Chapter 13-Cattle Grazing's Effect on the fire By trudy Balcom

A century after the dust settled on Arizona’s open range, the effect of ranching can still be found in forests.

Ranching and grazing are one piece of the puzzle of human action — and inaction — that played a historic role in creating the overgrown forests that endanger everything that lies in the path of potential wildfires.

The plains and forests of northeast Arizona were once a cattleman’s dream. Native grasses well-adapted to the climate thrived across the state. Spanish sheepherders were among the first to arrive in the region, bringing their flocks. When the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad reached Holbrook in 1881-82, cattlemen soon followed.

Large cattle outfits from Texas, fleeing drought and an overgrazed range, shipped herds to Arizona. The famous Hashknife Outfit was one of the largest cattle ranches ever. It was formed when the Aztec Land and Cattle Company (based in Boston) purchased 1 million acres of land from the railroad for 50 cents an acre and brought in tens of thousands of cattle.

The Hashknife and other ranches — large and small — populated the open range lands with cattle that could be shipped on the rails to eastern markets, sold to feed the people and soldiers at Fort Apache, and for the growing population of settlers in Arizona. Small, local ranchers competed with bigger outfits for range resources.

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Cattle numbers in the state soared from 30,000 in 1870 to 502,000 in 1886 — the year a severe drought struck — and likely rose much higher. With some local variation, this same scenario was played out across the state.

In 1893, the territorial governor of Arizona stated, “In nearly all districts, owing to overstocking, many weeds have taken the place of the best grasses,” (Timeless Heritage: A History of the Forest Service in the Southwest, USFS, 1988).

In 1896, the last quality fat cattle sale from open range stock was held, and as the range deteriorated, thousands of cattle died.

At the same time that the forests were being heavily grazed, they were also being logged aggressively. That, created “a perfect storm,” said Andrew Sanchez-Meador, an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University and program director of biometrics and forest management for the Ecological Restoration Institute.

“It was a perfect storm, cutting trees and harvesting timber with unregulated grazing … removing the over-story of the forest, and there was no grass for seedling to compete with,” he said.

That provided ponderosa seedlings with an excellent growing opportunity. Without large mature trees to shade them out and no competing grass, seedlings in the forest grew unchecked.

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To make things even better for the trees, wet years created conditions where millions of seedlings could get established. Sanchez-Meador said that between 1915 and 1922, many of the mature trees in the forest we see today were established.

“There’s a cohort of trees on the landscape that dates to post settlement,” he said.

The seedlings that grew in the wake of logging and grazing could never have been so successful if fire and not been excluded from the landscape. Fire suppression began informally by about 1900, and became a Forest Service policy after the Big Burn in 1910 gave the Forest Service a new mission.

Fire kills many tree seedlings. In the forest as it existed before heavy grazing, grasses carried the low intensity fires that helped clear the forest and maintain the open landscape that is a natural part of a healthy ponderosa forest. Fire can also rejuvenate the grasses that ranchers depend upon.

The cattle had overgrazed and forever changed the ranges. As the grasslands vanished, ranchers shifted cattle to take advantage of the better grazing in the ponderosa forests of the mountain high country.

By 1912, “livestock pressures had penetrated to the most remote and timbered and mountainous areas,” (Timeless Heritage: A History of the Forest Service in the Southwest, USFS, 1988).

Ranchers and settlers did not set out to create problems with overgrazing or the chain reaction that helped to create an overgrown, unhealthy forest. Times were different. People wanted to develop a life in a new place. The idea of limiting the number of stock placed on the land was unheard of. When an area became overgrazed, people simply moved their stock somewhere else.

“As a people, our priorities were about extracting resources,” Sanchez-Meador explained.

Gaining control over the intense grazing pressure on the forests and the damage it was causing was a priority for the Forest Service when it was established in 1905.

“When the Forest Service came into being, the most complex problem facing southwest foresters related to grazing rights and range management,” (Timeless Heritage: A History of the Forest Service in the Southwest, USFS, 1988).

Starting in 1906, the outlines of a grazing management and allotment system were emerging; the open range was ended. One of the first regulations put in place gave local landowners grazing priority over corporate ranches of out-of-state owners.

But changing the practices of the ranchers took time, and while overgrazing was reduced, it was not immediately eliminated.

Today, 19,000 cattle graze on the 92 active grazing allotments across the 2 million acres of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. Each allotment is broken into fenced pastures through which stock are rotated.

Far from the days of the Wild West’s open range, grazing on national forests is now intensively managed, not only for the benefit of cattle, but for the benefit of native grasses, wildlife, watershed health and other factors intended to improve the overall forest ecosystem.

Cattle may only spend one month or less in some pastures, and the number of cattle allowed on an allotment is strictly regulated. The overall number of cattle permitted on the national forest has steadily fallen.

“We’re moving toward our desired conditions. I think we’re doing that with our managed grazing,” said Dave Evans, range program manager for Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

Overgrazing in the forest, combined with other factors, helped to create the conditions that have increased the incidence of catastrophic wildfires. To put the puzzle for a healthy forest back together, forest managers and progressive ranchers are teaming up to look for ways to improve the effectiveness of grazing as a tool for wise forest management.

“There is a good working relationship (with ranchers) ... we’re working together ... looking at the big picture, how can we do this sustainably? I think it’s going really well,” Evans concluded.

Spark by Pia Wyer

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