Hear Me Out: Does forest grazing help prevent the spread of wildfires?

PHOENIX - Each Sunday, ABC15.com debuts an Arizona issue - along with two opposing sides on the topic.

Don't worry, you always have the opportunity to make comments at the bottom of the page. Yeah, your opinion matters, too.

This week we're tackling the debate on whether or not forest grazing as fuel treatment helps prevent the spread of wildfires.

Christopher Allison, department head of Extension Animal Sciences and Natural Resources at New Mexico State University, says grazing is a tool to help manage incidence of catastrophic wildlife.

Mark Salvo, wildlife program director with WildEarth Guardians, and Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project, say scientific research shows that grazing actually contributes to the high-intensity fires we see in our forests and deserts today.

Click "next page" to read the first of two positions, " From grasses to gasses, grazing causes blazing".


"From grasses to gasses, grazing causes blazing": By Mark Salvo, wildlife program director with WildEarth Guardians, and Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project

Livestock remove and trample plants, endanger wildlife, damage soil, spread weeds, despoil water, accelerate desertification and even contribute to global warming, but can grazing help control wildfire? Despite the promises of the ranching industry, science doesn't support that notion—unless cows can learn to smokejump and work a fire line. In fact, scientific research shows that grazing actually contributes to the high-intensity fires we see in our forests and deserts today.

Last year's Wallow Fire, the largest fire in Arizona history, was a perfect example of how livestock grazing affects forest fires. In the past, ponderosa pine forests were maintained by low-intensity, high-frequency fire. However, many of these forests have undergone a dramatic change in structure and species composition since Euro-American settlement. Fire suppression, logging and livestock grazing have altered the natural fire regime and transformed many ponderosa pine forests into dense thickets of young trees that are prone to intense fire.

Livestock contribute to unhealthy forests by removing grasses and other fine fuels that would otherwise carry frequent, low-intensity fires that naturally kill young tree seedlings, limiting the overall density of trees in the forest. "Cool," cleansing fires are good for forests, but livestock shift the natural state of affairs and the results are catastrophic. Recent assessments have found a 25 percent increase in young trees and at least a five-fold increase in tree density in many ponderosa pine forests in the West—a change partially attributable to the widespread presence of domestic livestock on the landscape.  

In the deserts, we're seeing livestock-induced fire regimes unlike any in history. Non-native grasses like buffelgrass and Lehmann lovegrass introduced as forage for livestock now carry huge, hot fires that threaten to convert entire ecosystems into African grasslands. Cattle only graze these plants when they are young and green; once they become dry and mature (and increasingly flammable), cattle simply shuffle past them, disturbing the soil and creating new places for seeds to grow. Using livestock to "control" the problem simply kicks the can down the road, creating a bigger problem in more places as non-native grasses spread across the landscape.

In the big picture, livestock grazing exacerbates the wildfire problem in another way. By "off-gassing" methane and other greenhouse gases, livestock are responsible for more harmful emissions than all transportation sectors combined. Scientists predict that the resulting global climate change, including hotter temperatures and more drought, is likely to cause more frequent and severe fires all over the planet.

It is ironic that the livestock industry now proposes to use grazing to manage the same problem that it caused. Science and history don't support their for-profit scheme. It would be better to remove livestock from publicly owned forests and deserts so that they might finally heal from decades of mismanagement and once again provide a suite of services, like clean air and clean water, that benefit us all.

Do you agree with this opinion? Add a comment below to sound off.

Click "next page" to read the second position, "Grazing as a tool to manage incidence of catastrophic wildlife"


"Grazing as a tool to manage incidence of catastrophic wildfire": By Christopher Allison, department head of Extension Animal Sciences and Natural Resources at New Mexico State University

Wildfires were a common part of our landscape last summer. The resultant destruction and financial cost associated with these fires served as a wakeup call for all in the southwest. Common questions included: "What conditions caused these intense fire outbreaks?" And "How can we minimize the damage in the future?"

Catastrophic wildfires which occurred across the southwest are the result of and exacerbated by poor land management policies. These fires are the end result of a century of fire suppression and no timber harvest, in recent, years which has allowed timber stands to become unhealthy and conducive to extraordinary fire events. Poor timber and fuel management policies such as canopy connectivity and stem densities are the issue; not grazing management.

Historical forest structure (stand densities or trees per acre) has been altered. Ponderosa pine stands with an understory of perennial grass are rare. In their place, a closed canopy of timber with little to no understory of perennial grass and other fine fuels has developed.

Researchers across the west are examining the use of grazing to target areas of overgrown fine fuels on rangelands. Initial findings indicate that cattle grazing can reduce flame length and rate of fire spread. These research studies are being conducted on rangeland ecosystems in the Southwest, Intermountain West, and Pacific Northwest.

It must be emphasized that recent catastrophic wildfires were inevitable in light of our fire suppression and timber harvest policies. We must address these two causes of catastrophic fire and land degradation. Once these burned areas begin to heal and re-vegetate, targeted grazing and proper livestock distribution can be used to maintain a healthy understory.

The land needs fine fuel, such as perennial grass to protect the soil and insure watershed function and health. A good supply of fine fuel leads to a higher frequency of low intensity fires that help maintain our forest and rangeland ecosystems in the absence of ladder fuels.

Allowing federal land management agencies to keep their failed policies of fire suppression, no timber harvest and inconsequential grazing pressure will only set up the land for a repeat of the catastrophic fires witnessed over the last few years. Grazing is a tool for helping us maintain healthy forest – range ecosystems.

Do you agree with this opinion? Add a comment below to sound off.

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