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.
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.
CATTLEMEN HEAR ABOUT WILDFIRES:
PREVENTION VERSUS SUPPRESSION By Mary
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
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
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
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
“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
“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.
He 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
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
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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