Walden hears angry voices as flames destroy range - Oregon. ranchers fume over public land management practices

For the Capital Press

July 25, 2007

BURNS, Ore. - With wildfires raging throughout the West, over 4 million acres already burned, and a fire season that has another two months or more ahead, some Harney County ranchers have added fuel to a controversy over public land management laws.

"The way we manage our resources today is to let it burn," said Harney County Commissioner Jack Drinkwater of Burns. His family has ranched in Harney County for 100 years, using forestlands in the Malheur National Forest for summer range.

"We need to go back to the days when we logged and let the cattle in there to eat the grass. Then there wouldn't be all that fuel for these catastrophic fires," he said.

After receiving numerous phone calls about the Egley Complex Fire and other fires in Harney County, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., flew to Burns on July 21 to be briefed on the firefighting effort of Oregon's priority one fire and to hear concerns of ranchers who have lost their summer and fall pasture on both private and public lands.

Tinder-dry drought conditions on the sagebrush and juniper rangelands and Ponderosa pine timberlands of Harney County, plus windy conditions, have made the outbreak of fires that began July 5 "incredibly difficult" to suppress, according to agency officials.

Some ranchers who have watched their summer range go up in flames are questioning the use of backfires to bring the flames under control by the Incident Management Teams that relieved local agency firefighters. They also reported slowness of activating resources staged at the fire as crews awaited orders.

Jeff Pendleton, incident commander of the Pacific Northwest Team 3 Type 1 Incident Management Team, said strategies are made to keep people safe.

"Conditions are so dang dry. The fire would outrun a dozer, and fires were starting from 3/4-mile spots," he said, defending the use of backfire techniques.

Harney County was targeted as a priority for resources within two days of the fires' start, and on July 20 there were 43 crews, 88 engines, four helicopters, 14 dozers and three watertenders assigned to the fire. Total personnel on the Egley fire at that point was 1,623.

The fire season started in Harney County July 5 when a federal pickup truck caught fire on a two-track road in sagebrush-covered rangeland southwest of Riley.

The Round Butte Fire was contained at about 10,000 acres, but lightning storms July 6 started about 30 fires across the landscape from Riley north and east to Drewsey, 80 miles away.

The area north and east of Riley suffered several fire starts, which became the Egley Complex Fires and grew to approximately 140,360 acres in size. It has been declared 100 percent contained as of July 23 by the Incident Management team.

Other major fires in the area include the Calamity Fire Complex, east of Seneca in Malheur National Forest, contained at approximate 2,200 acres, and the Juniper Reservoir Fire, north of Juntura, 75 percent contained at approximately 29,000 acres as of July 23.

On July 21, Walden heard a step-by-step overview of how the fires started and how each phase of firefighting effort was implemented on the controversial Egley Complex Fire, which is burning in much of the same area as the Pine Springs Basin Complex fire of 1990, which burned 74,000 acres. Both fires threatened the towns of Burns and Hines. The State Conflagration Act was engaged to bring State Fire Marshal resources to Burns this year to assist in preparing for structure protection.

A change in wind direction turned the fire away from Burns on July 9.

Ranchers whose cattle and sheep graze on the private, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands north of Riley and in the Malheur National Forest north of Burns have not been so lucky.

"The biggest majority have to come off early," Jim Walker, range management technician for the Emigrant Ranger District of the Malheur National Forest, said July 23.

The district has seven permittees on eight allotments that serve 1,800 sheep and 1,826 cow-calf pairs.

Burns BLM Three Rivers Resource Area has 15 allotments with 15 permittees representing 10,975 AUM's and 2,923 cow-calf pairs. (An AUM is the amount of feed for one animal for one month).

Provision for the sheep has been accommodated by the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Jess Wenick, range management specialist for the refuge, said he was able to write a permit for 1,600 animals into November. An existing program for control of noxious weeds using sheep allowed the refuge to bring the sheep into fields infested with perennial pepperweed.

"The sheep began happily munching away on the pepperweed as soon as they were unloaded," Wenick said. "It's a win-win situation for us. We already have some sheep on the refuge, but we were looking for a large number to expand the program of noxious weed control," he said. But it will be difficult to impossible for the refuge to accommodate more cattle grazing, Wenick said.

"We are looking for places for permittees to go with their cattle," Walker said. "Some permittees took non-use of their allotments this year, and we're able to shuffle some of these folks into those areas."

The Egley fire burned in a mosaic pattern with fire intensity from severe to moderate, and missing some areas altogether.

Freelance writer Pauline Braymen is based in Burns, Ore. E-mail: pbraymen@centurytel.net.

"There's still a lot of green patches out there, some is severely burned, other areas received a nice gentle burn," Pendleton told Walden.

"We understand the value of grass," Pendleton said. He said the importance of grass to the Western United States is emphasized to firefighters, who come from all over the United States and from areas where forage is more easily replaced after a fire.

Permittees in Harney County whose allotments burn face two to three years of non-use, although in some cases, cows are allowed back on the ground after one year.

"It is a huge cost to change the area one grazes cattle to another," said Joan Suther, area resource manager for the BLM.

"We do have some very small allotments for relief from wildfire, or sometimes the permittee can work out an adjacent field with another landowner. But it is still a matter of increased costs for transportation and getting the cattle acquainted with a new field," she said.

About 50 ranchers, agency representatives and concerned citizens met with Walden after the agency briefing.

Walden told the crowd that part of the problems with firefighting efforts was that the law needs to be changed to allow land managers to use their knowledge properly. Fuel-reduction programs, salvage logging and other techniques used to manage resources are routinely met with lawsuits, he said.

And he lamented the lack of assets available to the national firefighting teams.

"In 2000, 200 helicopters were available to the firefighting effort. Today there are 58 helicopters nationwide available," he said.

"We need to get to the fire, put out the fire and get in to salvage," Walden said. "190 million acres of land nationwide need treatment."

Gary "Stan" Benes, Malheur National Forest supervisor, echoed Walden's comments. "We need to get back to logging, and salvage. We need to address issues of community viability."

Several options for assistance to ranchers affected by the fires will be available, Walden said. "Save every receipt and record you can," he told the ranchers. Some programs require records back as much as three years.

Funding from the Emergency Program is being requested, and authorities for making loans under the Low-Interest Emergency Disaster Program are being obtained by the Farm Service Agency, Walden said.

The Emergency Conservation Program provides emergency funding and technical assistance for ranchers to rehabilitate lands damaged by natural disasters. The program is available on a per-incident basis and can help rebuild fence and cover water hauling in Oregon.

The Livestock Indemnity Program and the Livestock Compensation Program would become available to ranchers after passage of agriculture disaster aid legislation, Walden said.

These programs reimburse livestock producers for feed losses caused by natural disaster, including wildfires, and reimburse producers for replacing livestock killed by a natural disaster.

There are no significant losses of livestock to the fire reported at this time.

Of the area burned in the Egley Complex, 97,000 acres are managed by the U.S.. Forest Service and 34,000 acres by the BLM.

Six acres of state land and 7,500 acres of private land burned.

The Harney County commissioners declared a drought disaster in the county on July 18, and a governor's declaration is expected to come soon.

Freelance writer Pauline Braymen is based in Burns, Ore. E-mail: pbraymen@centurytel.net.


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