Ranch Management with a Fire Adaptation Twist: A Day in the Life with Matthew Ward
Has FAC always been a part of your job?
No. In 2012, I moved to Idaho to manage the Flat Ranch Preserve. At that time, the Idaho Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) was not involved in collaborative forest restoration, nor did we have a prescribed fire program. I thought I would be managing our preserve and working with area ranchers on restoration and conservation projects along the Upper Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. But, then I met Liz Davy on a field trip. Liz is the district ranger for the Ashton/Island Park District of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. I mentioned how amazed I was at all of the houses tucked into this thickly forested landscape, the narrow roads, and the fire ecology. The current forest makeup (e.g., densely packed lodgepole pine) posed a serious risk to the community. A couple of months later, she called me to ask if I would be interested in joining a newly formed collaborative (the Island Park Sustainable Fire Community; IPSFC) that was focused on wildfire risk, outreach and community mitigation. I realized that establishing a prescribed fire program on the preserve was an important step to improve its ecological conditions. And, we could tie our prescribed fire program and our three main wildfire goals (which are related to fire adapted communities, wildfire response and landscape resilience) into the IPSFC outreach efforts, so I said yes.
What do you do when you get to work on Monday morning?
The first thing I do is think about the week ahead, make a list of tasks that I need to complete, which includes the ones that I did not complete the week before, and review my appointment calendar. In the summer months, I am also meeting with my seasonal employees and volunteers to go over their tasks for the week ahead.
Who do you see?
The Flat Ranch Preserve is open to the public, so I see and talk with a lot of visitors throughout the summer. I answer questions related to a wide variety of conservation-oriented topics, describe what we do here, and explain how we manage the ranch and our cattle. But, the main subject most people are interested in is fishing; Henry’s Fork is a world-renowned fly-fishing stream, and most of our visitors are in the area to fish and heard that The Nature Conservancy allows public access to a section of the river that runs through its preserve. So, they want to know what the fishing is like here.
Are you working on any projects with partners?
I am currently working on a few.
The Island Park Sustainable Fire Community, the Fire Learning Network and the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network are developing a partnership with the Teton Basin Ranger District, and the communities in the Teton Valley, that will replicate and expand the work that we started in Island Park in 2012. We hope that this is the beginning of a much larger collaboration that can work at the landscape-scale on fire management, controlled burns and fuels reduction. That partnership will focus on the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Another project that I am working on that is perhaps less obviously related to fire, but nonetheless intertwined with it, is a climate adaptation project that modeled headwater basins in southwest Montana and eastern Idaho to identify streams that are most likely to hold late season flow in a drier and warmer climate. The streams that we have identified are now eligible for stream restoration funding, and the projects will involve working with Idaho Fish and Game, Brigham Young University-Idaho, USDA Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Henrys Lake Foundation, the Montana Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and private landowners. We will implement and monitor restoration projects along the Upper Henry’s Fork, utilizing beaver dam analog structures to restore stream channels.
What different types of shoes do you wear on the job?
I spend most of my time during the spring, summer and fall months in the field, managing the property, which is a 1,600-acre grassland preserve and working cattle ranch. My job entails a few different pairs of shoes. I have a pair of leather work boots that I wear every day to work. Depending on the conditions, task and time of year, I may switch them out periodically for a more suitable pair. The preserve is a relatively wet place, so I spend a lot of time in rubber boots, taking care of chores, like fixing fences, and controlling invasive plants. In the summer months, I frequently wear hip waders as I adjust our flood irrigation or monitor the groundwater wells that we installed for a wetland enhancement project. Last year, I added a pair of fire boots to my closet, when we began our controlled burn program.
The pair of shoes that I don’t get to wear in my work life and miss the most is a pair of flip-flops.
Where might your job take you today?
Today my job is to help a three-person team from Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory (IBO) locate long-billed curlew nests on the preserve. Long-billed curlews are the largest North American shorebird and are easily recognized by their long, downward curving beak and loud call. The preserve and its surrounding lands contain this bird’s densest breeding population in eastern Idaho, but like many grassland birds, its population has been in decline. In fact, a population in southwest Idaho has seen a 90 percent decline over the last 30 years.
Most days are not quite as interesting as capturing long-billed curlews. And while much of my summer is spent outside managing our ranch, summer is also the time of year that the IPSFC completes our private lands fuels reduction projects and a bulk of our community outreach. This year, we are hoping to build off our successful wildfire simulation outreach event and offer additional workshops to interested subdivisions and homeowners. That effort aims to deepen our community engagement and accelerate our progress toward greater fire adaptation and landscape resiliency.
When you get back to your desk, what unexpected thing has come up?
Most of the unexpected things that come up when I get back to my desk revolve around fences, e.g., a break in the fence that is allowing neighboring cows onto our property. If it’s not a fence, it’s either too much or not enough water running down our ditches or maybe a lightning strike that knocks out the internet service. Or, it might be a dead cow that needs to be buried.
Work is over; another long but fulfilling day behind you. What’s next?
I go home to spend time with my wife and seven-year-old son. The activities that we enjoy the most are camping, hiking or being out on a river. Usually, we try to get at least one of those in every weekend throughout the summer.
Any closing remarks for our readers?
I feel very grateful and honored to be a member of such a great network of people who not only share the same passion and commitment but also are a wonderful, inspiring, fun bunch to be around.