Logging, grazing could reduce frequency and size of wildfires
Catastrophic wildfires are part of an escalating trend in the West, due to periodic drought and excessive fuel buildup. In 2007, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, made a speech to the Senate that summed up the problem, pointing to the fact human use of the resources (logging, grazing) has been decreasing.
More forests are locked up as wilderness and even the “managed” forests have reduced their timber harvest by 80% or more in recent years. Grazing has been dramatically reduced on many rangelands, and completely eliminated in some areas.
Without logging, there was also no control of underbrush, creating a tinderbox effect. Sen. Craig pointed out chronologically what’s happened on public lands and the effects. One of the results of continuous burning (wildfires) has been a great increase in cheat grass, a non-native annual that comes in after native perennials are gone.
A rancher in northern Nevada said today we all have to deal with cheat grass, and it’s not a bad feed for livestock in the spring when it’s still green, but the big problem is combustibility. It matures early and dries out. Lightning can easily start a fire.
Fuel buildup on public ranges is a huge problem in dry years. Bureau of Land Management policy is to rest an allotment (no grazing) for two years after a fire, and sometimes longer. By not using the range, we’re managing in favor of cheat grass, and more fires. The worst thing to do is completely rest an allotment. Even if it’s reseeded, the crested wheat or whatever we put there also needs to be grazed, according to the ranchers. Grazing animals are the best tool to press grass seeds into the ground, and also to minimize cheat grass. Under natural conditions (before livestock use of these lands) grazing animals such as bison and elk did not stay out of a burned area; they moved in as soon as any new grass grew. Proper grazing is the most beneficial management.
Fires will go lightly over areas that are grazed (leaving much of the habitat intact), but generally burn everything in areas with heavy fuel loads. “We need to be able to reduce fire fuel, rather than let it all burn up,” according to Nevada rancher John Fallon.
“We need to allow private industry to go into some of these areas and log, to help the agencies in fuel management,” he said. It seems more beneficial and logical to use the resource with logging and grazing, rather than waste it by burning. This would serve several purposes. It seems illogical to spend a lot of money to fight fires rather than have natural resources generate money for the agencies and for rural economies. This country is suffering from shortage of building materials and high costs for building homes, yet at the same time we’re allowing timber to burn up.
“You may spend 20 times as much money trying to fight a fire than what it would cost to prevent it,” he said. Some of the best prevention strategies include utilization of renewable resources.
Another problem is lack of aggressiveness on the part of agency firefighters to put out fires. “In our community we’ve created a wildfire support group. We went through training with BLM and are legal firefighters, Fallon said. “We can operate our equipment to put out a fire. If we see a lightning strike or any other fire, we get on it before it’s out of control. We don’t have to go around in an airplane first and survey the damage and then call someone to see whether we can do something about it. The majority of our fires, we are able to put out before the BLM gets there.”
Idaho Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Idaho, a rancher near Rogerson, lost many cows and a lot of his range allotment in the Murphy Complex fire that burned nearly 700,000 acres in 2007. He blames that fire on the 2005 court order (the result of a suit by Western Watersheds) that reduced grazing use 15 to 20% on 29 BLM allotments, with resultant fuel buildup. He and other ranchers in the area feel the fire was also mishandled.
“My dad used to say to us kids when we were slow getting out in the morning to do our work that an hour in the morning is worth three hours in the afternoon,” Brackett said. “This is especially true when fighting fire. It’s cool in the morning and usually the wind (and fire) has died down a little. This is the time to really hit it. The agencies certainly need to have their morning briefing, and intelligence from their flight reports, but by then its 10 a.m. before they get out to fight the fire and they’ve lost valuable time.”
Sam Mori, a rancher in northern Nevada (60 miles north of Elko), has seen several catastrophic fires in his area in recent years. He and his neighbors try to put out fires before they become uncontrollable, using natural barriers to their advantage — such as creeks, roads, cliffs and rocks. “On the allotments and ranges that have been grazed, we have a better chance of slowing the fire down or putting it out right there, since those allotments don’t carry a fire as well,” he said.
On his private land, he does some cool season burning of old, large brush stands, to reduce fuel loads, since it’s almost impossible to control fire in these stands during hot, windy weather. If there’s a lot of grass, it carries the fire from one patch of brush to the next. Adequate grazing, and well-planned brush control can prevent catastrophic fires.
In recent years fires have burned millions of acres in Nevada. Boyd Spratling DVM, past president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, who ranches near Deeth, Nev. (between Wells and Elko), said there have been some dry years, but drought is only part of the picture. In earlier times, dry years did not produce so many horrendous fires because the land had adequate grazing. He has been trying to get public land management policies changed, to try to prevent fires rather than spend millions of dollars fighting them.
Most of his range burned in 2001, and again in 2007. “If we look at the fire cycle since 1999, it tells us that whatever we’ve been doing for the past 30 years is not right,” Spratling said. Present policies are counterproductive. Reducing or eliminating grazing or keeping livestock off burned ranges for several years to protect bitterbrush (for deer habitat) adds to fuel buildup and more fires.
“If your allotment burned twice in the last five or six years, there’s a good chance cheat grass will come in. To prevent this, you need to go out as early as you can in the spring and graze it as hard as you can, right after that second burn,” he said.
We’ve lost flexibility in land management. Decisions need to be made on a case by case basis, at a local BLM office, instead of the “cookie cutter, uniform approach.” Some policies don’t apply to certain elevations, according to Spratling.
“One fire went back and forth across our allotment four times, and burned 33,000 acres of our range. In that situation what does a rancher do with his cattle? Do we sell most of them, or try to find pasture somewhere else? When this much country burns, there’s no other pasture available,” Spratling said.
There’s also the expense of rebuilding the fences. “One ranch is faced with a cost of $80,000 to rebuild their fences. Some people are putting in all metal posts, even the braces, so it won’t burn up again.” This is a sad commentary on the situation, realizing that even after you rebuild a fence, it will burn again in the future.
“Fires have a long-term effect on ranching. It’s not just the loss you sustain today when your grazing area burns. It’s also the next few years to build back cattle numbers and grazing infrastructure. We just barely got our cattle numbers back to what they were before the 2001 fire (after which we had to sell some) and only had one full season of the numbers we needed, and then had to cut back again after the next fire,” Spratling said.
Agency management policies that supposedly protect wildlife habitat on public land by reducing grazing are counterproductive, leading to potential catastrophic fires that destroy the very habitat we’re trying to protect.
“We can’t make all the decisions based on bitterbrush recovery, or sage grouse, or riparian habitat,” he said. If people want to save sage grouse or mule deer wintering ground, or whatever, they should look at the aftermath of some of these fires. The entire area is black; all the habitat is gone.
“There is a tremendous amount of sediment and runoff into those riparian areas. There’s no sagebrush, and if it burns again, there’s even less likelihood the sagebrush will come back after a second or third burn,” Spratling said. Everyone loses, with a major fire — the rancher, the wildlife, the sportsman, the public.
“We must change public opinion, and the way politicians view these things, and point to the fact that what some activist groups are accomplishing (in the name of habitat protection) is charred ground and cheat grass invasion,” he said. The range will just keep burning, resulting in a cheat grass monoculture, with no diversity of plants or wildlife.
There’s been a fire pattern developing that coincides with stricter grazing regulations and less livestock use. Cattle are often fenced out of riparian areas, or only allowed to graze an allotment for a short time so they won’t impact the stream bottoms. Cows spent less time in those allotments, resulting in more fire-carrying fuels left behind. When there’s a lightning strike, there’s enough fuel for fire to go a long ways.
Spratling thinks major changes in policy must come from the top, because in most instances the local districts don’t have enough flexibility. “But this kind of change takes a lot of time, and we don’t have that kind of time. Most of the legislations and programs that come out of Congress get bogged down in bureaucracy —stalled and blocked.”
Funds and legislation that might be beneficial are thwarted. “When it gets into the agencies to administer it, we’re not very impressed by what happens. Funds have been allocated, but often don’t get into the hands intended,” Spratling said. The agencies are often more concerned with their own agendas, and also worried about lawsuits.
“Everyone is sue-happy or sue-scared. It’s a shame we don’t have the money that’s spent on litigation (by so-called environmental groups trying to thwart grazing) to make some positive changes on the ground. You could accomplish a lot, with that kind of money, and everyone would benefit — wildlife, agriculture, recreation, etc.” he said. In a bad fire, everyone loses, because the habitat and watershed are gone, the ranchers’ means for continuing livelihood is gone, air quality is poor, erosion and heavy sediment run-off impacts the streams, etc. We need to take a closer look at better grazing management to control fuel buildup.
Bill Wilber, a rancher in southeastern Oregon who lost 39 head of cattle on his range allotment during the Buzzard Complex fire in July 2014, said that in many regions, the increase in invasive annual plants like cheat grass and medusahead (which burn more readily than native species, and come in more quickly after a fire) have led to increase in numbers and severity of wildfires.
“This is a perfect example of the problem we are trying to prevent,” Wilber said. “We’ve been part of a research project in concert with University of Nevada and Dr. Barry Perryman. His research study on reducing cheat grass and medusahead with grazing has been quite successful.” This study began in 2012, looking at the effects fall grazing could have on reducing fuel loads. In areas where the BLM is flexible enough to allow ranchers to turn cattle out in the fall, utilizing protein supplement, the cows clean up the old cheat grass and can make a significant impact on fuel loads and seedbank, reducing next years’ growth of cheat grass.
Another bright spot is an increase in rural fire protection associations. “They have done a very good job of stopping fires before they get out of hand,” Wilbur said. This is vastly different from the federal agencies that have a “let burn” policy and don’t try to put out fires unless they encroach on private property — and by then it’s often too late to control the fire or it takes a lot of time and money to try to contain it.
“I am encouraged that some of the folks in Washington D.C., are finally figuring out that the local people — who are there every day — should be able to have the first chance at stopping a fire. Local folks should not be shackled with inappropriate regulations that impair ability to halt fires while they are still fairly easy to control.”
The local people are right there, and also more willing to try to stop the fires because they have more at stake. It’s their livelihoods on the line, and they have more incentive to fight a fire that might destroy or damage their farms/ranches/ranges or communities. “If they can be allowed more free rein to do this, we can save taxpayers billions of dollars by controlling small fires before they become so large and damaging,” Wilbur said. ❖
— Smith Thomas is a cattle rancher, horseman, freelance writer and book author, ranching with her husband near Salmon, Idaho. She can be reached at email@example.com.