Fields of Fire
Fires in the West – A Growing Problem
By Heather Smith-Thomas
The fires raging across western states this summer have destroyed many thousands of acres of rangeland, leaving ranchers with no grazing for their cattle. Some have also lost private property and livestock; many are wondering what their options are to try to stay in business. Even though government assistance is emerging in various programs to help the ranchers, more answers are needed. The catastrophic fires have also stirred up a storm of political and environmental controversy as some people try to dismiss them as a product of nature—global warming, drought and high temperatures. Others lay the blame on poor land management policies spurred by pressure from so-called environmental groups that have pushed for less grazing on public lands, and court-ordered reductions in numbers of cattle. Less utilization of grass has meant more fuel buildup and perfect conditions for major fires.

Short Term Solutions: Help for the Ranchers
The immediate problem for many ranchers is how to survive the loss. Some of the fires in Nevada, Idaho, Utah and Montana have left many ranchers facing a devastating crisis. For instance, in southern Idaho the Murphy Complex fire burned almost 700,000 acres before it was finally contained on July 30. Josh Tewalt, Executive Vice President of the Idaho Cattle Association says it’s been tragic for many ranchers. “Our association is looking at finding ranchers a place to go with their cattle so we can keep them in business another year—so they won’t have to sell their cows.”

“We’re working hard with the governor’s office and the Idaho congressional delegation, asking them to lean on our federal agencies and encourage flexibility so producers can have some options,” says Tewalt. Usually the BLM prohibits grazing for at least 2 years on burned allotments, and ranchers must find alternative pasture for their cattle. “We need to look for innovative ways for these folks to keep operating in a responsible manner. This is always challenging, because we’re dealing with agencies that haven’t been making the decisions. Those decisions have been made in the courts. Changes will take congressional action.” This may not be soon enough for a lot of people in the short term, however.

“The ICA is looking for private land options,” says Tewalt. Dairymen and farmers have stepped forward to offer assistance. A farmer might have cornstalks or grain stubble that could be used by a rancher needing somewhere to go with cattle. “ICA was originally approached by 2 dairymen and one of them said he had 1400 acres of stubble that someone could use if they could string a hot wire around it and haul water for cattle. So we put our heads together and realized that if we could get 25 or 30 farmers in various regions, this could be a big help; it could mean the difference between someone staying in business or having to sell out.”

“Right now we’re working to coordinate efforts and try to identify people with private ground who could help,” says Tewalt. The ICA is matching up people with available land and people who need grazing, and developing criteria regarding the responsibilities of the land owner and the person running cattle on these places.

“Other options are also opening. USDA recently announced that 14 counties in Idaho were approved for emergency use of CRP ground. We’re also looking at other types of assistance, but every stockman who was burned out would rather find another place to run cows than just get a check from the government,” says Tewalt.

Boyd Spratling, a rancher near Deeth, Nevada (between Wells and Elko) is president of the Nevada Cattlemen. He says there are some government programs to give assistance to ranch families who have been burned out. “When you hear a description of the programs, they sound very encouraging, but like any bureaucratic program, the devil’s in the details—to find out if you really qualify (regarding number of acres of public and private grazing, etc.) and you wonder if it’s worth trying to apply. Many people that you’d assume could get help don’t qualify, just because of some little detail or formula in the application.” Financial help from some of these programs is appreciated, but it’s not the answer to what these families are facing, says Spratling.

Some people will apply for government help and some will not. “That’s a personal choice. But we do need help in getting the infrastructure back into place after a fire, during the period you can’t graze your range and your income is decreased—so your allotment will be functional when you are allowed to graze it again. Right now you could turn a cow loose in Deeth, Nevada, and she could go clear to Bruneau, Idaho because all the fences are gone. The cost of getting these structures back in place is overwhelming,” explains Spratling.

A million acres in Elko County burned last year, and it looks like 3 times that amount may burn this year. Some BLM districts in Nevada have been trying to help permittees after the fires, with fences and reseeding. In some allotments that were not totally burned, they fenced off the unburned areas and allowed ranchers to go ahead and use them, rather than taking a non-use for 2 years on the whole allotment. People are realizing that if the entire area is rested, lightning could hit the ungrazed portion and you could lose the whole thing. In some of the closed allotments where there was no grazing at all, fires burned up the rest.

Long Term Solutions: Change is Needed in Land Management
This year is proving to be one of the worst fire years ever. “Last year fires burned 1.1 million acres in Nevada,” says Spratling. “This year we are only halfway through the fire season and if weather patterns don’t change we’ll exceed that,” he says. As of late July, more than 700,000 acres had burned in northern Nevada alone, from Winnemucca to the Utah border.

By early August nearly a million acres had burned in Idaho. The Murphy fire was the largest range fire in Idaho history. The historic fire of 1910 in northern Idaho was larger, but it was burning forest rather than rangeland.

“We’ve got to look at some of the long term management decisions that put us into this situation,” says Tewalt. “Environmental activists continue to bring lawsuits against grazing, feeling it’s a consumptive use.” With reduced grazing levels there’s a buildup of fine fuels (grass) just like the buildup of larger fuels in the forests where logging has been prohibited.

Bert Brackett, a rancher from Rogerson, Idaho, and State Representative for District 23, says he lives in a desert and expects dry conditions now and then, but the big problem this year was fuel buildup due to reduced grazing. “Do we want more of the same, or can we make changes to utilize more of the grass?” he asks.

The Murphy fire was in the Jarbridge Resource Area (Twin Falls BLM district) where Jon Marvel (Western Watersheds) was active in getting an injunction in 2005 against any further grazing on 29 allotments. “The result was a stipulated settlement agreement with Western Watersheds, greatly reducing cattle use,” explains Brackett. “This was in the name of protecting sage grouse. But what burned this summer is the best remaining sage grouse habitat, and habitat for other wildlife,” he says.

“Personally, I am blaming Jon Marvel for the fire because of the court order. In essence, he assumed management of this land; we’ve been under his management for the last 3 years,” says Brackett. A court ordered update to the Resource Management Plan was part of the terms of the court settlement and is in progress, with a deadline coming soon. “Some of the alternatives call for reduced grazing, but I think this would look pretty foolish, in light of the fire,” he says.

This fire in southern Idaho destroyed most of the habitat, including winter range for big game, adversely affecting wildlife, endangered species, recreation opportunities, and impacted private as well as public land. “Environmental groups, BLM, Fish and Game, etc. have been big pushers to restrict grazing, so management policies have been part of the reason for fuel buildup,” says Brackett.

“This creates a situation where our public lands are a tinder box, just waiting to burn. We have to change that mindset—from looking at grazing as a consumptive use to viewing it as a management tool,” says Tewalt. Grazing not only helps prevent fires but can also be used in the aftermath of fire. In a sagebrush eco-system where habitat has been destroyed, grazing is a viable tool to help prevent the influx of invasive species like cheat grass. “It’s a valuable tool, but one that the courts have been increasingly removing from the land manager’s arsenal,” he says.
“We’re not talking about grazing to eliminate fire. Fire is a natural part of rangeland,” says Tewalt. But grazing can reduce the incidence of catastrophic fires that burn everything—including entire watersheds and all the wildlife habitat. Fire is normal and healthy, but in the absence of small fires there will be more catastrophic fires. Those big fires are indicators that the ecosystem is not functioning properly.

“Our goal is to find the balance, and proper utilization level. Normally it’s in the 50 to 60 percent range. But in the Murphy Complex area, because of the court decision we have a utilization level down around 15 to 25 percent,” says Tewalt.

“Some people get more worried about a cow track in a certain region than appreciating the benefit of what proper grazing utilization would do to prevent a catastrophic fire that destroys ALL the habitat, and endangered species as well. You don’t get that back overnight. We’re talking about a fire cycle that’s gone from 25 years to every 5 years or less. There are a lot of areas that burn and are ablaze again 2 years later,” says Tewalt.

“The Murphy fire is out now, and though some people are saying it was a freak of nature (drought and high temperatures), we think this fire was 10 years in the making, especially the last 3 years since the court order,” says Brackett. He met with governor Otter and Senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo July 30 after they’d flown over the burned area to survey the damage. “We continue to debate with BLM and with Jon Marvel, regarding the value of grazing to reduce fuel buildup. In 21 years, from 1984 to 2004, fires burned an average of 39,000 acres per year in Idaho, but in the past 3 years we’ve burned an average of 380,000 acres—about 10 times the earlier average. This year we’ve already exceeded that, and the fire season is only half over,” he says.

The last 8 years have been dry, but drought is just part of the picture. In earlier times, dry years did not produce such horrendous fires because of adequate grazing. “If we look at the fire cycle since 1999, it tells us that whatever we’ve been doing for the past 30 years is probably wrong,” says Spratling. We need to re-evaluate range policies and come to a more realistic way to determine how long to keep cattle off a burned range. If your allotment has burned twice in the last 5 or 6 years, this tells me there’s a good chance that cheat grass will come back in, and you’d better go out as early as you can in the spring and graze it as hard as you can, right after that second burn. What we’ve lost, in managing our ranges, is flexibility,” he says. Management decisions need to be made on a case by case basis at a local office instead of a central office where managers “go by the book” on policies that may not apply to a given situation.

The end result of a hands-off policy (no action by man to help reduce fuels) is cheat grass because the range will keep burning. “The irony of this, when there’s nothing but cheat grass out there, is that the only thing that can benefit from it will be a cow. A few antelope and chukkers may utilize cheat grass, but none of the other species will be there,” says Spratling. It will be a monoculture with no diversity.

How did we get to this crisis?
Most of the people who live on the land feel that the efforts of so-called environmentalists to eliminate logging and grazing, and a misunderstanding of “nature” have brought us to this point. We have created an unnatural situation by our “protection” of resources. In a truly natural situation, forests do not become overgrown to the point of massive fuel buildup because periodic fires thin them. Grasslands in earlier times did not have tremendous fuel loads because grazing animals (bison, elk, etc.) grazed them.

Senator Larry Craig presented comments about wildfire to the Senate on July 24, pointing out that 100 years ago the Forest Service began “preserving” forests by fighting all fires. But this was counterbalanced by allowing forests to be utilized by the logging industry, taking the fuel buildup off the land. This balanced the “no fire” policy and kept catastrophic fires to a minimum. In the past several decades, however, more and more forests have been locked up as wilderness, and no logging allowed. Even in “managed” forests, a dramatic decrease in logging has occurred because of the Endangered Species Act, New Forest Management Act, Clean Water Act, etc. Craig showed figures revealing that the allowable cut of timber on public lands has been reduced by more than 80 percent since the early 1990’s. Before this reduction, the Forest Service had a lot of revenue from timber sales, and plenty of money to fight fires. Today, there’s very little revenue from timber, and less money to fight fires—and the agency policy is now becoming “let it burn”. And our forests are doing just that, due to the buildup of fuel in the absence of logging—and burning up wildlife and habitat, watersheds and impacting water quality. We’ve been throwing money at fire suppression in ever increasing amounts for the last 5 or 6 years, to the tune of billions of dollars annually, according to Craig, and it’s not working.

Forests need to be thinned and grasslands need to be grazed, yet in the name of protecting the environment we are not doing this. “We have decided to simply preserve and allow it to be natural, but the fires burning in the West are not natural,” said Craig. “They are hotter, more intense, and more destructive than fires seen in our forests within the last century.” The forests Lewis and Clark came through 200 years ago might have had 100 trees per acre, but many of these same areas now have 400 trees and because of heat and drought some are dead and dying and have created an unprecedented fuel load, he says. “Public policy has tied the hands of our land managers and as a result millions of acres are now burning annually.”

If we are worried about climate change and carbon being put into the atmosphere, he points out that fires on public lands this year will put much more carbon into the atmosphere than any one year of automobile driving. “Yet somehow there are people willing to ignore this, thinking it’s nature and uncontrollable. I would argue that’s not true, because 20 years ago we did not have these kinds of fires, even though we had droughts and peaks of dryness and heat,” says Craig.

The same is true for range fires. “We have federal agency managers in our area who understand fully what the problems are, but they are hobbled by policies set forth by the agency, influenced by so-called environmental groups that don’t want reasonable management,” says Spratling. “They talk about doing things for sage grouse habitat, bitterbrush, etc. but reveal their true colors when you find out they don’t really care about the resource—they’d rather let it burn—and their only agenda is to get livestock off the land,” he says.

“They’ve learned how to work the judicial system and are experts at it. They never get involved in any efforts to make things work. They wait until a decision is made, protest it, and then end up in court,” explains Spratling. These are stalling and blocking tactics; it’s all about power and control, and trying to cripple good management.

Sam Mori, who ranches 60 miles north of Elko, Nevada, says his area has had a number of catastrophic fires in the last 4 years. “There’s a pattern developing, coinciding with stricter grazing regulations, starting when regulations for grazing riparian areas became more strict,” he says. Cattle were often fenced out of riparian areas or only allowed to graze an allotment for a short time so they would not impact riparian areas.

“Now when there’s a lightning strike, there’s enough fuel for fire to go a long ways. Our brush community in Nevada is also getting old and decadent, with big sagebrush stands. This is where fires get so hot and hard to handle, and carrier fuels (grass) take it on to the next patch of brush. If there’s any wind at all, you can’t stop it.” Controlled sagebrush burns in a cool season would be good preventative maintenance, along with more realistic levels of grazing to reduce the fine fuels that carry the fire from brush patch to brush patch. “Grazing is a very cheap fire prevention tool,” says Mori.

The present problems will continue until land management policies change, but it will have to change from the top down; the local districts don’t have enough flexibility. Even when beneficial legislation is passed by Congress, and funds allocated to agencies to administer it, “we’re not very impressed with what happens to it,” he says. The agencies are often more concerned about their own agendas and control, and also worried about lawsuits. “Everyone is sue-happy or sue-scared. It’s a shame we don’t have the money that’s spend on litigation to make some positive changes out on the ground,” says Mori.

Need for Policy Change
The controversy continues over use of grazing in land management, but Brackett feels that reducing fuel buildup is common sense. “We have numerous photos after the Murphy fire, showing where grazing was effective in slowing it down. But BLM policy is total reliance on suppression rather than prevention. All they do is buy more tankers and cats, and hire more people to fight fire. It’s not working.” Unless we can stop the catastrophic fires, the taxpayers will just be spending more and more for agency firefighting equipment and crews; it’s a vicious cycle.
Spratling, in Nevada, has been working for many years to try to get public land management policies changed—to try to prevent fires rather than spend millions of dollars fighting them. Reducing or eliminating grazing, or keeping livestock off burned ranges for 3 to 9 years to protect bitterbrush (as is done on some allotments) merely adds to fuel buildup and more fires. He says keeping cattle off this long is a farce because they don’t have that much impact on bitterbrush, especially in present-day grazing regimes where pastures are used for shorter periods of time.

“Fuels management should have a place in decision making. We can’t make all the management decisions based on bitterbrush recovery or sagebrush habitat or riparian habitat. If management looks only at certain isolated aspects, it won’t work,” says Spratling. “If people want to save sage grouse, mule deer wintering ground or whatever, they should look at these big fires. They may have a pet issue, but in a fire like this, the entire area is black and all habitat is burned up. Think of the amount of sediment and runoff that will occur in riparian areas. And if it burns again, there’s even less likelihood the sagebrush will come back after a second or third burn,” he says.
“We ask those groups if they’ve accomplished what they wanted. We don’t disagree with their goals. We disagree with their methods and need to re-evaluate them,” says Spratling. Everybody loses in a fire like this—the rancher, the public, the sportsman—because we’ve lost the resource.
He feels there are ways to manage the land better. Grazing can help reduce fine fuels, and cool season burns can reduce excessive buildup of pinion juniper or big sagebrush in brushy draws. Selective logging can reduce fuels in forested areas. “We don’t want to eliminate brush; we just need to break it up so we won’t have such catastrophic fires in the future,” says Spratling. Much of the extensive acreage that burned in 2000, for instance, included areas that had not been logged or grazed for many years, and when it burned, everything burned.

“The burn in south Lake Tahoe this year was a wake-up call for many people, burning their homes. They had no idea what our issues are regarding fuel buildup and fire potential, but now they understand. They were under some strict agency regulations in that basin regarding whether or not they could rake up pine needles and they were not allowed to take out dead trees because everything had to be left in place to halt sediment runoff. But just think about the amount of sediment that will go into Lake Tahoe now!”

John Falen, who ranches near Winnemucca, Nevada, says that when logging was halted in certain areas, the underbrush was no longer controlled—creating a tinderbox effect. Another result of continued burning has been tremendous expansion of cheat grass. “The biggest problem with cheat grass is its combustibility; it matures early and dries out, and burns readily,” says Falen.
“BLM policy is to rest an allotment for 2 years after a fire, but this is not a law and there’s no science to back it up. By not using the range we’re managing in favor of cheat grass, and more fires. The worse thing we do is rest those allotments; we need to reduce fire fuel and call it fuel rather than grass, and not keep letting it all burn up,” says Falen. Fires will go lightly over the areas that are properly utilized, but generally burn everything in areas with heavy fuel loads.

“We also need to allow private industry to go into some areas and log, to help the agencies in fuel management,” says Falen. It seems more logical to utilize the resources by logging and grazing, rather than burn and waste the timber and grass. It seems illogical to spend so much money fighting fires instead of letting these natural resources generate money for local economies.
“You can spend 20 times as much money trying to fight a fire as what it would cost to prevent it,” says Falen. Some of the best prevention strategies include using the resources, creating a beneficial product (lumber, beef) and income for local communities. This country is suffering a shortage of building materials and higher costs of building homes, while at the same time we allow millions of dollars worth of timber to burn up. This doesn’t make sense.

Mori says that repeated fires alter the plant community and it will never be the same. “Fire can enhance habitat, but if it keeps happening again and again it’s devastating. We have areas here now that are just cheat grass. This year was a test of some new plants the BLM put in, that they thought would be more fire resistant, but that didn’t work. They tried forage kochia, crested wheat (later maturing, to stay green longer) and bitterbrush for deer. But when that fire blew up this year, it took everything; there was nothing left. This type of planned recovery may not be working either,” he says. More of the fuel needs to be reduced by appropriate grazing, earlier in the season.

A Few Specifics.......
Spratling has lost cattle and grazing land to fire several times in the past few years. He says there are multiple impacts on the rancher. “You always go through the fear and apprehension that goes along with the fire itself. When will they get it out? How much of my range will burn? How many cows will I lose? Will the fire come onto my private land and burn up my home?”

Most of his range burned in 2001, and burned again this year. “About 33,000 acres of our allotment burned in this recent fire; it went across from west to east, then back across it that evening. It essentially made 4 trips across our range, every time the wind changed. But we were lucky; we made a stand between our range and our private ground and were able to stop it there—even though we were more willing to have our private land burn than lose our allotment, just because we could be in charge of the rehab and post fire management on our land, as opposed to having someone else do it.” Ranchers are not happy with the way government agencies manage after a fire.

“We lost 22 cows in this fire but will have to shoot 4 or 5 more, due to severe burn injuries (losing their feet or udders, sloughing off large areas of skin or developing severe infections from deep burns),” says Spratling. But cattle losses are just the start of the problem. Then you have to worry about what you’ll do for pasture.

The BLM won’t let a permittee use the allotment for 2 years (sometimes longer) after a burn. “When this much country burns, there’s no other pasture available. So how do you plan? Do you sell cattle or haul them a long distance for pasture? Every decision you make in the livestock industry has 10 year implications, and you don’t know if your plan today will be a good one or not,” he says.

You’ll have lower income for the next 2 years because you’ll have to do something else with your cows and that costs money. “At the same time, you have to spend money to get your allotment back in shape to use it again. I know one ranch that’s looking at a cost of $80,000 for fencing. Some people are putting in all metal posts, even the braces, so it won’t burn in the future,” says Spratling. This is a sad commentary on the situation, realizing that after you rebuild it, it will burn again.

“Fires have long-term effects on ranching. It’s not just the loss you sustain today, but also the next several years with the cost of building back. We just barely got our cattle numbers back to where they were before the 2001 fire, and now we’ll have to cut back again,” he explains.

Sam Mori says ranchers in his area who lost grazing are wondering what their options will be, since hay costs are so high. He’s sorting out his older cows to sell. The fire that came toward his ranch burned 4000 acres of private range that he’s always used when he brought cows home from his public range permit. “If we can get through this fall and next fall, maybe we can start using it again. Right now there are no fences. We’ve rebuilt about 11 miles so far (after last year’s fire) and the Forest Service said they’ll rebuild their boundary fence on the back side of our property. The thing that scares me is not knowing when they might get it done, since they are having trouble with funding and approval. If that project is delayed, we can’t even use our private land because that’s the boundary fence. We can’t afford to build it ourselves,” says Mori.

“The Snow Canyon fire burned right to our ranch. The day the fire went up the canyon there was nothing the firefighters could do. We had about 300 head of cattle up there and some haystacks. My brother and I tried to get up there, but the firefighters wouldn’t let us. In 4 hours, the whole canyon was gone. I was thankful they didn’t let us go there,” says Mori.

“The day it was controlled, I was the first person they let go up there, and I rode horseback to check out the damage and see how many cattle we’d lost. I went up a canyon and 5 coyotes barked at me and wouldn’t leave. My horse got nervous because they were so close. Finally I was within 20 yards of one and he moved off, barking. I realized their feet were burned off and that’s why they didn’t want to move. I thought coyotes would be the last animals left—that they would survive a fire. The fact they were adversely affected was an eye-opener and it was a sickening sight. These animals were suffering so much they couldn’t move. From a wildlife standpoint this fire had affected everything, all species—they were either dead or injured. This is too much loss,” he says.
Note: Ranchers needing assistance after a fire should contact their county officials, state department of agriculture, FSA or their state cattlemen’s association to find out what programs might be available.

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