Gambling with Fire on the Open Range
ELKO — Gambling is still alive and well on northeastern Nevada’s high desert.
Several public officials and Bureau of Land Management personnel participated in a tour of the Tomera family ranches along the Elko and Eureka county border last week. The gamble being addressed by the group was the build-up of fire fuel on the family’s Stonehouse Ranches in the Trout Creek area of the Pine Mountain Allotment south of Carlin.
At each stop of the tour, which circled up and around the mountain where BLM personnel eliminated grazing for the past two years, the disagreement between the participants became more defined. On one side were the BLM employees defending their decision to prevent grazing in the area, which includes approximately 2,260 acres of private lands and 1,240 acres of federal lands. They continued to stand behind their decision, not because the Fires in Elko and Eureka counties grasses and shrubs haven’t recovered from the most recent fires, but because have been large and numerous over of their contention that the riparian areas need protection from the cattle.
Other participants kept looking at the overgrowth of grasses and shrubs that could provide explosive fuel for yet another fire when it dries out in the summer heat. Their cry was that it is not a question of “if” it will burn, but “when,” and that something needed to be done to minimize the loss of wildlife, recreation, grazing and habitat.
The Tomera family pleaded with the BLM to be heard in their discussion of options to keep fires manageable. BLM personnel did not disagree that there was an abundance of grasses that needed grazed, however, their management priority became more evident as they continued to press for the protection of riparian areas.
On one side of the fence, the argument is for allowing immediate and strategic grazing of the excess forage. Once ignited, a fire would be difficult to stop, impacting up to 130,000 animals that call this area home, the resources put into the reseeding program, and the livelihood of the Tomera family.
On the other side of the fence, it was not completely clear what the end result of protecting the riparian area would accomplish, or how the streams were going to be managed once the results in question were met.
Using large maps of the area, Tom Tomera explained how fires have devastated the range lands since the BLM cut family grazing rights by a factor of five. Longtime rancher and Assemblyman John Carpenter explained how he and other sheep ranchers had once grazed many bands of sheep in the area. Tomera said that unless the land is grazed this year there is a high likelihood that another fire will sweep through. Twenty wildland fires have burned through the intermingled BLM and Tomera lands in the past two decades.
Elko businessman, hunter and outdoorsman Doug Shippy said the fires have significantly reduced populations of sage grouse, deer and other game animals. He related that from his experience wildlife benefits greatly from cattle and sheep grazing.
Several ranchers voiced their concerns that burning bodies will once again come rolling down the hillsides as rabbits, ground squirrels, mice and other animals cannot outrun the flames. Many birds and larger animals also succumb to the smoke and flames that race with the wind through the mountain valleys and up the ridges.
“This gamble is not a winner for anyone!” said attorney Grant Gerber of the “Smoked Bear” campaign.
Representing the Bureau of Land Management, District Manager Ken Miller acknowledged that Tom Tomera and his family have always been outstanding land and resource managers and that the Elko District could not ask for more cooperative and responsible land owners. However, he did not comply with the Tomeras’ request for immediate changes to the environmental assessment restricting grazing until Nov. 30, 2010.
When asked if there was any hope of turning cattle into the allotments to graze the excess grasses, Miller and David Overcast, the Tuscarora field manager, both refused to comment.
“What would it take to open this up to cattle this summer?” asked Elko County Commissioner Trout Creek rancher Tom Demar Dahl. Miller answered, “Cows aren’t going to keep the fires from burning. There is not a correlation high grasses that he wants between the amount of fire and the amount of cattle. The closure was intended to go after the BLM to allow his cattle riparian areas that were hammered.”
Dahl responded that at least putting cattle on the pastures to graze down the abundant growthof grasses and shrubs could keep potential fires small rather than catastrophic.
“Looks like what is needed is a commonsense grazing management plan, not just early spring grazing that was forced on the Tomeras in the past,” he said. “The past mismanagement, combined with this misguided closure, which is no management at all, is a recipe for disaster that includes the Tomeras, the wildlife and the entire resource.”
County commission candidate Jeff Williams also had questions for the BLM.
“Has there been a firm decision to keep cattle off this allotment this summer and fall? Is there an avenue to change current decisions? July and August are around the corner. Is there a plan to utilize the forage and graze off the over-abundance of fuel?” he asked.
“Better to eat it than let it burn,” Miller said. “We are working toward a solution to get Tomeras back on the pasture. Can we move faster than November 30th? Not going to happen.”
Tom Tomera restated his frustration that he does not have the ability to save his private grazing lands from this summer’s fire season without the concerted effort of the land managers of the BLM.
“This land needs to be grazed. There is a season of use and I can’t do it on my own. Work with us,” he said. “All you say is wait, wait, wait until everything is gone.”
Jake Tibbitts, the natural resources manager for Eureka County, presented another slant. His frustration was that having to deal with the special interest groups slowed the process of on-the-ground range management. Thus, the bottom line was that environmental groups are calling the management shots because the threat of litigation intimidates and impedes the land managers from doing the job that best serves the animals, hunters, ranchers and the public.
According to many present on the tour, history does not repeat itself when it comes to Nevada wildfires. History increases the severity and the acreage of these burns because of increased fuel from management criteria that takes cattle from the range and by default displaces wildlife to other areas, or annihilates them all together.
Carpenter suggested that the BLM let the Tomeras use a flexible rest-and-rotation system, with more cattle grazing the land to reduce wildfires. Carpenter said that had worked for him in the management of his private ranch lands north
“Bring the cattle in early, eat the grass down and trim your bushes. If you (the BLM) do not give the Tomeras flexibility this land will burn again. Use it or lose it.”
Sabrina Tomera Reed summed up the thinking behind the desire to save the land from the inevitable in a letter
addressed to those in attendance and to the people who have the power to point the land’s fate in one direction or another.
“These lands are our livelihood and the future for our children and yours. Ranching is a lifestyle, not a job, and being a steward to the range is not our 9 to 5. We risk our lives to fight the fires and we depend on the sustainability of our practices to produce for years to come. Please take this letter, its facts, and information into consideration when planning this and all future allotment management plans.”
The general public can obtain a copy of the above mentioned letter and one read on location by Tom Tomera by calling 775-754-6151. The BLM’s Elko District Office and Tuscarora Field Office can be reached at 753-0200.
Written by Catherine Strickler, Free Press Correspondent