Wildfires exploded this summer in the Pacific Northwest. Thousands of acres were scorched. I wondered: whose land had actually burned? A lot of the land that was engulfed in flames was isolated forest, grassland, hillsides. To whom did the land belong? Then I started hearing about ranchers losing their grazing allotments in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho and knew I had a story.
The vast majority of the fire-affected land was federally-owned… U.S. Forest Land, BLM Land, etc. How much of it was grazing grounds? You see, the U.S. government leases its land to ranchers across the country. This practice is especially popular in the West. Ranchers pay a small fee, and they’re allowed to run their cattle on remote federally-owned mountains and hillsides. Cows and calves share the land with the wild species. Ranchers, in turn, help with conservation efforts on the land.
Allotment grazing is a controversial practice. Environmentalists say cattle grazing destroys the land, especially near streams where riparian habitat is fragile. Ranchers, of course, say they have grazed the land for generation and are good stewards of it. In recent years, there’s been a growing practice of “conservation grazing” – using cattle to graze in prescribed ways to mimic what deer once did, as a way to get rid of invasive species and keep the fuels low in case of wildfires. Some environmentalists don’t agree with this practice, while others support it. All this to explain that grazing is prevalent on remote federal lands.
Knowing this, I figured ranchers must have suffered a lot in these fires. My AP colleague wrote about the impacts of wildfires on wildlife, including the sage grouse and other species. So I tackled the other side of the equation. It was difficult to track down exactly how much of the federal land was leased as so-called grazing allotments, but I was able to interview a good number of ranchers, forest managers, and grazing specialists at the federal agencies to get a solid grasp on this. In a few cases, I got specific acreage, and in others estimates. Here is the story link and the PDF: AP-Wildfire Ranchers