Burn now, learn later

While the immediate economic and ecological impacts of the recent wildfires and ongoing drought in West Texas are inarguably negative, there are still some positive aspects to the situation. Steve Nelle is a San Angelo-based wildlife biologist with the USDA‘s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and he has authored a short and quite interesting assessment of the likely ecological impacts and outlook for recovery from those fires.

He first takes aim at those who attempt to minimize the seriousness of the impact of the wildfires. I have been guilty of occasionally succumbing to the fallacy that since fire is a “natural phenomenon,” it must be on the whole a positive thing, once we look past the obvious negative impacts on human endeavor and property. As Nelle points out, that’s a naive perspective, especially when considering the multiplying effects of ongoing acute drought on fire-ravaged rangelands. 

In one study, soil erosion after a severe fire (like those around Possum Kingdom Lake, and in the Davis Mountains) was 7 to 10 tons per acre over a 2.5 year period, and more than 100 tons per acre in other locations with differing slopes and subsequent rainfall totals. It’s hard for a layman to envision the actual impact of this kind of erosion, but given the relative thinness of topsoil throughout our region, it sounds quite serious.

As far as the grazing outlook for the burned areas, the studies generally seem to indicate that it will take at least three years for the pasture to recover, and that assumes at least average rainfall – not a comfortable assumption for us at this point. Some local ranchers are anticipating that it will take 20 years for their land to fully recover from the conflagrations and drought. Any way you slice it, that’s a severe impact.

There are some positives, to be sure, including a great reduction in cedar (allergy sufferers, rejoice!), and reductions in the rattlesnake population. And if weather patterns change and provide more rainfall, the resulting grazing should be better than before – assuming anyone is still around to run livestock to take advantage of it.

If nothing else, the situation provides an excellent laboratory for scientists like Nelle to study the long-term impacts of wildfires and drought, and for ranchers to implement new techniques to optimize their use of the land.