I rarely agree with Sen. Crapo. I do believe, however, that he is sincere in his concern for his fellow citizens. So, it is particularly disappointing when he succumbs to political pressure from livestock interests and promotes patently false information as to the causes of large fires in the West.
"Land and life" were not victimized "by regulations and lawsuits purported to protect them" as Sen. Crapo states in his opinion. Recent court victories by Western Watersheds Project and others to curtail grazing on public lands were not granted arbitrarily. They resulted from a lengthy legal process in which a judge carefully weighed the evidence of numerous scientists and expert witnesses and concluded that federal agencies were not following environmental laws designed to insure proper management of public lands. The cynical attempt by our political representatives and the livestock industry to circumvent these findings in the name of better fire management should be seen for what they are—propaganda.
There are undoubtedly inefficiencies in our responses to large fires that can be remedied, as Sen. Crapo pointed out. But the idea that a reduction in fuel load through more intensive grazing by cattle would have made, or will in the future make, any difference whatsoever in fire behavior on Western lands is nonsense.
The causes of fire in the West are complex but are almost entirely the result of severe climactic conditions. As BLM spokesman Barry Rose was quoted as saying in the August 1 issue of the Idaho Mountain Express: "Singling out grazing reductions as the major cause of the fire near Murphy Hot Springs obscures the complexity of the situation. Years of drought, climate change, high temperatures and other factors, coupled with a storm that in 24 hours blanketed the landscape with 2,600 documented lightning strikes, created an environment where wildfire could spread out of control."
Sagebrush-steppe plant communities of all kinds evolved with fire. What has changed since the advent of grazing is the composition and health of these once resilient native plant communities. Over the last 100 years grazing and other land use practices in the sagebrush-steppe have radically altered plant communities degrading the wet meadows and lush green vegetation found in riparian zones that once provided fire breaks and decimating native grasses making the whole system more vulnerable to fire. Livestock has disturbed soils providing perfect growing conditions for volatile cheatgrass, and the invasion of cheatgrass into the sagebrush has in turn altered fire frequency in the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem from a 50-to-100-year cycle to a five-to-10-year cycle increasing the frequency and severity of the resulting fires.
Unfortunately, if history is any guide, the lasting damage from the Murphy fire has only just begun. The BLM will probably re-seed the burned area with crested wheat grass adding to the million plus acres of sagebrush-steppe habitat the agency has already converted in Idaho for cattle food over the last 50 years. The resulting crested wheat monoculture provides no habitat for sagebrush-dependent bird and other wildlife species. If the agency truly cared for our public lands instead of the special interests of the livestock industry it would make every attempt to restore native habitat by seeding native species and resting land as long as necessary to insure its recovery.
Western Watersheds Project board president