Ranchers talked about how their cattle can chew down the grass and brush that stoke intense wildfires.
And they offered, when conditions are right, to torch the vegetation in strategic places to keep the threat at bay.
The California Rangeland Conservation Coalition confronted fire at its 11th annual summit in Stockton on Friday. Attendees agreed that the fuel has become unnaturally dense after a century-plus of trying to prevent fires.
“In most cases, ranchers like fire,” said Justin Oldfield, vice president for government relations at the California Cattlemen’s Association. “Fire is a great management tool.”
The summit drew about 230 ranchers, researchers, public land managers and other people to the Robert Cabral Agricultural Center. A day earlier, many of them toured recent fire scars, including from the 2013 Rim Fire in Tuolumne County and last year’s Butte Fire in Calaveras County.
The ranchers are a key part of a California cattle industry that brought an estimated $3.7 billion in gross income in 2014.
In most cases, ranchers like fire. Fire is a great management tool.
Justin Oldfield, Cattlemen’s Association
Many of them run cattle from fall to spring on the rain-fed grasslands flanking the San Joaquin Valley. They can move in summer to irrigated pasture, but this land has become hard to find with the spread of nuts, wine grapes and other higher-value crops.
Ranchers also can go to summer grazing allotments in the Stanislaus and other national forests. These too have shrunk because of concerns in some quarters about damage to streams and other wildlife habitat.
Oldfield said that in 1985, national forests in California hosted 189,553 head of cattle. That dropped to 91,389 by 2014, he said, and the wildfire toll increased.
“Right now, I think our numbers are too low to really be effective,” said Anne Yost, retired rangeland manager for the U.S. Forest Service region that includes the state.
She said the media too often stress the extreme positions in the grazing debate, notably the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by an armed group upset over federal policies.
Yost urged the coalition to be part of “a radical center” that balances the risk and benefits of grazing. Cattle can reduce some of the nonnative plants that have invaded the hillsides, she said, and they can eat brush that competes with conifer seedlings on reforestation sites after fires. Sheep and goats can help with the job.
189,553 Head of cattle in national forest in 1985
91,389 Head of cattle in 2014
The Butte Fire burned across 70,868 acres, killing two people and destroying 535 homes. It also extensively damaged ranchland, including about 2,800 acres belonging to Doug Joses.
He recalled taking part in intentional burning about 60 years ago, mimicking what lightning and Native Americans used to do.
“What was the secret?” Joses asked a tour group near the town of Mokelumne Hill. “They burned it. They burned it every year or two in the middle of the summer.”
Land managers have increasingly used prescribed burning over the past four decades, usually in the cooler conditions of fall and spring. The Stanislaus National Forest has done it in certain areas, while also thinning timber at a rate far lower than the logging of old.
The Butte Fire burned part of the Mokelumne River watershed of the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which supplies water to Oakland and nearby cities. The agency is working with private landowners on erosion controls while also using grazing and prescribed fire on its own land over the long term, Ranger Supervisor Chris Swann said.
Concerns about smoke and escaped flames limit how much burning can be done, he said.
“PR from Smokey Bear for the last 100 years was really highly successful,” Swann said.
Shaun Crook, a rancher based near Groveland, told the Stockton audience about the Rim Fire’s toll on his family’s grazing land near Cherry Lake. It lost about 100 head of cattle, fencing and an 1880s cabin to the blaze, which topped 250,000 acres.
Crook, who also is in the timber business, said federal restrictions on grazing and logging have resulted in a forest far too dense.
“We’ve got a ground condition that hasn’t been seen before, and fire behavior, I believe, has changed,” he said.
Crook got his message across in another way, displaying a bumper sticker that said, “Graze it or watch it burn.”
John Holland: 209-578-2385
Cattle production, 2014*
Stanislaus County: 327,031 head, $391.8 million in gross income
Merced County: 312,752 head, $350.1 million
San Joaquin County: 112,000 head, $97.3 million
Calaveras County: 12,800 head, $13.7 million
Tuolumne County: 8,209 head, $11 million
Mariposa County: 38,500 head, $29.4 million
* Totals include dairy cattle sold for meat in San Joaquin Valley counties.
Source: County agricultural commissioners