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Fire-Proofing the Range
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Forest decimated by fire.After several years of devastating range and forest fires in the American West, from Malibu to Montana, razing thousands of square miles of both private and public lands, people question the results of years of range "management" by public agencies.  The contention of the effected ranchers and land users is that the current course is not working.  They believe they are the ones who are closest to the land and often know what it needs better than folks who only visit it occasionally.  Using enlightened self-interest, the land users, with advice from the range managers, could begin a course of limited grazing in the spring time and plantings of less volatile grasses that would help break the horrifying cycle of fire that is destroying public land grazing, ranches that depend upon it, and millions of dollars worth of private property and costing millions of dollars in fire suppression. 

"For public land management agencies, standard practice is to delay grazing on burned areas for a minimum of 2 years, and apply fire rehabilitation practices (seed).  The 2-year grazing moratorium has not been validated by research." Here is a link to a  16-page research report sponsored by the University of Nevada on post-fire grazing and seeding, for those of you who may be interested in further information. "Results indicated that each allotment should be individually evaluated for appropriateness of grazing and seeding after fire, and that blanket recommendations are inappropriate."

Here is a report by Mary Branscomb, Lamoille, Nevada, from the November 2006 Nevada Cattlemen's/Woolgrowers' annual state meeting.  In Elko County alone, (where the meeting took place), over 950,000 acres  (nearly 1,480 square miles) were destroyed  impacting wildlife, livestock, and wild horses during 2006.
By Mary Branscomb

Cattle in the Great BasinExcept for the single “affected permittee” Jon Griggs, Maggie Creek Ranch Manager; and Dr. Wayne Burkhardt, University of Nevada range scientist emeritus; the impaneled people who addressed the Nevada Cattlemen’s Joint Annual Convention in the fall of 2006 represented government agencies. Private property, as well as range allotments, has been equally devastated by last season’s wildfires.
The topic, last November 17, was “Wildfires, Prevention or Suppression.” It was about the increasingly destructive fires that have impacted the range grasses, shrubs and riparian areas, wildlife and the livestock industry. The consensus that day seemed to be that prevention might be best, and that there are several different methods to use, all of them costly.
The other panelists were Ron Wenker, U.S. Bureau of Land Management Nevada director; Ed Monnig, Humboldt-Toiabe National Forest Supervisor; Pete Anderson, Nevada Division of Forestry; and Allen Biaggi, Nevada Department of Natural Resources director.
Everyone seemed to agree that there have been plenty of plans over the last few fire years, and that it is well past time for some action to be taken. Environmental lawsuits have been the greatest hindrance to any kind of management and while the courts stop agencies’ work, the cheat grass grows.
Cheat, a non-native annual grass that was introduced many decades ago, crowds out native grasses and is highly flammable if it is not grazed off before it goes to seed early in the growing year. On the other hand, crested wheat, a fire-resistant perennial that is good forage for wildlife as well as livestock does not crowd out anything. Neither is it apt too carry flames from plant to plant because the crested wheat stems grow far apart and tend to stay green longer. However, there has been resistance to the planting of crested wheat by environmentalists because it, too, is non-native.
Apparently, the panel agreed, cheat grass is here to stay – along with many species of noxious weeds - and changes in vegetation types are already under way because of the encroaching weeds.
Prevention tools, other than grazing, include managed intensive grazing, controlled burns, spraying, “chaining” out encroaching woody plants (too many pinion-junipers) and burning or plowing firebreaks and planting green strips of fire-resistant species.
Burkhardt explained that from a historic perspective, winter ranges in this area did not often burn and therefore local range plants are not adapted to yearly conflagrations. He said that cheat grass, a non-native species introduced accidentally before 1900, was allowed to proliferate in the 1970s as sheep were driven off the range and cattle numbers were reduced. Fires, once rare because the sheep had “fireproofed” the range, began to burn more often and hotter. He said the sagebrush steppes historically underwent periodic less destructive burning which is necessary to keep a balance between the woody plants (pinion and juniper) and the under story of grasses and forbs. Burkhardt noted that in the 1880s, livestock fireproofed the range by eating down the under story. However, with the introduction of cheat grass and other destructive weeds, the stage was set for wildfires.
“We will never get rid of cheat,” he said. “It has encroached the under story and we’re losing the good shrubs. We used to go 100 years before we had a big fire. Now we go 12 to 15 and lately more often. There has been a major erosion of the plant community.
“Fire suppression allowed a fuel buildup and salt sage, winter fat, and other similar plants are not adapted to fire. Cheat adapts to fire better than the native grasses.
Historically, there were frequent, smaller “cooler” fires. Now large intense fires have changed the steppe. At first fire was a balance – a tool - now it is a problem.
He said we must reduce the under story and the cheat. In short, he said, we need the sheep to return.
Grazing sheepHe said spring grazing when cheat grass is green and palatable, before it goes to seed would help. Burned range could be rehabilitated by reseeding with crested wheat as well as with native grasses and shrubs.
“We have lost too much and done too little. We need a collective effort between the agencies and the agricultural community to fix the problem.” However, Monnig said he didn’t think cattle grazing significantly reduced fuel loads.
Wenker of the BLM did not disagree with anything that Burkhardt said, and noted that the West had lost 9.5 million acres this last season and 1.3 million were in Nevada, most in Elko County. In 2005, 8.7 million acres burned overall, and he noted that Winnemucca Mountain, covered with cheat grass, burns year after year. In 46 years, five of the ten worst fires in history have happened in the west and that it is not necessary to keep livestock off the range after a fire. He said, “Not every area needs a two-year rest.”
Not enough grazing leads to fuel build-up, meaning another wildfire in the same place.
He said most people agree that areas that receive seed treatments need a minimum of two years rest.
Wenker encouraged ranchers to become more involved in fighting obstructive environmental lawsuits, that it would help the BLM manage the land if the courts could see what doing nothing costs the agricultural community.
“There is an industry today that thrives on lawsuits” to stop agency management practices. But some action must be taken before the stage is set yet again for more wildfires.
Wenker noted that the Winnemucca Fire Fighter Support group, manned by ranchers and other citizens, assisted the government fire fighters. This is helpful because locals are familiar with the terrain and the available roads. He thinks it would be beneficial if landowners and permittees were allowed to fight the fires on public lands as they did in years past. They could catch it early, get word to neighbors and other volunteers who could get around a fire before out-of-the-area firefighters can get to the site.
At this point, Griggs said, “prevention and suppression go together.” He has been on Maggie Creek Ranch for 16 years and been through several fire seasons. Maggie Creek lost 90,000 acres of forage for its cattle last summer.
Cooperation among agencies and the public would help, agreed Allen Biaggi who represented the Nevada Department of Natural Resources. He said the foregoing methods of prevention were recognized as useful in 1988, but were not implemented, so the same ranges burned again in 1998, further damaging native vegetation. Hot fires cause changes in vegetation types that are permanent now.
He said the agencies need to cooperate, but the agriculture community is the first line of defense.
Former president (1994-95) of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, Benny Romero, a rancher from Sweetwater, Nevada, near the Nevada/California border, said that between 1989 and 1998 grazing was decreased by 450,000 aums in Nevada at a cost to the state and the industry of $20,000,000 and the fires that followed on overgrown and decadent ranges have cost even more.
The bottom line seemed to be that agencies are now willing to let permittees fight the fires before agency personnel can arrive (provided they have proper training and equipment); that preventive measures could and should be taken; that grazing is necessary; that cooperation among agencies and ranchers is essential.
The parting advice given to ranchers is that they carefully record conditions on their own ranges with dated photographs taken during different seasons, being sure that the same landmarks appear in photos to be compared. They were cautioned against relying on anyone else to accurately record the health of grasses, shrubs and riparian areas on a particular allotment because range “cons” assigned to individual ranchers by agencies are often transferred after a few years, even before they have had enough time on the land to really understand it.  Each rancher should keep his own records and, if possible, hire an outside, disinterested range management consultant to assess and record conditions on the land.


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