I’m going to start out this blog post by openly admitting that I came to Burns with the mindset that beef is the root of all evil. I stopped eating beef when I was 15 years old because of the environmental implications; it takes an estimated 2,000 gallons of water and 12 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of beef. That’s pretty darn inefficient, and a completely unsustainable way to feed humanity over the long term. With that in mind, let’s just say I had a fairly uncomfortable transition to an area where ranching is so common and cows are beloved by all. In fact, the BLM was formed from the former U.S. Grazing Service, so basically my job revolves around making sure the beef cows I am so adamantly opposed to have good land to graze.
There was a lot to be learned about cattle ranching in the Wild West, however. First of all, the cattle here are all free range, making it an entirely different ball game than beef production in the industrial system. I still wasn’t convinced, though, because I was frustrated by the fact that people seemed to prioritize grazing land over conserving the natural plant communities. For example, many of the wildfire rehabilitation sites that I monitor were seeded with “desirable non-natives” such as forage kochia and crested wheatgrass. These are highly palatable plants that cows love to eat, but they aren’t native to Oregon. So what’s the point in using plants that don’t even belong here? To me, it didn’t seem like a very environmentally-conscious rehab plan.
Vegetation monitoring at a fire rehab site
Here’s where it gets interesting. As I’ve mentioned before, wildfires are a huge issue out here. They burn hot and fast, and scorching all of the good plants like sagebrush and native bunch grasses in their paths. In the past, these plant communities would’ve bounced back naturally; however, with the introduction of invasives like cheat grass and Medusa head, the natives just can’t compete. Which means that if the fire sites are left to their own devices, cheat grass and Medusa head will completely take over (no animals will eat them and no other plants will grow back). That’s why the BLM uses non-native plants in their seedings – they do a better job at competing with and blocking out the invasives, whereas the native plants would never have survived. By preventing the invasives from taking over, there is a better chance that the native plant communities will eventually regrow and live cohesively with the desirable non-natives.
A fire site overrun with invasive cheat grass
That’s still hard for me to swallow. I am disappointed that the only way to prevent the spread of invasives is to plant non-natives, but I suppose that is the lesser of two evils. And I’m happy to know that they don’t plant things like crested wheatgrass because they want to make the cows happy, but rather because it’s the only choice they have. However, I still think more research is needed on how to control the invasives, and while the BLM does a good job stabilizing and rehabilitating the land after a fire, there really is no push to restore the native plant communities. So in that regard, I do wish the BLM put a little more emphasis on conservation and preservation, not just grazing.
All in all, I had a lot of misconceptions about how things are run out here. I’m not saying that I’ll be cooking myself a juicy T-bone steak anytime soon, but I’ve certainly learned a lot about fire ecology and beef production in the West. I hope to continue having my opinions challenged and horizons widened during my time here. Because that’s the beauty of exploring new places – you may not recognize how close-minded you are until you truly open your mind to the thoughts of others.
On a lighter note, here are some pictures from the past two (exceptionally muddy) weeks:
We were headed out of the field just as a huge storm rolled through…
…and things got messy real fast.
The very next day our truck got thoroughly stuck in the mud.
This week, we did stream restoration. Hauling all of those rocks was a dirty & tiring job!
Burns District BLM