Bring back the cattle

Nevada wildfires burned 424,000 acres last year. So far this year, 767,000 acres have burned.

The solution? State Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, 77 and a veteran rancher, says the federal Bureau of Land Management should let cattle graze longer on public lands.

He and other members of the Legislative Committee on Public Lands unanimously agreed last week to draw up legislation calling on the BLM and other federal agencies to take steps to allow emergency grazing to reduce the fuels that contribute to wildfires every summer. Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, the committee's chairwoman, said their plan would be detailed during the 2013 session and that scientific evidence backs up Sen. Rhoads' assertions.

"I don't know why we can't get it grazed at the appropriate time of the year when we know that fires will come with lightning," Ms. Carlton said.

In an earlier meeting, BLM officials told the committee it would not be practical to extend grazing seasons.

However, the committee had visited the Gund Ranch near Austin, operated by the University of Nevada, Reno, and learned non-native cheatgrass can be reduced by fall grazing in successive years after seed drop, Ms. Carlton noted.

Sen. Rhoads, who's retiring because of term limits after serving 34 years in the Legislature, said the BLM shuts down grazing for two to three years in burned areas, which allows cheatgrass and other vegetation to grow high and become more susceptible to fire. He said cattle should not be kept away from fire-damaged land for more than a year.

If the BLM can't act quickly on extending permits, Sen. Rhoads said, then local groups such as county commissions should hear ranchers' concerns and be allowed to determine whether an extended grazing season is needed.

"There are fires burning now that could have been avoided," added Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks.

Ranchers have warned for decades that federal attempts to reduce grazing seasons have been arbitrary and ill-advised. Restored upstream cattle grazing could even improve water flows in the Colorado River, according to ranchers.

In the long run, Nevada's lands should be managed by Nevadans, not bureaucrats with agendas set in far-off Washington. But for now, state lawmakers are on the right track.

Witnesses told the committee last week that Carson City has used sheep every year since a disastrous 2004 fire to thin out the cheatgrass and other vegetation at the edge of the city. No major fires have occurred since.