The 2019 wildfire season was mild compared to the previous few years, allowing combustible fuel to grow in the forests around our state. Couple the fuel loads with the recent dry spring, the anticipated warm temperatures for the months to come, and the possibility of fewer fire crew members available because of COVID-19, and this year’s fire season is going to need some creative solutions.

Livestock provide one of the most effective fire-suppression solutions around.

For the managers of public lands in Washington state, opening grazing allotments offers significant benefits with little investment. While saving money, livestock grazing targets underbrush, grasses and other fuels in difficult to reach areas and provides for the growth of beneficial plant species in their place. In addition to reducing wildfire risk, grazing provides soil aeration, habitat maintenance, and fosters biodiversity.

For livestock producers, opening grazing allotments reduces the impact of the downturn created by the economic lockdown. Ranchers can turn to grazing on public lands as a less expensive alternative to renting pastures elsewhere or maintaining summer pastures of their own. New allotments would also help some ranchers retain ownership of a larger number of animals while awaiting a rebound in market prices.

Opening grazing allotments is a win-win for the state and for livestock producers, giving both sides the benefits of money savings and needed alternatives in a pandemic.

There are approximately 1.1 million cattle in Washington state, along with 50,000 sheep and 29,000 goats, a resource that would reduce wildfire fuel loads throughout the 2020 season.

Looking specifically at cattle, scientists at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension found that a beneficial grazing density for wildfire prevention was reached at approximately one cow per four acres.

In general, state land managers have done an excellent job of responding to the rampant wildfires in Washington state during the last several years.

However, COVID-19 presents problems unlike those of any previous fire season. In addition to performing dirty, dangerous, and close-quarters work, firefighters may now have to contend with potential health-related restrictions, or there may be a lack of applicants altogether.

A more creative and less firefighter-centric approach for this wildfire season is a logical solution. Livestock provide a fuel load reduction, a cost savings for the state, and a means for ranchers to better weather the struggles of 2020. Opening more public land to managed grazing would protect forests, help produce more food, and benefit the general public.

Pam Lewison is the Agriculture Research Director for the Washington Policy Center and a fourth-generation farmer based in Eastern Washington. She holds a master’s degree in Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications from Texas A&M University and completed her undergraduate studies at Washington State University.

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