This blog was written by Marie Hoff. Marie operates Full Circle Wool in Mendocino County, providing grazing services for fire prevention and brush management and wool products that are sourced from Fibershed-verified Climate Beneficial ranches. You can learn more at their website and follow them on Instagram.
–Dr. Lynn Huntsinger, at Society of Range Management’s 2020 Annual Meeting
In 2017 I evacuated my home in Northern California from a wildfire for the first time in my life. I was 34 years old, had never evacuated from a fire before, and was not aware of anyone I knew who had either, despite the entirety of those 34 years taking place in California. In 2017, I asked the following questions: Was there something different about this year [of 2017]? Or is this what we should expect, as Californians? Is this going to happen once every 50 years, or more frequently?
Every year since then has overshadowed the last for titles such as “most destructive fire” or “most acreage fire” or “most costly fire” or “most deadly fire.” I’ve lost track of which fire I’ve been near that has held which title, and for how long. Now, in 2020, I am starting to feel like Lynn Huntsinger. I get a little bit ticked off when grazing is not mentioned alongside the other methods of fuels abatement. Because there are millions of acres in California alone that grow vegetation in the spring, only to dry out by fall and become fuel – and grazing is the only vegetation management practice that is scalable to millions of acres. It’s also possible to access very steep or hard to get to areas with herbivores rather than people with weedwhackers. It’s also the only vegetation management approach that can draw down more carbon than it emits, making it the most climate-appropriate practice available. Even doing absolutely nothing emits carbon, as dead plants oxidize, and still provide tinder for a future fire.
Grazing for fuel load reduction provides food and fiber, and locally-produced food and fiber at that, nourishing and sustaining the material needs of our communities. With its production of goods and services, grazing supports the state’s economy and provides local jobs, from shepherds to haulers to feed store businesses and butchers, etc. Grazing removes dry biomass (as opposed to herbicides or mechanical means, which simply lay the dry vegetation down on the ground), while returning nutrients in bio-available manure and stimulating the growth of green plants in the future. Imagine if the state were covered in green, perennial, fire-adapted grasses at this time of year, the fall, instead of dry, brown invasive grasses. Imagine if the state had enough herbivores to both manage vegetative fuel load comprehensively, as well as provide for our food and fiber needs instead of importing meat, dairy, and sweaters.
Grasslands are the most endangered ecosystems in California, but not due to fire or climate change. California’s grasslands began to degrade notably beginning with the colonial introduction of 1) overgrazing livestock and 2) suppressing traditional burning by Indigenous peoples several hundred years ago. But grasslands hold the key to carbon draw down, to climate change amelioration, to reducing fire danger from catastrophic to low-intensity. Grasses, and their relationship to healthy soil, are our best shot at sequestering carbon long term. In order to function properly, grasses need grazing.
And so, why is grazing still not mentioned as a wildfire solution? Why is it not on the list, alongside prescribed burning, mechanical means, and herbicide? Why is it not at the top of the list? I will continue to ask these questions until grazing is implemented alongside prescribed burning to bring back the health of vibrant grasslands. I will continue to ask these questions until I stop wondering when all these catastrophic fires will recede, when fires in California will stop eclipsing each other for the titles of “most destructive, most costly, most deadly.”
To find a contract grazer in your area, see California Woolgrower Association’s Directory (http://californiawoolgrowers.org/targeted-grazing/directory) or contact your local UC Cooperative Extension office (find your local office at https://ucanr.edu/About/Locations/).