Fire wise


In 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski fire burned over 430,000 acres across the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, two national forests and private land in central Arizona. It was a momentous year for wildfire. Over seven million acres burned nationwide. In response, Congress drew up, and President Bush signed, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. Its stated goal: to reduce the amount of fuel available to burn in the forests.

Well, last year’s Wallow Fire surpassed the Arizona record set by Rodeo-Chediski, charring over 550,000 acres. It decimated cattle feed as it swiftly burned through grazing land, and now Arizona ranchers have joined with U.S. Congressman Paul Gosar (R), to draft legislation with a similar objective of reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfire.

The bill requires the secretary of a land agency to make decisions on environmental or endangered species impacts within 60 days of a project proposal. Usually, these processes take years, and environmentalists have used them to stall contentious forestry projects in court. If decisions are sped up, advocates of the legislation contend, more fuels will be removed from the forests.

If it were up to Gosar and the Arizona Cattle Grower’s Association (ACGA), the agencies would place a moratorium on all National Environmental Protection Act and endangered species restrictions for five years, while loggers and ranchers work to reduce the fuel loads they claim are causing catastrophic fires.

"We have to turn this system around in a hurry. We want to say let us show you what we can do. If it doesn’t work, let us be responsible. We’ve been out there for 100 years. We understand what working landscapes do," said Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the ACGA.

Bray views their objectives as addressing "the heart" of the problem, but reducing fuel loads on Western lands is more complex than bypassing environmental restrictions and turning cattle and loggers out on public lands. In many respects, it boils down to resources and infrastructure. Over the course of a season, Forest Service and BLM crews balance calls for fire suppression with thinning projects on their home district. During a slow fire season, they may treat a couple hundred more acres than a demanding fire season, but what they accomplish is a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of acres out there.

Commercial logging works to thin forests on a larger scale and on a faster time frame, but the industry’s been nearly wiped out in states like Arizona and Colorado (because of environmentalists, according to Bray), and the small diameter trees prescribed for thinning projects don’t have a great market appeal. So whether fewer environmental reviews would automatically result in more logging is questionable.

If the logging hurdles could be resolved, the next dilemma is whether or not additional grazing actually reduces the risk of large wildfires. According to Steve Bunting, a range and fire ecologist at the University of Idaho, selective grazing can help to reduce the amount of fine fuels (grasses and herbaceous plants), which tend to carry more fire faster. If ranchers have a site that’s producing 500 to 600 lbs. of grass per acre and it’s reduced by the usual 40 percent through grazing, there’s still a lot of fuel left to burn, says Bunting. On the other side, if ranchers overgraze, woody shrubs take the place of grass, which adds greater fuel to a wildfire.

Bunting says he’s never seen a management plan that combines grazing with forest treatments to reduce fuel loads, as proposed by the Cattle Grower's Association. It could work, he says, but it would take intensive monitoring and money focused near high-value areas, such as the wildland urban interface.

Kevin Ryan, fire ecologist at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, agreed with Bunting, but he stressed that any management plan has to consider the ecological health of an area.

"If they graze, and they graze appropriately, it is quite logical that they could modify the fire potential through a grazing regime as long as the purpose in mind was to modify the fire potential, not the amount of beef you can put on a train car to go to market," said Ryan.

Neil LaRubbio is a High Country News intern.

Image provided by Flickr user Simon Rankin
Andrew Sipocz
Andrew Sipocz
May 19, 2012 11:29 PM
I believe cattle and sheep grazing is part of the fire problem, at least in ponderosa pine forests. USFS rangers noted starting in the 1920's that the removal of native grass by grazing was creating dog hair thickets of brush and young trees. The ponderosa pine savannah characteristic of much of the west is of two components. Large, well-spaced ponderosa pines and an understory of prairie. A savannah exists because tree regeneration is restricted. The usual story given in the news and by some forest ecologists is that frequent, low intensity fires are what restricts pine regeneration and prevents disaster prone closed canopy forests with lots of ladder fuels (brush, young trees and understory trees) from forming.

The presence of native stands of diverse and dense grasses play a larger role in restricting brush and tree regeneration, however. Through competition with tree seedlings for water and nutrients as well as carrying fires across the forest floor, these grasses were vital components in the ecosystem. I've heard for years about well managed cattle operations, but I've not actually seen one that hasn't resulted in the loss of understory herbaceous species and an increase in brush and tree seedlings. I know this result is counter intuitive because grazing prevents tree establishment, but only until the exhaustion of forage requires a pasture be given a rest at which point the almost complete loss of the grasses allows an explosion of brush and seedling establishment to occur. To someone not familiar with the long term interplay between the overstory forest and understory prairie, it seems that the removal of the cattle is what caused the thicketization of the forest. Of course this begs the question, "How the heck did these forests exist before cattle?" Or more astutely, "Why didn't bison grazing result in grass density and species loss?"

This isn't unique to the American west. It occurs with cattle operations throughout the world's savannahs whether in Africa, South America or Australia.