A Call for More Firefighting Cows & Sheep

A Call for More Firefighting Cows & Sheep
Cover photo courtesy of Dustin Cox. Other photos courtesy of Utah Division of Fire, Forestry and State Lands.

Livestock production is the backbone of Utah’s agriculture industry – contributing more than 70 percent of our state’s farm gate sales of more than $2 billion. This is why the Utah Farm Bureau exerts much of its resources towards public land management issues, including multiple-use access, maintaining livestock grazing allotments, encouraging balanced management of wildlife populations, and more. Preserving and maintaining healthy public and private rangeland landscapes is fundamental, even essential, to a sustainable Utah livestock industry. What’s more, it is essential to limiting the impacts of catastrophic wildfires. 

For most ranchers, grazing livestock on private and public lands is simply a means to produce beef and maintain a cowboy livelihood. Yet others have come to realize that grazing livestock on Utah’s range and forestlands provides more – much more – for both the cowboy and the public.

Grazing livestock is a valuable, proven tool to reduce the risk of wildfire. Targeted grazing removes the fine fuels that easily ignite and provide an ignition source for heavier fuels. Sadly, the Brian Head fire has shown us the tragic consequences of forests building up with heavy fuel loads. Our thoughts and prayers are with those firefighters working to contain the wildfire currently blazing, and the families and local communities suffering its impacts. 

While livestock are reducing fuel loads, they are also creating ideal conditions for new vegetation that proves to be more fire resistant. 

The idea of grazing to reduce vegetation has been used in urban settings as well, with urban schools partnering with owners of goats to have them graze hillsides near an elementary school in Salt Lake City for purposes of reducing overgrown vegetation. The project was a cost effective and sustainable way to manage their weed problem and is an example of a win-win, purposely using livestock to control weeds, forages and shrubs for purposes of reducing labor, risks to children, wildfire potential and costs to taxpayers. This is also occurring on a much broader scale throughout rural Utah. Instead of 100 goats, picture several hundred thousand “fire-fighting cows and sheep” turned out annually on Utah’s range and forestlands. History proves that generations of livestock have reduced weeds, which in turn, reduces fuels for potential wildfires. In addition, taxpayers save money all while a safe, affordable, domestic protein source remains under the care and stewardship of sustainable family-owned ranches. 

While increasing grazing is one tool to reduce fuel loads in our forests, thinning out the dead & diseased trees through timber harvesting is another tool that needs a makeover. Congress intended that our nation’s forests be managed, including grazing, logging, thinning and planting. Unfortunately, since the 1990’s, when our national forests supplied more than a quarter of America’s softwood lumber, a mixture of senseless regulations and the threat of lawsuit from environmental groups has created a tinderbox across the West, burning billions of board feet of timber each year. 

From the mid-1950’s to the mid-1990’s, the average amount of timber harvested from America’s national forests averaged between 10 and 12 billion board feet annually. During that same timeframe, wildfires consumed only about 3.5 million acres of our national forests. By contrast, since 1996, the average amount of timber harvested annually was between 1.5 and 3.3 billion board feet while the acres consumed by catastrophic wildfires has nearly doubled averaging about 6 million acres per year and surpassing 10 million acres in 2015. 

Those who visit the national forests recognize they have become increasingly overgrown from a lack of active management like timber harvests and livestock grazing, contributing to the escalating fire danger. A generation ago, healthy forests had around 60 trees per acre, but now are crowded with more ten times that number per acre. As a result, the United States Forest Service recently identified more than 60 million acres of our national forests at high risk for catastrophic wildfire. That means nearly one-third of the National Forest System is a tinderbox! 

Utah Farm Bureau leaders have urged Forest Service representatives to ramp up local timber harvests. After decades of neglect and with millions of acres of pine beetle decimated forests in Utah and slowed timber harvests, federal land managers are facing a crisis. 

Decades of lawsuits and limited timber availability on federal lands have led to many Utah sawmills closing. The high level of uncertainty in dealing with the federal government makes it increasingly difficult for existing sawmills to justify major capital investments to capture the potential of 30 – 35 million board feet coming available in Utah over the next few years. 

According to PERC (Property & Environment Research Center), in 2015, some 68,000 fires consumed more than 10 million acres of national forest lands, costing the American taxpayer in excess of two billion dollars. 

After the catastrophic fires of 2012, Governor Herbert called on Utah government and industry leaders to reduce the risk of major wildfires. Leaders agreed the goal was to reduce the size, intensity and frequency of wildfires. In time, the Catastrophic Wildfire Reduction Strategy Plan was developed. Issues developed and incorporated into the plan included: aging firefighting resources, coordination, economic and financial constraints, education, marketing and community involvement and fires as a management tool. Since 2012, the Utah Legislature has signed off on $4.5 million to help with mitigation and fuel reduction projects across the state.  This money, combined with additional legislation and expanded partnerships with local, county, state, and national partners, has increased Utah’s effectiveness in responding and fighting wildfires.

As of July 1, approximately 305 fires have occurred throughout Utah, burning more than 106,000 acres, the largest of which has been the Brian Head fire. Of the hundreds of wildfires started each year in Utah, only a very small percentage get out of control or reach catastrophic levels. Many of the fires are the result of weather conditions, rugged terrain, and other factors that are beyond our control. Yet, many factors are within our control. Certainly, “firefighting” cows and sheep and timber harvests have repeatedly proven their worth on Utah’s range and forestlands. This approach to minimizing catastrophic wildfires is a win-win, and should be encouraged and increased going forward.