Cattle grazing is being used by the USA’s Bureau of Land Management in Idaho in an experiment to see if they can be used to provide fuel breaks for firefighters.
The recently launched test in the Soda Fire Burn Scar on the Owyhee Front can be easily accessed, monitored and managed, because of the hospitable terrain and relatively few apex predators (requirements for success when livestock are used). The Soda Fire affected some 450 square miles three years ago.
Before this project, and along with many others, Congressman Greg Walden had written (2017) to the heads of the US Forest Service and BLM in regard to a ground fuel abatement plan using substitute large-bodied herbivores.
Rural communities, especially ranchers and farmers, today face many challenges to their very survival, the worst of which may very well be catastrophic wildfire.
These rural areas and the agricultural products that flow from them are in turn vital to the very survival of the people who choose to live and work in cities and urban areas.
Today, catastrophic wildfire presents as one of the most serious challenges to mankind for the obvious and many not so obvious reasons, and deforestation is trending at an alarming rate.
Catastrophic wildfire: Impacts and an argument favoring wildfire grazing
As a rancher and naturalist I have to wonder what people in the cities perceive when news reports highlight the devastation from catastrophic wildfires; the burned-out ranches, charred forests, burned wildlife and livestock and toxic smoke filling the skies and polluting the air we all breathe.
Without doubt most city dwellers have some level of empathy for these horrific losses, including the loss of human life. However, I also know there are many other people who are in denial and believe that wildfire cannot affect them in cities far from the infernos.
But nothing could be farther from the truth, as we saw during the tragedies and aftermath of the 2017 California and southern Oregon fire season, where the death and destruction was not confined to just the forests or rural areas, and devastated many urban areas in several states. The direct, secondary and tertiary damage remains wide and far-reaching, and are ongoing, with damages in the many tens of billions of dollars in 2017.
Deadly toxic smoke from wildfires does affect people in cities and towns far from the flames as was seen in many western states. New research suggests that wildfire smoke can serious affect the health of our children in ways that we have never considered before.
The devastation of forests from catastrophic wildfire leads to damaged watersheds resulting in less water for cities, towns and agriculture, as well as releasing millions of tons of toxic pollution, including carbon into the atmosphere that had been sequestered in the trees.
The millions of tons of pollutants that enter the atmosphere from just one fire season outweigh all of the pollution savings from environmentally mandated air pollution regulations like CARB [California Air Resources Board]. And the costs that are mounting from wildfire smoke health related illnesses are beginning to rise into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Obtaining fire insurance is now becoming a serious economic problem for many home owners, ranchers, farmers and businesses with varying levels of exposure to catastrophic wildfire, as determined by insurance underwriters. Many home and ranch owners can no longer comply with the terms of their mortgages because in some areas now, insurers are unwilling to renew or issue wildfire insurance coverage, forcing some to self-insure. Others who cannot afford or even obtain fire coverage remain in default of mortgage contracts which mandate such coverage.
In other areas deemed as being at moderate risk for wildfire, insurance premiums are skyrocketing sometimes as much as five-fold.
It seems that environmentalists have inhibited sustainable forest industries and the lumber industry to the point where the US Forest Service can’t allow any meaningful logging, so now, it seems they are getting paid to let it burn and thereby monetizing the ensuing wildfires and a booming fire-fighting industry.
More money and time is being spent on suppression than on prevention.
In the 2018 USFS budget of nearly $3 billion is allocated for wildfire suppression or fire-fighting. However, in the same multi-billion dollar budget, a paltry $100-million is allocated for wildfire prevention; that’s only 3.5% of the budget being allocated to prevention.
The reason for the evolution of catastrophic wildfire is crystal clear to anyone seeking the truth: Through mismanagement, many western states have depleted populations of large-bodied herbivores that had been abating millions of tons of prodigious ground fuels in the form of grass and brush that kindle and carry wildfire, creating abnormally hot, catastrophic fires. And climate change enhances conditions for the ignition of these excessive ground fuels via longer and hotter summers.
There is significant science that supports this observation in addition to simple mathematics.
Prevention is far cheaper than suppression
Recently, an excellent study was published in regard to forest fire and examining the 2011 Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico titled: ‘Assessing the economic trade-offs between prevention and suppression of forest fires‘, which was authored by a team of economics and math professors. The learnings are certainly applicable in western states.
“We find that with the application of preventive fuel management, the value of the forest is greater and less variable than in the case where prevention management spending is not applied to the forest. We also find that prevention spending lowers the number of devastating large fire events. The mean value of the forest over a 50‐year time horizon in the no-prevention management case is $536m with a standard deviation of $111.7m. When prevention is determined by the successive application of our optimal control problem, we find that the mean value of the forest over 50 years to be $671m with a standard deviation of $34m. This result illustrates that there are real economic costs associated with using funding for fuel management to fund immediate fire suppression.
“Perhaps, more surprisingly, we find that when optimal prevention management is employed, not only are high suppression costs drastically reduced, total spending on fire management (prevention and fire suppression) is less than the case without prevention management. In the case without prevention management spending, $236m was spent on average on fire suppression over the course of 50 years. In the case with applying optimal prevention management spending, only $42m was spent on average on suppression over 50 years and $65m was spent on prevention management.
“By comparison, $40m–$50m was spent fighting the Las Conchas fire. In our work with unknown fire sequences, we observed an 88% reduction in suppression spending on average with prevention management, and a 55% reduction in spending overall. This result provides hope that a more careful integration of fire prevention into wildfire management plans may actually reduce the cost of these plans.
“Our results clearly highlight the value of fuel management. This result arises even when we assume that prevention expenditures only influence fire risk in the period they are incurred. The implicit assumption here is that the effect of prevention (mechanical thinning, prescribed fire) decays rapidly. There is very little data on the longevity of fire prevention expenditures. In forests that regenerate slowly, the effect of prevention expenditures may last for many years. In forests that regenerate rapidly, the effect of prevention may be short‐lived. But how long prevention lasts will also vary by the type of prevention. For instance, the effects of prescribed fire may be temporary in forests that regenerate through fire. Thus, identifying how long the effect of fire prevention expenditures should last is complicated. Since our results tend to highlight the value of prevention, we elected to adopt a conservative assumption that would work lower the value of prevention. Thus, our results can be viewed as a lower bound estimate of the value of prevention relative to suppression.”
For the past many years, given that our family owns and manages a ranch with a pine and oak forest, I have been researching and writing about the relatively recent trending of catastrophic wildfire over the past five decades. And without doubt, the root of the problem is a depletion in the natural ground-fuel grazing animals (cervids in and around forests and grasslands).
According to states’ fish and game authorities, cervids in western states are in significant decline from five decades ago.
All of the best science shows that the effect on ground fuels (kindling for wildfire) due to the loss of our deer population is profound.
Grazing offers a cost-effective solution to catastrophic wildfire
Another key requirement for success in the BLM’s test of ground fuel abatement plan is the use of free-of-cost grazing herbivores. If herbivores had to be bought for this purpose, the costs/benefits for public land managers would need to be reevaluated.
The ongoing success of using invasive species livestock grazing for wildfire ground fuel abatement will greatly depend upon designing methodologies that will ostensibly preclude environmental intervention that might occur under various potential circumstances, which we might envision should erosion or other issues result from poor methodology.
Using well-designed management methodology in properly targeted areas, cattle, sheep and goats can be very cost-effective in abating ground fuels in areas where livestock grazing makes sense. Converting hazardous wildfire ground fuels (grass and brush) into food with economic value is a wise approach. For example, in areas where cheat grass has become problematic, grazing cattle can obviously be used early on before the grass fruits and then follow-up grazing (again before fruiting) using sheep and/or goats, which graze closer to the ground than cattle, can further eradicate this invasive species of grass into and through summer.
Then these intentionally over-grazed areas, now largely devoid of cheat grass seed, could then be timely reseeded using various methods with the seed of more desirable forage to support native species wildlife, as well as for future livestock grazing. In some cases as needed, an offset for reseeding costs might be deducted from any normally assessed grazing fees.
Strategic wildfire grazing in carefully selected areas using appropriate herbivores can be a very important and cost-effective wildfire prevention and mitigation tool.
Contrary to wildfire ground fuel abatement over the relatively abundant and accessible grassland areas, wildfire grazing programs for areas in and around remote forests with rugged virtually inaccessible terrain would be conducted in different but appropriate manner. Areas such as Six Rivers National Forest, Rogue River-Siskiyou Kalmiopsis Wilderness Forest (which frequently burn catastrophically) and environmentally sensitive areas such as the Cascade-Siskiyou National Forest would require a different grazing implementation plan. In difficult areas such as these, year-round deployment of non-invasive species large-bodied herbivores, preferably monogastric digesters (wild equines), is well-advised because they don’t strip the soils of native plants and seed or damage sensitive ecosystems, but nonetheless cost-effectively abate and maintain deadly ground fuels all-year long. A key requisite is once again, these specialized grazers are available at virtually no cost to taxpayers.
More about the BLM wildfire grazing test here.