wildfire protection on private, public, and tribal lands is open until October 31, 2023, and rural applicants may have a better shot at the grants after a recent study showed the program’s first round of funding prioritized larger communities.
In an independent analysis of the Community Wildfire Defense Grant Program’s (CWDG) first funding round, the nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics found communities that were low-income and high wildfire risk were most likely to be awarded grants. The analysis found that low-capacity communities – places without the staffing, resources, and expertise to make their applications competitive – were less likely to receive funding.
These low-capacity communities are often rural, according to Kelly Pohl, associate director at Headwaters Economics.
“All of this [research] indicates that grants are being given to bigger communities,” Pohl said in a Daily Yonder interview. “Those bigger communities… are going to be better poised to manage grants and they’ve got some capacity to manage the projects.” High-capacity communities were awarded funds 36% of the time versus 19% of the time for low-capacity communities, according to the analysis.
Lower capacity communities often don’t have the staffing or expertise to write the competitive applications that communities with more administrative capacity are able to pull off. Yet, these lower capacity communities particularly need support from programs like the CWDG because of a history of disinvestment that has them less prepared for wildfires, according to Headwaters Economics.
Forest Service officials managing the program say they’re working to better serve low-capacity communities in the second round of funding and are piloting two new strategies to do this.
The first is with the recently released Community Wildfire Defense Grants Tool, which calculates the wildfire risk of every U.S. county. The tool shows whether the county is considered low-income, has had any previous disasters, and if it’s “underserved” as defined by the federally managed Climate & Economic Justice Screening Tool. This screening tool looks at datasets in eight different categories that have been identified as burdens to a community to determine if a community is underserved.
“The [Community Wildfire Defense Grants Tool] is a really important step in helping communities of all types of capacity access the funding program,” Pohl said. Headwaters Economics helped the Forest Service build and design the tool. “This gets applicants a long way towards having the data that’s required for the application.”
The second strategy is the use of “community navigators,” which are organizations that work directly with underserved communities to identify funding opportunities and help them through the grant application process. The navigators will also train community leaders so they can do this work on their own in the future.
As of August 14, the Forest Service has agreements with Coalitions and Collaboratives, Inc.; The Watershed Research and Training Center; the Fire Adapted Community Network; and the Hispanic Access Foundation.
“The intent is when a community doesn’t have that [administrative] capacity, we’ll be able to provide them that help so they can have access to these grants and they can apply for those opportunities,” said Brad Simpkins, branch chief for the cooperative fire branch within the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management Division, in a Daily Yonder interview.
Another challenge rural communities face when applying for federal funding is meeting match requirements, which are funds the applicant must provide in addition to the grant award. These can be met through what’s already in the community’s budget or through philanthropic donations.
“You can take rural communities sometimes immediately out of it because they have disproportionately lower access to philanthropic funds and because in many instances their budgets are very constrained,” said Tony Pipa, senior fellow in the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, in a Daily Yonder interview.
Philanthropies often seek initiatives that have a high return on investment, meaning whatever project they fund, the deliverables should be substantial. But in rural communities, these deliverables can seem smaller than what it would look like in a bigger community. “If you put things in terms of per capita, that can really disadvantage rural places as well, even if the relative impact is enormous,” Pipa said.
For the CWDG, a grantee must find a 10% match for proposals that develop or update a community wildfire protection plan and a 25% match for proposals that implement projects from those protection plans. The grant program is giving up to $250,000 to each community to develop wildfire protection plans and up to $10 million to each community to implement wildfire resiliency projects.
Match waivers will be made available for communities that are underserved as defined by the Climate & Economic Justice Screening Tool or are nationally recognized tribes or Pacific Islands communities.
The grant’s first round of funding saw 415 proposals from 35 states and Puerto Rico; 99 applications were selected. Program experts say they expect even more applications for the second funding round.
“While the program is a really exciting first step and a truly innovative program, it’s clearly not going to be enough with that much interest,” said Pohl from Headwaters Economics. Pohl also said the grant program leaves out one of the most effective ways to reduce wildfire risk: improving the fire safety of residential homes.
“One of the gaps that we see is that these funds cannot be used currently for making individuals’ homes wildfire ready,” Pohl said. The CWDG requires community wildfire protection plans to focus on community-wide efforts to decrease wildfire risk, like improving emergency communications or identifying water sources. A comprehensive toolkit on how to create a community wildfire protection plan can be found here.
“But we know that [preparing homes for fire] is in fact one of the most effective things you can do to improve community wildfire resilience,” Pohl said. Currently, there are very few federal programs that fund wildfire resiliency projects for homes.
“We’ll have to find future opportunities to incorporate that kind of work into grant programs in the future,” Pohl said.
For more information and access to the application, visit the Forest Service’s website.