By Carol Ryan Dumas
MOUNTAIN HOME, Idaho -- Livestock ranchers suffering significant cattle losses and more than 280,000 acres of burned out grazing land in the rugged Boise National Forest are frustrated with the U.S. Forest Service and BLM, claiming the devastation they are experiencing could have been avoided or minimized.
They lay the blame of the massive Elk Complex and Pony Complex fires, sparked by lightning strikes on Aug. 8, at the feet of those agencies and federal policy that allows huge fuel loads to accumulate and doesn't manage lands for sustainability
The government won't allow grazing and timber cuts, and so it just burns, said rancher Ron Davison.
The Elk Complex fire started on former sheep range that hasn't been grazed for 20 years, he said.
"They won't let us graze and thin timber. That's the worst frustration," he said.
In addition to lost cattle and grazing ground, his family lost a lot of timber on their private land. Some of it is salvageable for sale but young timber won't grow back in his lifetime, he said.
Ranchers have long been frustrated by the multitude of regulations involved in grazing and thinning on public lands. Rancher Lori Ireland said environmental restrictions just leave more fuel for fires to burn larger and hotter.
In addition to losing cattle and grazing land this year, the side effect is ranchers won't be allowed back on the land to graze for two or three years, she said.
The trouble is policy is written by people who don't have a clue about the conditions or terrain, she said.
Linda Lord and her husband, Preston, who run 500 cow/calf pairs, lost some grazing pasture last year and haven't been allowed to put animals back on that ground. Now all of their pasture is pretty much burned up, and most of the area ranchers have no ground to go to even if they had alternative feed, she said.
Steve Damele guesses one-third to half of his grazing land has burned.
Large fires were no surprise given land management in the area, he said. He blames government management policies that have allowed large fuel loads to build up more quickly.
"It's not rocket science," he said. "We all knew it was going to happen sooner or later."
He said federal lands need to go back to the states for better management.
Ranchers generally don't have an issue with local BLM and Forest Service personnel, he said, it's the policies of their agencies that's the issue.
"The bottom line is the guys on the ground are hindered by regulation up above and can't do anything about it. They need to turn it back over to the state," he said.
Just last year at a fire symposium in Boise, state BLM officials updated ranchers on the Paradigm Project to create green strips and other fuel breaks along country roads in the area. But getting the project on the ground has been stalled by hurdles and roadblocks in the NEPA process, Damele said.
"It would have significantly reduced the severity of these fires. It's all black now," he said.
Maybe the fires will fuel momentum for the project and bring more focus to studying intensive grazing for wildfire suppression, he said.
Rancher Neil Helmick was pretty fortunate, losing only a couple of acres of grazing land because he and several other ranchers were able to cut in firebreaks with dozers and discs. But a lot of ranchers got hit really hard with lost cattle and lost grazing ground, he said.
"We need to use this ground a little bit more to prevent this stuff. We need to decide whether to use it a little more or continue these fires," he said.
Helmick said land-management policy lacks common sense and seems to reflect fear of Western Watersheds Project (an anti-grazing group that frequently sues land-management agencies).
There is a point where ground can be overgrazed or thinned too much, he said, but it can also suffer from not being used enough.
Idaho Cattle Association Director of Communications Jessie Thompson helped family members moving cattle from area burned by the Elk Complex fire.
Some areas burned so hot that pine trees look like toothpicks, and all that's left of vegetation is ash, she said.
"It's really tough to ride through that country, knowing that extra grazing could have easily limited the devastation these fires have caused," she said.