Craig skeptical of report on giant Idaho wildfire

Craig skeptical of report on giant Idaho wildfire

21 October 2008

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USA — Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho is disputing a report that concluded the ferocity of a massive wildfire in southern Idaho last year wouldn’t have been diminished even if more cattle grazing had been allowed before the fire.

“If you use it responsibly, grazing is a substantial component in controlling the fuel loads in upland grazing lands that the state of Idaho is so well known for,” Craig told The Times-News.

He said the lightning- and cheatgrass-stoked Murphy Complex fire that torched 1,000 square miles of Idaho and Nevada backcountry would have been less intense had federal land managers allowed more cattle grazing on public land.

“While the study said grazing was a piece of the action, they gave higher credit to all these other elements,” he said. “What I look at in fighting fires and range management is, can you put it out once it starts? Are you capable for putting it out once you’ve gained control?”

The 49-page report released last month concluded dry fuel from a drought, strong winds, near 100-degree temperatures and a violent lightning storm the evening of July 16, 2007, fueled the fire. The report said the blaze was so intense that almost nothing could have stopped it.

Craig, noting he’s had firsthand experience with range fires since he was a child, called the conclusions of the report “curious.”

“In talking with the people on the ground out there – and I’m talking ranchers that have been there and have hundreds of years of experience on the ground – it became very obvious to them and to me that in areas where grazing had occurred in a reasonable fashion the fire was less,” Craig said.

Immediately after the fire, grazing practices became the center of a political flare-up. Besides Craig, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said the giant fire could have been avoided if more grazing had been allowed.

But environmentalists argue livestock are harmful, with the Western Watersheds Project saying drought and the Bureau of Land Management’s planting of grasses favored by cattle – but more flammable than native plants – exacerbated the fires.

The report was released by the universities of Idaho and Nevada, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey, the BLM and the Idaho Department of Lands.

“I read the report written by fire professionals saying all the right elements were there for a substantial fire,” Craig said. “They didn’t weight the elements in one way or another. But my guess is my experience on range land is almost as good as anyone’s out there over the years.”

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