As homes and cities expand closer to forests and wildlands across the American West, increasing wildfire threats have created an unlikely new phenomena – confidence in government.

Recent studies show that people in neighborhoods adjacent to public forest lands can and do trust natural resource managers to a surprising degree, in part because the risks they face are so severe.

Thousands of acres burn every year, threatening homes, lives and property, and in many groups and areas, the phrase “I’m from the government – trust me” is no longer being used as a joke or punch line.

In a survey done in seven states, researchers from Oregon State University and other institutions found that a large majority of people rated agency management of public forest lands as good or excellent.

Additionally, more than 80 percent of those surveyed - and up to 90 percent at some sites - showed support for mechanical thinning or mowing to reduce fire risks. Only such approaches as use of herbicides found lower degrees of support. The findings have been published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

“Declining forest health and wildfire are such serious and increasing threats that we are beginning to see partnerships forming among mill owners, logging contractors, residents and environmental groups,” said Bruce Shindler, an OSU professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. “The stakes are just too high for everyone.”

The studies found that local, personal relationships were what mattered most in coming to agreement on natural resource plans and policies, topics that have often been contentious among various interest groups in the West.  Positive interactions between homeowner associations, local leaders and individual land managers make the difference, scientists say. Teachers and retirees, for example, are now organizing programs to create defensible space in their neighborhoods and learning steps that can be taken to protect their homes.

“People may still not trust big business or big government, but they trust Joe, the local Forest Service district ranger,” Shindler said. “In forest communities there’s a growing understanding that threats from wildfire are everyone’s concern.  It helps get these groups past that us-versus-them mentality. And this rings true in diverse places we surveyed in Utah, Colorado, Oregon, and Arizona.”