This past summer brought the largest wildfire season ever experienced in Nevada. In a span of just a few months, more than 1.6 million acres of land burned, including 370,000 acres of private land and 130 public land grazing allotments. Five counties (Elko, Humboldt, Pershing, Lander and Eureka) were declared natural disaster areas, and they brought four adjoining counties (Nye, Washoe, Churchill and White Pine) to that list with them.
As the numbers continue to roll in, current estimates are that 14 grazing allotments incurred wildfire damage in excess of 50 percent, and 42 allotments incurred burns between 10 and 50 percent. These 56 highly impacted allotments account for a licensed grazing preference of nearly one million animal unit months (AUMs – the amount of land needed to feed one head of livestock for one month). In addition, the Nevada Division of Wildlife reports that areas affected by these burns provide critical of important habitats for more than 40 percent of the state’s wildlife. Biodiversity of Nevada’s plant and animal species may be irreversibly affected. Public safety, health hazards and further resource damage are also a concern as they relate to increased soil erosion and blowing dust, water and air quality impacts and expansion of noxious and invasive weeds.
The impact on Nevada’s rural communities, especially in the agribusiness sector, is substantial. In addition to burning off precious forage, the wildfires also caused extensive damage to rangeland improvements and facilities developed over the past 50 years. Many of these improvements represent private investments by ranchers. Loss of these structures, such as fences, corrals and water development fixtures, will limit options available to manage livestock grazing for the purpose of promoting post-fire recovery and rehabilitation.
“This is going to affect ranchers’ bottom lines for a couple of years,” says Don Henderson, assistant director of the Nevada Department of Agriculture. “Hopefully the impact will be short term and will be mitigated by the BLM working with ranchers as much as possible.” The primary concern for now is the loss of winter range and the added hay costs involved in getting through this critical winter.
Two questions may dictate the success of wildfire rehabilitation plans and thus the success of a huge group of ranchers in this state. The first is whether Nevada will receive adequate disaster relief funding from Washington. The other is bow the BLM will work at the field level with ranchers in trying to lessen the wildfires’ impacts. Henderson feels hopeful.
State representatives at every level are making the case for the disaster that swept through the state, trying to show that the wildfires are no different than a hurricane or earthquake in terms of economic impact. So far, the state has asked for approximately $28 million in relief over the next three years. Dennis Hellwinkel, president of the Nevada Farm Bureau, is concerned that all the ranchers will receive is loan opportunities. ”They can’t afford to borrow more money,” he says, explaining that low and mediocre pricing for product means ranchers would be borrowing themselves into bankruptcy. Yet, ranchers can’t just put the cattle on hold and not feed them for a few years.
As for how well the BLM will work at field level, Henderson says the BLM’s response to the burns has been the wildfire season’s one bright spot. ”Their response has been rapid, comprehensive and ambitious,” he says. “Before the smoke cleared, they had teams in place to assess resource damage and rehabilitation needs and to initiate the process of coordinating the affected landowners and ranchers.” Current plans include reseeding about 40 percent of the burned acreage. The foremost objective is to stabilize rangeland resources over the short run to prevent further resource damage and deterioration and to enhance resource values over the long run as funding sources allow.
Rather than waiting for the BLM, Henderson suggests ranchers and affected landowners assess their own individual situations and submit their recommendations and plans to the BLM. Winter won’t wait for paperwork.
Diversity key to survival
Nevada’s agribusiness has always been a tough row to hoe. Weather, fire, desert environs, costs of keeping up with environmental regulations and a market over which the producer has no control all seem to conspire to bring about the extinction of ranching and farming in this state. Yet, Nevada’s agribusiness industry remains reasonably healthy. “In general;’ says Thomas Cargill, professor of economics at the University of Nevada in Reno, “agriculture in the United States is doing well, and this is reflected by agriculture in Nevada.” However, the economy is not necessarily a reflection of the ranching life. Cargill explains that, due to incredible productivity and scientific approaches to running an agribusiness, the smaller, back pocket operators are the exceptions. “Over time, we have a declining number of people in agriculture, yet agriculture productivity maintains an output level that can keep up with demand.”
Chuck Moses, environmental specialist ill for the Nevada Department of Agriculture, agrees with Cargill. “You need to diversify and grow to be successful,” he says. Efficiency is the key. As costs of inputs – such as gasoline, chemicals, machinery – increase, farms and ranches are only going to be successful by keeping other costs low or changing product. Organic farming has proven a good alternative, as has developing crops that use less water or fewer chemicals. Farmers markets are booming all over the state, cutting out the middleman for many agribusiness endeavors and shortening that distance between cost and profit.
Rancher as manager? F arming and ranching provide the cornerstone to many rural economies. Farming is concentrated in valleys with water available for irrigation, while vast rangelands and mountains provide grazing for livestock. Well over half the farms in the state produce cattle or sheep, but diversification is popping up everywhere – from emus and llamas to strawberries and onions. Dairies are a growing industry, with most of the dairies located in the north, but the largest operating in the south. Horses are also becoming big business, both for work and pleasure.
Alfalfa hay accounts for more than half the total value of crops produced in the state, but economic downturns in Pacific Rim countries hurt exports significantly. The dairy industry is making a surprising comeback from its record lows of February and March- a fact that doesn’t thrill Hellwinkel, who runs a dairy in Fallon. “We’re benefiting at the expense of other agriculture enterprises,” he says. “Milk prices are increasing, feed prices are down, so we dairy men are making money.”
David Thawley, director of the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station (NAES) and dean of Nevada’s College of Agriculture, suggests another way agribusiness can flourish in the state. “The resources are under considerable threat,” he explains, “associated with two interrelated factors – multiple land users and the consequences of wildfires.” Thawley sees the rancher of the future as both a manager of livestock production and a manager of the environment. Currently, the BLM and the Forest Service primarily manage public lands. But as wildfire and urban development continue to threaten biodiversity and invasive weeds continue to create destructive fuel loads, there may be no better individuals to manage a more intensive lands program than those who work with it day in and day out.
Thawley has traveled the state holding meetings in communities to determine the most pressing concerns of Nevadans in agribusiness. What these ranchers and farmers want, he says, is research. “They need help out here dealing with our management of public lands and range lands.” In response, the experiment station would like to take advantage of the fires and conduct research on seeding mixtures and the roles of rest periods. Contrary to East Coast logic, the two year rest-rotation mandated by the federal government could be hurting states such as Nevada who are having virtual wars with cheatgrass and other invasive, noxious weeds. The fear is that, in some areas, a two-year rest after a fire does nothing more than allow cheatgrass a head start in production. This in turn leads to dangerous fuel loads as the grass cures, which leads to more fires. Grazing those areas before the two years are up may knock back the cheatgrass and let other plants establish themselves more readily.
One of the problems with cheatgrass and other threatening weed species in the West has been reluctance on the part of the federal government to deal with the issue. “The big runaround I’ve seen,” says Henderson, “is that the cheatgrass issue was previously considered too big, too expensive to address. The BLM now realizes they can’t afford not to address it.”
This has been ·a major frustration for the ranching industry, which has been attempting to deal with the issue in isolation. “I hope now,” Henderson continues, “due to this firestorm we’ve had that the thought process can be turned around and both federal and private entities, through ranchers and sporting organizations, can start investing more money in these rangelands so they will be more productive and valuable for us all.”