Science Tuesday: Seeing Cowboys as Catalysts
Authors: Lenya Quinn-Davidson
Last week was filled with firsts: my first time in Nebraska; my first time trying Mountain Dew, Rocky Mountain oysters and runzas (a Nebraskan spin on a sandwich); my first time tagging the ear of a newborn calf; and my first time touring cattle feedlots. It was also my first time burning with a prescribed burn association made up of local ranchers and landowners, saying a prayer during an operational briefing, and dragging a drip torch without my yellows and greens—just jeans, a cotton t-shirt, and my boots and gloves. (It was also my first time sleeping in a basement with three loose snakes, but I’ll save that story for another time!)
As you may recall from my September blog post, my colleagues and I here in California hosted a group from Nebraska and Iowa last summer through a Fire Learning Network-supported prescribed fire learning exchange. We toured them around our region and talked about the challenges and opportunities that we face, and we learned about the innovative grassroots burning efforts that they’re leading in the Great Plains. After driving our windy roads, staying in a quirky Airbnb, eating tri-tip for the first time (who knew that tri-tip is a regional cut of beef?!), and hanging out with all of us for a week, they (perhaps euphemistically) described their visit as a cultural experience — one that we decided to emulate by visiting them this spring. So last Saturday, I flew out to Nebraska with my fellow cooperative extension advisor Jeff Stackhouse, my Natural Resources Conservation Service colleague Matt Cocking, and Dean Hunt, a rancher here in Humboldt County who has been a local conservation leader for decades. Our goal was to see Nebraskan innovation in action, bring home some new ideas and inspiration, and (of course!) to burn some stuff.
Cultural context aside, there are some striking similarities between the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains. The pattern and pace of their eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) invasion parallels that of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) here, as do the negative impacts of those compositional shifts. In a 2002 paper in the journal Ecosystems, Briggs et al. showed that native tallgrass prairie in the Great Plains can convert to closed-canopy red cedar forest in only 40 years. Similarly, where I am, Douglas-fir can become fully established and co-dominant with mature oaks in as little as 20 years (with an average of 50 years across the region; publications in progress). In both places, conifer encroachment drastically reduces herbaceous plant diversity and productivity and results in the loss of grassland species (e.g., Thysell and Carey 2001, Briggs et al. 2002, Devine et al. 2007, Engber et al. 2011), much to the detriment of wildlife and range values.
Fire plays an important role in both of these landscapes, not only beating back encroaching conifers at relatively low costs (e.g., Ortmann et al. 1998), but also creating a heterogeneous habitat structure that favors a diverse assemblage of grassland-dependent species (Fuhlendorf et al. 2006). And the richness of Nebraskan grasslands was self-evident on my trip (well, “self-evident” might be a stretch — I had the fortune of being in the car with Jeff, who worked as a biologist in the Great Plains before moving back to California. During our drive, he stayed busy pointing out prairie dogs, sandhill cranes, mule deer and whitetail deer, antelope, geese and ducks to my untrained eyes). Just like here in California, grasslands in Nebraska are teeming with life, and they will not persist without fire.
Grazing is also a vital disturbance in both landscapes, and not just for its role as a physical process, but also because of the social and cultural cohesion that surrounds ranching. In Nebraska, the prescribed fire community appears to be born of the ranching community, and prescribed fire has burgeoned as a tool because of the existing capacities of local ranchers and farmers. This is also true in Oklahoma, Texas and other states where prescribed burn associations (PBAs) have formed in recent decades. Through these associations, landowners combine their energies and resources and allay some of the challenges inherent to burning, like insurance costs, burn permitting, and a lack of labor and equipment (Taylor 2005, Diaz et al. 2016). This model of cooperative burning, which is based locally and driven by the landowners themselves, is one of the most promising models for landscape-level restoration and maintenance of grasslands and rangelands (Toledo et al. 2014), and it’s something we need to adopt here in California. We’re losing our rangelands just as quickly as they are in the Great Plains, and fire is just as important a process here as it is there, but we haven’t successfully supported or empowered our ranching community in leading the charge toward more fire in California. That is why the best part of our trip last week was seeing Dean dragging a drip torch and driving an engine, surrounded by his Nebraskan counterparts. It wasn’t his first time burning (he has plenty of good stories, and he ascribes to his neighbor’s mantra that “the only good fire is one that scares you a little”), but this was his first time seeing a rancher-led PBA in action, and the value of that experience can’t be overstated.
For me, this was a trip full of firsts (most of which I’d recommend, maybe with the exception of the runza!). But it was also a good reminder of how much we all have to learn from one another, and how valuable it is to see and experience new ways of doing things. When we started the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, we looked to Florida for inspiration. Now it’s time for us to learn some lessons from the heartland, where they have a model of grassroots burning that has potential to proliferate at a meaningful scale. It’s time roll up our sleeves, put on our cowboy boots, and get to work!
Briggs, J.M., Hoch, G.A. and Johnson, L.C., 2002. Assessing the rate, mechanisms, and consequences of the conversion of tallgrass prairie to Juniperus virginiana forest. Ecosystems, 5(6), pp. 578-586.
Devine, W.D., Harrington, C.A. and Peter, D.H., 2007. Oak woodland restoration: understory response to removal of encroaching conifers. Ecological Restoration, 25(4), pp. 247-255.
Diaz, J., Fawcett, J.E., and Wier, J. 2016. The value of forming a prescribed burn association. Southern Fire Exchange fact sheet, 2016-2.
Engber, E.A., Varner, J.M., Arguello, L.A. and Sugihara, N.G., 2011. The effects of conifer encroachment and overstory structure on fuels and fire in an oak woodland landscape. Fire Ecology, 7(2), pp. 32-50.
Fuhlendorf, S.D., Harrell, W.C., Engle, D.M., Hamilton, R.G., Davis, C.A. and Leslie, D.M., 2006. Should heterogeneity be the basis for conservation? Grassland bird response to fire and grazing. Ecological Applications, 16(5), pp. 1706-1716.
Ortmann, J., Stubbendieck, J., Masters, R.A., Pfeiffer, G.H. and Bragg, T.B., 1998. Efficacy and costs of controlling eastern red cedar. Journal of Range Management, pp. 158-163.
Taylor Jr, C.A., 2005. Prescribed burning cooperatives: empowering and equipping ranchers to manage rangelands. Rangelands, 27(1), pp. 18-23.
Thysell, D.R. and Carey, A.B., 2001. Quercus garryana communities in the Puget Trough, Washington. Northwest Science, 75(3), pp. 219-235.
Toledo, D., Kreuter, U.P., Sorice, M.G. and Taylor, C.A., 2014. The role of prescribed burn associations in the application of prescribed fires in rangeland ecosystems. Journal of Environmental Management, 132, pp. 323-328.