Showdown Looms: Do Cattle Increase Threat OF Wildfires?

Arizona Republic, July 6, 1996

For more than a century, cattle and sheep have browsed the wilderness of Arizona, leveling the grasses that ranchers say would otherwise feed the wildfires. Were it not for the cows, they assert, this year's fire danger, made severe by the worst drought of the century, would be even worse.

But environmentalists and a growing pool of scientists say that's pure bull. Cattle and sheep, in fact, have helped cause the problems by eating away grasses that prevent the growth of thickets of smaller trees and bush which choke forests and feed bigger, hotter, more dangerous wildfires.

In addition, nearly a century of rushing to put out every fire has led to an unintended consequence: a potential catastrophic buildup of fire-prone vegetation.

"Unless, and until, intensive grazing of the National Forests end...(this) crisis cannot be resolved," said Dennis Morgan, research associate for the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. But because of a sharp reduction in herds in recent years, the dangers posed by grazing may be abating. Since 1980, the number of cattle and sheep on federal land in the Southwest has fallen by a third, to fewer than 270,000 head from more than 400,000.

Among the reasons are growing calls for habitat protection and preservation of endangered wildlife. Stands of old growth forest are needed for nesting Mexican spotted owls. And high- mountain, cold-water streams, which environmentalists say are ravaged by cattle, are essential for Arizona's dwindling number of endangered native fish, such as Apache trout.

One of the biggest reasons for the reduced herds is urban sprawl, as the recreational needs of an exploding number of city residents - wanting to tube, hike and hunt - compete with ranching. The Southwest Forest Alliance, a coalition of 50 environmental groups, is calling for less grazing, not just because of the drought, but because much of the Southwest is simply too dry to support ranching.

Most of the nearly 1,670 ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico who have permits to graze livestock on pubic lands are removing animals during the drought. But as many as 50 ranchers in both states have refused, setting up a possible show in coming weeks with federal agents.

Adding tension is the charge that cattle are to blame for the threat of fires. Steve Brophy, treasurer of the Arizona Cattle grower's Association, said the notion that cattle contribute to fire danger is laughable. "I don't know how anybody under the sun could possibly blame a cow," said Brophy, whose family runs several ranches in eastern Arizona."

"Grazing also heightens fire dangers by aggravating the drought, some experts say. Robert Ohmart, a professor of ecology at Arizona State University's Center for Environmental Studies, maintains that cattle may be harming the watershed of rivers that flow to the Valley.

Instead of absorbing rains like a sponge and slowly releasing them through springs, Ohmart said, the damaged land acts as a frying pan, so bare and hot that it causes much of the water to evaporate."

Earlier this year, Ohmart wrote a scathing review of a report published by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, which called for more cattle grazing in wilderness areas. The report concluded that "economically, it might shield the ranchers and surrounding communities from bankruptcy."

The report was also dismissed by Charles Cartwright Jr., the Southwest's Regional Forester for the Forest Service. Instead of more grazing, Cartwright said, forest lands need to be thinned through prescribed burns, ignited during moist period so they can be controlled.

Dave Stewart, a range-management official for the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque, said a lack of grass in some areas recently has prevented the agency from setting controlled burns. Grasses carry fast-moving spot fires that clear out the abundance of brush, needles and small pines while leaving unharmed the mature fire resistant trees with their thick bark. Spot fires return nutrients to the soil, and grasses quickly sprout back. A review conducted by the Forest Service last year concluded that the lack of culling fires threatens to "unravel and destroy" wilderness areas."

A measure before Congress known as the Livestock Grazing Act, backed by the Cattle Grower's Association would ensure that ranching continues and that government regulation is limited. President Clinton has vowed to veto the measure.