Governor John Kitzhaber (right) listens to a point made by Jordan Valley rancher Bob Skinner. (Photo by RANDY PARKS)

Cheatgrass supplies main fuel load

By Randy Parks
Burns Times-Herald

After wildfires burned more than a million acres of rangeland this past summer, conversations are now under way to discuss what can be done to prevent similar catastrophic events.

To get a first-hand look at the damage done by the Miller Homestead, Long Draw and Holloway fires, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber flew over the areas on Sunday, Oct. 7, and then landed at the Burns airport for a round-table discussion. Those there to greet the governor included Harney County commissioners Pete Runnels and Dan Nichols, Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) President Curtis Martin, Jordan Valley rancher and past OCA president Bob Skinner and research scientists Tony Svejcar and Dave Bohnert.

Skinner said there are currently not enough resources to fight the number of fires ignited by storms, and that there has been an increase in the fuel loads as well.

At the top of Skinner’s wish list is an airport in the Jordan Valley area that would have water bombers for initial attacks on wildfires. “Once they reach the magnitude of the recent fires, all you can do is try to stay ahead of it,” Skinner said. “Rapid response is crucial.”

Skinner added that helicopters have to remain part of the equation for safety issues, and those fighting the fires at their own expense should be reimbursed.

Curtis stated that coordination with federal agencies is a must. “This ‘top-down’ management isn’t working,” he said. “The BLM isn’t working with local people and if you don’t have local participation, it’s a wreck.”

Svejcar, from the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Station (EOARS) in Burns, said that with recent studies of sagebrush steppe areas, they are finding that previous assumptions are incorrect.

Cheatgrass is the biggest problem as it provides a continuous fuel load and can force out native plants.

As for restoration efforts, Svejcar said native grasses can come back fine if the fire burns quickly through the area.

There have been studies as to how plants respond after fire in both grazed and ungrazed areas, and if the area is in good shape to begin with, grazing doesn’t negatively affect it.

Svejcar had comparisons between how soon areas could be grazed after a fire and said the information from the study doesn’t support past decisions, such as no grazing for two years after a fire. Ranchers should be able to find areas to be used as pasture after the first year.

He noted that some fire stopped because the land was grazed, reducing fuels, and strategic grazing could be a possibility in breaking up fires in the future.

Martin stated that the accusations that cattle grazing helped fuel the fires are inaccurate and, “science is verifying what our ancestors told us.”

Martin said ranchers do recognize the sage grouse issue and endorse a holistic approach instead of focusing on a single species.

Another solution to lost rangeland is having allotment users volunteer to let others use their land for forage, and they are looking into that, Martin said.

Governor Kitzhaber stated, from what he heard, affected ranchers were working toward first-response equipment and an airport, cooperation with locals, reimbursement, reframing the debate from a single species to the entire ecosystem and flexibility in grazing after a fire.

Martin stated that the fires can act as a catalyst, making positive changes in response to a negative event.

Nichols said there is a lot of frustration because everything is litigated these days. “We have to fight every step of the way,” Nichols said. “This is a natural resource community. People that live here and work here are protecting the land, and they know how to do it.”

He pointed out that several recent projects, like the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management Protection Act and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan, have been successful collaborative efforts. “We are to the point where we look at agencies as neighbors, working together to make positive changes.”

Nichols said past management and the preservation mode doesn’t help the land or communities.

Joyce suggested a comprehensive review of the fires be done and that Kitzhaber meet with other Western governors to discuss common concerns.

Everyone in attendance agreed that the current environment that they’re looking to protect is not what it was 50 to 100 years ago and changes need to be made.

“These folks (ranchers) are taking care of our public lands,” Martin said.

Kitzhaber said the fire events are a high priority for his administration, including how they may impact the sage grouse listing, and he would continue to work toward a solution.

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