Newspaper column: How to save the West from devastating wildfires

As we enter another wildfire season — and each one seems to be more devastating than the previous one — the question lingers: Why?

According to The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic it is unquestionably due to climate change.

Pay no heed to the fact that prior to 1980 less than 25,000 acres of wildfires occurred each year in Nevada. In each of the past two years, more than 1 million acres have burned. Coincidentally, since 1980 the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have made massive cuts in the number of cattle and sheep allowed to graze federal land. The number of sheep has fallen 80 percent and the number of cattle has been cut in half.

This past week’s issue of Executive Intelligence Review magazine asks the question: “What Is Causing Massive Wildfires In the U.S. West: The Environment — Or Environmentalism?”

The article focuses on the largest fire in Nevada history — the July 2018 Martin Fire, which burned nearly half a million acres in Northeast Nevada and devastated the Ninety-Six Ranch, which has been run by the Stock and Stewart families for 155 years. The article includes an extensive interview with rancher Kris Stewart, who has been lobbying the federal land agencies and the president to allow historic levels of grazing to prevent such wildfires.

Stewart told the magazine’s editor the vegetative fuel levels on the rangeland that burned in the Martin Fire had been allowed to reach 1,000 percent of normal by the BLM’s own estimates, and, despite this, she said the ranch was denied permission for additional grazing time.

In the 1960s, she reported, “the modern environmental movement began to inform range management studies and policy, and environmental lawsuits caused a shift in grazing policies. Once considered engaged partners, ranchers were viewed as the enemy …”

This was political, not scientific. Stewart noted that range biologists such as Allan Savory have concluded that livestock grazing disturbs the soil in a healthy manner, “allowing rain and snow water, seeds and fertilizer to be absorbed throughout the soil. They obviously also deposit some of those seeds as well as a completely natural and healthy fertilizer to the soil.”

In the 2015 summer edition of Range magazine, under the headline “Cows can save the world,” Savory stated, “Over millions of years such grasslands — soil life, plants, grazing animals and their predators — developed together in an amazing symbiotic relationship. The grasses needed animals grazing, trampling, dunging and urinating just as much as the animals needed plants.”

16 comments on “Newspaper column: How to save the West from devastating wildfires

  1. Steve says:

    It’s like eliminating wolves from Yellowstone.
    An overabundance of Elk killed off a lot of plant life among a lot of other things. But not all is coming back, some things may never come back. Like beavers. There used to be a whole lot of beaver dams, but there are none now. The elk killed off the plant life beaver use and they left the area, maybe for good. This is preventing water needed by willow plants and trees.

    And so on, it goes. What appears to be a small change really has very large and long lasting consequences. But reintroducing the missing element also goes a long way towards improving a bad situation. Success with Yellowstone wolves support reintroducing grazing in the west.

  2. Rincon says:

    Not sure I understand. I thought fire was healthy for most range land and that forest fires were the big problem. Since cattle don’t graze forests, I don’t see what they can do to prevent the most famous, if not largest fires. And of course, if forest fires are also more common than they were in yesteryear, it would suggest that lack of grazing has little to do with it. An explanation fitting both range land and forests (such as weather) would be more likely in that case.

    Stewart says that cheatgrass, which is an invasive species, is the primary fuel for the recent range fires. According to this article at least, whether cattle help or hurt resistance to fire is a whole lot more complicated than saying that munching on fuel minimizes fire.
    “The conclusion seems to be that overgrazing in healthy Great Basin ecosystems can help cheatgrass spread. But once it’s there, cattle may also help control it and the wildfires it causes.”
    https://www.hcn.org/blogs/goat/the-cattle-cheatgrass-connection

    Also missing is any explanation by the BLM for allowing fuel to accumulate to 1,000% of normal in some areas. Since cattle eat the shoots and don’t eat the mature cheatgrass, it seems that once fuel levels reached a certain point, a prescribed burn would have been in order. Budget constraints? After all, Trump brags about having cut the budgets of various government agencies and the fires did take place on his watch.

    But what astounds me is the broad conclusion made here and probably elsewhere as well, on both sides, without significant information about temperatures and rainfall during dry vs wet seasons. That is to say, no information at all about the most important variable. For example, it could be very possible to have a few wet years with an increased threat of wildfire if say, the rainfall during the growing season is abundant, leading to increased vegetation (i.e., fuel), but the dry seasons following are hotter and dryer than normal.

  3. Can’t control the weather.

  4. Steve says:

    Sure has been nice here so far, this summer.
    All that wet weather probably spurred a whole bunch of new growth getting dry now. And there’s still snow, melting, at the top of Mt Charleston.

  5. Rincon says:

    If the weather is the primary factor, then the presence of large fires is not evidence of range mismanagement, regardless of our lack of control – although it is arguable that we’ve thrown away the one control we could have had.

    On average, Nevada’s daily temperature has increased two degrees in the last century. Even without any precipitation change, increased evaporation and transpiration would make the risk of fire greater. https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-09/documents/climate-change-nv.pdf (Trump probably hasn’t seen this page yet. It was supposed to have been banned). This is in line with predictions made 25 years ago by people who were shooting in the dark according to the most intelligent Conservatives. An embarrassing coincidence, I gather.

  6. HighflyinBrien says:

    Hmmm…seems like another good reason to leave the wild mustangs alone out there on the range huh?

  7. Bill Bilyeu says:

    The role of hoofed ungulates in range biodiversity around the world is well documented. For instance see: Managing Bison to Restore Biodiversity – Lincoln Research
    digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1542&context=greatplainsresearch
    Managing Bison to Restore Biodiversity 127. A wide array of ungulate (hoofed mammal) grazers maintain grasses in many grasslands around the world. You are right that the ranchers and BLM used to have a healthy working partnership. They cooperated in terms of rangeland management, development of water resources and control of the feral mustangs. We now have no intelligent management and an adversarial system. We now have the insanity of allowing fuel buildup and spending millions of dollars on warehousing feral horses taken from a range that cannot support their numbers but that the activists would rather see starve in place than be rationally and humanely disposed of as they are in most societies around the world.

  8. Bill says:

    The role of hoofed ungulates in range biodiversity around the world is well documented. For instance see: Managing Bison to Restore Biodiversity – Lincoln Research
    digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1542&context=greatplainsresearch
    Managing Bison to Restore Biodiversity 127. A wide array of ungulate (hoofed mammal) grazers maintain grasses in many grasslands around the world. You are right that the ranchers and BLM used to have a healthy working partnership. They cooperated in terms of rangeland management, development of water resources and control of the feral mustangs. We now have no intelligent management and an adversarial system. We now have the insanity of allowing fuel buildup and spending millions of dollars on warehousing feral horses taken from a range that cannot support their numbers but that the activists would rather see starve in place than be rationally and humanely disposed of as they are in most societies around the world.

  9. Rincon says:

    “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
    — Hitchens’s Razor

  10. Steve says:

    Rincon missed the link Bill posted.
    Prolly cause it needs to be copied and pasted into the address bar.

  11. Rincon says:

    I only read the abstract, but it says, “Bison, in concert
    with fire, exerted strong control on the structure of the vegetation by
    grazing, trampling, and wallowing.”

    In concert with fire. So if fire is a natural part of the ecology, why wring our hands? Oh yeah, we don’t want just a working ecology, we want maximum production for our benefit as well. I want that as well.

    The disagreement isn’t whether grazing should be permissible, it’s how much grazing is sustainable and whether or not the BLM is managing the land reasonably well. Conservatives will always insist that any government agency is functioning and will function poorly and then deny them adequate funding, which fulfills the prophecy. Thomas’ article involves an anecdote told by a rancher, who is likely to be biased. That doesn’t make it wrong. It’s just insufficient evidence upon which to base an opinion.

  12. Anonymous says:

    The point is major wildfires increasing. Not just fire. Fire is normal in nature.
    So is grazing.
    Balancing this used to be a partnership.
    Now “millionaire welfare ranchers” are reviled as though the only answer can come from a bureaucrat behind a desk in a corner office located on the outskirts of DC.

  13. Steve says:

    Oops, I did it again.

    Old habits, die hard.

  14. Rincon says:

    Who’s reviled, the ranchers or the BLM?

  15. Steve says:

    Ask Patrick.

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