Wildfires force ranchers into tough choices


Issue Date: October 24, 2012
By Kate Campbell
Modoc County cattle rancher Bill Wilson surveys the grass on his home ranch near Alturas. Wildfire forced him to relocate his cattle from public grazing land. He says that will create a feed gap that will have to be filled with expensive hay.
Photo/Jean Bilodeaux

Photo/U.S. Forest Service
The lightning-sparked Barry Point Fire burned nearly 100,000 acres, including the Grizzly Allotment where Modoc County rancher Bill Wilson grazes cattle. The U.S. Forest Service is analyzing the fire’s effects to determine what type of emergency treatments need to occur.
Photo/U.S. Forest Service

While the catastrophic wildfires that ravaged northeastern California in August have been extinguished with the season's first rain and snow, economic and environmental damage will continue for years for families who ranch, log and live in the state's mountain counties.

And ranchers say an increased number of wildfires, coupled with the rest periods for grassland required by federal agencies, mean the cumulative effect of wildfires takes ever greater amounts of grazing land out of production—limiting feed options and the ability for ranchers to produce food economically.

For example, the 100,000-acre Barry Point Fire swept down from Oregon and burned into timber and public grazing land on the California border in Modoc County. Cattle rancher Bill Wilson of Alturas said the fire scorched grass on his U.S. Forest Service grazing allotment that would have provided at least a month's grazing for about 300 pairs of cows and calves.

"About 85 percent of our permit area burned," said Wilson, who was forced to move his cattle to his home ranch early, potentially depleting grasses much earlier than expected. "We don't think mandatory removal of cattle from the permit area over the next few years is necessary for the land to heal."

Federal policies differ on how long grazing should be banned on land affected by wildfire, saying it depends on the heat of the fire, the topography of burn areas and environmental considerations.

The Rush Fire along the California-Nevada state line started in mid-August with a lightning strike and burned for nearly two weeks on Bureau of Land Management land. The fast-moving fire burned more than 315,000 acres and wiped out grasses on allotments held by the Espil family.

As the fire swept in, Brent Espil said family and friends responded to the emergency by helping to move livestock—herding sheep on foot and cattle on horseback. The family maintains three grazing allotments on the edge of the Great Basin.

"I've already sold cattle, because we're not sure how much it will cost us to feed them in the future," Espil said. "We're hoping to find other grazing land for the spring, whether it's on public or private land. I'm trying to go forward as normal, working the cattle, preparing for calving.

"But, I'd hate to see anyone in the position we're in," he said. "What am I going to do?"

Federal agencies are now assessing damage to grasslands, as well as timber. Regulations can require resting the grazing land after a major fire for two to three years. Ranchers say that's too long for most to feed hay and still raise animals economically.

"One of my concerns, besides the cost and labor to replace miles and miles of fencing, is the need to restore the native grasses through seeding," Espil said. "I'm not sure we have an adequate amount of native grass seed to cover areas of this size. If we don't, I'm afraid the range will go to invasive weeds."

Espil said grazing is a fire-suppression tool.

"We've been ranching in this area since the 1960s and our allotment looked great," he said. "But I'm not sure when we'll be able to go back. It will be tough the next few years."

Of the 30 million acres of California land suitable for grazing, about half is privately owned. Of the more than 15 million acres of suitable public land, less than half is grazed in any one year.

"We need quick assessments of the rangeland, focusing on erosion and whether ground needs to be reseeded or not," said Sean Curtis, Modoc County resource conservation analyst. "If the fire burned hot enough to burn the roots, then it needs to be reseeded."

He said environmental groups argue that if land is reseeded, it must be reseeded with native species.

"But in years like this with a lot of acres burned, there's never enough native seed to go around," said Curtis, who is a past Modoc County Farm Bureau president. "We've been looking at ways to increase the seeds available and exploring ways to create 'grass banks,' so ranchers who graze will have more alternatives."

Curtis said ranchers and resource managers have been trying to work across jurisdictional lines to create access to lands—grass banks—suitable for grazing between the Forest Service and the BLM, and vice versa. Right now, grazing allotments between the two agencies cannot be accessed interchangeably.

Shasta County rancher Henry Giacomini said the widespread fire damage presents an opportunity to discuss with government agencies what ranchers in the wildfire areas can do to help restore the forests to operation.

"It's not just livestock producers who will suffer because of these disasters," said Giacomini, who is president of the Shasta County Farm Bureau. "There are many kinds of businesses that depend on access to public lands to operate."

In addition to grazing and logging, public lands are used by outdoor recreation companies, utilities, and mining and energy operations, as well as providing habitat for hundreds of different species.

"One useful development during recovery from these fires could be creation of contingency plans for livestock producers who depend on access to grazing land," Giacomini said.

Under such plans, he said, if an allotment is damaged, the public agency—Forest Service or BLM—would have already done the environmental certification work to offer alternative areas for grazing.

"It just doesn't make sense to allow fuel loads to build, inevitably resulting in major fires, and put people out of business because alternatives haven't been developed," Giacomini said. "With planning and coordination, these impacts can be lessened."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.