Burning Desire

“We had a bring-it-on kind of attitude about the fire, though it wasn’t risk free.”

-Mary Miller, Arizona Rancher

Mary Miller’s got fire on her mind.

It’s not the fire and brimstone kind. It’s more a long simmering conviction to return fire to the arid grassland of southern Arizona’s Altar Valley.

Miller and her husband Charlie have seen the benefits of fire at their Elkhorn Guest Ranch. She points to the bench land above the ranch buildings, tucked beneath the towering Baboquivari Mountains on the Arizona-Mexico border.

“This bench is so much more productive now,” she says, squinting in the mid-morning sun. She explains how a major wildfire on the ranch in 2009, plus mechanical removal in the 1980s, reduced mesquite and shrubs and restored grasses.

“We had a bring-it-on kind of attitude about the fire, though it wasn’t risk free,” she says. 

The fire came close to the ranch buildings, requiring crews to build a fire line to protect them. It also burned the Millers’ prime winter pasture, requiring them to purchase hay for the horses. But in the long-run it improved the grass and helped reduce the woody vegetation.

For Miller, like all ranchers, nutritious grass is the bottom line. “We couldn’t work this place without the grass to feed the horses.”

Will Fire Return to Work its Magic?

She hopes that one day fire will be ignited on the ranch’s lower grasslands.

Natural fire, eliminated in the late-1800s, combined with periods of drought and unmanaged grazing, caused mesquite and shrubs to outcompete native grass in the valley. Now these soils are prone to erosion and less able to catch and hold rainwater.

North of the Elkhorn, at the historic Anvil Ranch, maintaining nutritious forage – and beating back the burroweed that is toxic to livestock – is critical for the cattle operation. Owners Pat and John King had good luck with controlled burns they did in the mid-‘80s in cooperation with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We’d set the fire in the morning, and by late afternoon we’d see the deer running into the burned area, chasing the javalina out, to eat the thorn-less cholla,” Pat recalled. “We even saw the quail taking ash baths.”

“The grassland was fresher and there was more forage,” said King, at the ranch headquarters, where cows bawled for their newly weaned calves. “Everything seemed to enjoy the burned area.”

A Halt to Controlled Burns

Then came the ‘90s and the politics of the Endangered Species Act. People like the Kings who wanted to do controlled burns had to stop. 

The agencies stopped approving fire plans because of the high cost of doing endangered species surveys and the potential liability of harming threatened or endangered species, such as Pima pineapple cactus and pygmy owls.

That got the Altar Valley ranchers revved up. In 1995, they formed the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, modeled after the Malpai Borderlands Group, to support ranching and conservation in the valley.

“A key goal of ours was to return fire to the grassland,” said Pat King, the group’s president. “We started working on a fire plan that would guide us on where to burn and assure that we complied with the environmental regulations. Liability concerns remained a huge roadblock.”

“We were extremely lucky. We had The Nature Conservancy step in as a partner,” said Miller, the group’s vice-president. “They were willing to take on this liability and in so doing help us solve one of the biggest obstacles, an unbelievably huge obstacle, to getting fire going.”

Success: The Largest Grassland Burn Plan in Arizona

After 15 years in the making, the Altar Valley Fire Management Plan was adopted in 2009 by nine local, state and federal agencies, as well as the Conservancy. Covering more than 500,000 acres, it is the largest comprehensive grasslands fire plan in Arizona.

A key part of the plan addresses how controlled burning might impact threatened and endangered species.

“The plan recognizes that there is a potential for unintended impacts on some endangered species,” says the Conservancy’s Peter Warren, who has worked with the both the Malpai and the Altar Valley groups from their beginnings. “It also provides a mechanism for mapping endangered species or archaeological sites and taking steps to minimize impacts.”

“Putting fire on the ground is serious business. And it’s complicated,” says Bob Rogers, the Conservancy’s fire manager for Arizona and New Mexico.

Addressing the specifics of where and when to burn is the domain of the site-specific burn plans, three of which are complete. 

“In addition to detailed planning and securing the permits, the ranchers want to know how we’ll protect water pipelines or re-build fencing that gets burned. You also have to consider erosion issues,” says Rogers, who will lead some of the burns with assistance from agency, Conservancy and Alliance staff and volunteers.

Conditions need to improve before any burns commence. In 2011, a lack of rain has meant not enough vegetation to fuel a burn.

“You have to have the weather and the fuels match the plan,”” says Rogers.

Ultimately, though, fire will return to restore this desert land. That’s because of the many years of collaboration to keep this ranchland undeveloped and in conservation management, and the hard work involved in establishing the fire management plan.

“This is what conservation success looks like,” says Warren.

“We’ve been fortunate to have The Nature Conservancy to help us,” says Mary Miller. “They’ve been a quiet partner and source of wisdom and guidance, and have been key to helping us bring fire back to this landscape,” she said. 

--Tana Kappel


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