Reseeding is helping ranchers

Published: Sunday, July 13 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

In 2007 an estimated 500,000 acres of public- and private-range land burned in Utah, forcing ranchers out of business, impacting wildlife and hitting rural economies in the gut.
But the results of a new survey of 21 ranchers impacted by the unprecedented 363,000-acre Milford Flat fire show that many are pleased with reseeding efforts that began last fall and ended in April.
Utah Department of Agriculture and Food commissioner Leonard Blackham said some areas are getting back to normal while others will need another round of reseeding. His office provided the Deseret News with a copy of the survey results.
"We're at least on our way," Blackham said on the phone. "Ranchers and farmers are always used to Mother Nature, and they get thrown a curve quite often, and they live with it — that's just part of being in business."
And the help keeps coming, with $2 million in grants made available this past week for more reseeding work and "green stripping." That's part of what Blackham called the "war" on cheatgrass that involves planting grass species that stay green longer and are less fire friendly.
Applicants for the funds will be private individuals and state or federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, all of whom Blackham said have cooperated on a level not often seen after wildfires.
"Everyone is still just amazed that we were able to get that much work done and get it done that fast," Blackham said.
The new survey of ranchers from Minersville, Kanosh, Beaver, Milford and Meadow shows thousands of acres of private land lost to the Milford Flat fire, which claimed tens of thousands more acres of federal and state lands ranchers relied on for grazing. Collectively the ranchers sold about 1,000 head of livestock because of feed sources destroyed by the fire — they also said they'll further need to reduce their herds in the coming year for lack of feed.
Several ranchers reported spending $50,000 or more — one as much as $264,000 — on replacing feed, grazing land or crops lost to the Milford Flat fire. Many still need fencing, seed, equipment, water lines, structures and alternate grazing areas as a result of the fire.
"I need pasture," Brant George, of Kanosh, replied in the survey. He said he isn't sure what it will cost or even if he can find it, only that if he doesn't get the pasture he'll need to sell his livestock.
While some in the survey praised state and federal agencies for their help in reseeding, a few were unhappy with the BLM's level of communication with ranchers.
The 2007 "Rancher Relief" report by the Utah Partners for Conservation & Development outlined how the fires' aftermath has affected the quality of life and public safety throughout the state.
"The long-term environmental impacts from soil erosion and flooding also remain a concern," according the most recent UPCD report.
The UPCD is made of several groups, including the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, Utah Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs. In its report, the UPCD called for emergency relief for farmers and ranchers.
"The rehabilitation of the lost range land will be a long-term effort," the UPCD concluded. "In the interim, ranchers are faced with either moving their animals to other land, purchasing feed to supplement what grazing land they have left, or selling off their herds temporarily or permanently."
At least 28 ranchers surveyed said they intend to sell off animals because of the wildfires' impacts. Ranchers reported that wildfires killed 299 cattle and 78 sheep in 2007, with another 1,305 head of livestock listed as "lost or dead." Ranchers estimated losing $2.3 million in fencing, corrals and water systems and needing about $3.8 million to purchase about 38,500 tons of feed for their livestock while waiting for range lands to recover.
Last year Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. declared 25 of Utah's 29 counties as disaster areas. On Aug. 21, 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted Utah a federal disaster declaration, opening up low-interest loans to impacted ranchers and farmers. The state kicked in $2 million for reseeding efforts in burned-out areas — which was in addition to the $2 million Blackham said has recently been made available.
Applicants from 11 counties sought a share of $301,000 that State Conservationist Sylvia Gillen and the Utah Natural Resource Conservation Service helped obtain to assist in regenerating tribal and private grazing lands scorched in 2007. The UPCD report stated, "Gillen expressed hope that these funds will assist the eligible producers to carry out conservation and improvement practices that will help heal and improve range conditions."

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com

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