Resource Economists working to restore rangeland and reduce firefighting cost

Topaz Lake community wildfire, over Memorial Day weekend 2012Researchers in the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station (NAES) are proposing innovative ways to combat the future outbreak of rangeland fires while simultaneously rehabilitating native landscapes.

According to the BLM, Nevada's rangeland fires have burned an average 381,000 acres per year over the last 20 years. The BLM attributes the growing frequency and intensity of recent fires to the spread of invasive, non-native plant species such as cheat grass, which seed early in the year before becoming dried out and becoming fuel sources in the summer. Hotter, more frequent fires require more firefighting resources and personnel to combat fire outbreaks. The allocated Nevada BLM fire suppression budget alone is $14 million.

A NAES research team is working to reduce both BLM expenditures on firefighting and to restore rangeland habitat. Kimberly Rollins, associate professor in the Center for Resource Economics, along with Michael Taylor and Robin Tausch, have investigated the cost-benefit ratio of fire prevention strategies while proposing ways to apply these strategies by building relationships between Nevada's public and private sector.

"There are two main goals of this research," said Rollins. "The first is to demonstrate that it is a good investment to adopt pre-fire fuel treatment measures on public lands. The second is to utilize the collective knowledge of Nevada's ranchers and producers in order to implement these strategies."

The team's first study examines the sagebrush steppe and mountain big sagebrush ecosystems in the Great Basin. In regions with native shrubs and perennial grasses, the costs for pre-fire treatment are relatively low. More importantly, Rollins states that for every dollar that is spent on fuel treatment in this type of ecosystem, $13 are saved in fire suppression and post-fire recovery. However, in areas infested with annual, invasive grasses, the cost-benefit ratio is much lower, and the success rate for fire prevention also diminishes.

"Timing is important," said Rollins. "Treating fuels on ecosystems that contain native grasses and shrubs can yield a 13-1 benefit ratio in savings. However, our research shows that these returns only occur on lands that are relatively healthy. If we wait too long, it will require much more resources to rehabilitate these ecosystems."

Topaz Lake community wildfire, over Memorial Day weekend 2012Rollins says fuel treatment strategies have positive impacts on the water quality, soil structure and wildlife habitats in targeted areas. They also help cut back on Nevada BLM and Forest Service spending, but Rollins says public agencies cannot effectively implement fuel treatment measures by themselves.

A second NAES study investigates how Nevada ranchers could help assist in the fuel treatment of public lands. The study analyzes the impact of wildfire on cattle operations in Nevada, the increased range capacity for cattle on fuel treated areas, and the willingness of ranchers to practice fuel treatment measures. The study indicates that if fuel treatment measures were available to a rancher at no cost, the discounted profits received by adopting these tactics would be almost $150,000.

But Rollins says that there are several barriers that make ranchers reluctant to adopt these practices. The minimum treatment cost of $20 per acre is perceived as too expensive for ranchers, and federal land regulations are another deterrent.

Rollins believes partnerships between Nevada's public agencies and the private sector can help alleviate the costs and help improve the regulatory structure that facilitates the preservation of public lands. She suggests that ranchers could provide the extra manpower needed to help implement fuel treatment tactics, while also providing intimate knowledge of the range. Public agencies such as the BLM and the Forest Service can assist by subsidizing treatment costs and by providing ranchers with the skills and technology to administer treatment.

"We have individuals and families in the cattle industry who have an intimate understanding of rangeland ecosystems, some of whom have been here for generations," said Rollins. "If they had agency support and funding, they could be recruited to help rehabilitate Nevada's landscapes. Using ranchers' efforts doesn't require much additional funding/capital, as opposed to hiring more public agency staff, who don't know or aren't as familiar with the land."

The models that Rollins and her team propose have implications beyond Nevada, and can be applied to various ecosystems across the United States. Perhaps more importantly, Rollins says that fostering cooperation between the public and private spheres of society can yield greater impacts than working alone.

"It makes more sense to have a stronger public/private relationship," said Rollins. "Nevada's ranchers and government agencies have common goals. Both these parties have a vested interest in not only conserving public lands, but also in using these lands in a sustainable way."