§ California’s indigenes had no livestock. Instead they hunted wild fauna – deer, rabbits, bushy-tailed wood rats, even grasshoppers; and they used fire extensively. Sometimes they burned for fire drives, as Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada described at Monterey in 1774. “The heathens are wont to cause these fires because they have the bad habit, once having harvested their seeds, and not having any other animals to look after except their stomachs, they set fire to the brush to that new weeds may grow to produce more seeds, also to catch the rabbits that get confused and overcome by the smoke.” Often the natives burned for habitat, and their preferred species shared in the refreshing of browse and grass that accompanied firing for acorn harvests, shrub regeneration, and general land cleaning.
Their fire practices resembled those of Australia’s Aborigines, famous for “firestick farming,” a style of fire-catalyzed living so intensive that it mimicked a kind of landscape horticulture. They burned shrubs to promote basketry twigs, they burned brush to keep it low and scattered, they burned oak savannas to disinfect acorns from larval filbert weevils and white moths. And like their Australian counterparts California’s indigenes saw that world shatter not simply because Europeans invaded, but because the colonizers brought livestock.
The orders that founded Mission San Juan Capistrano instructed the colonizing padres to bring nine milch cows, a breed bull, a yoke of oxen, eight pack mules, three saddle mules, three horses and two mares, two pigs (a boar and a sow), and whatever chickens San Gabriel mission could give. But almost immediately the needs of introduced stock clashed with those of the native fauna. Revealingly, the Spaniards under Capt. Rivera fought that harassing fire to save pasture for their stock. The mission demanded that California Indians surrender their old way of life to the discipline of mission farm, pasture, and ritual; so, too, wild animals would yield to domesticated ones; and inevitably aboriginal fire regimes would break against the sea wall of a new order.[i]
Cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, swine – all extended the reach of Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans far beyond their grasp. The newcomers’ “pormanteau biota,” as Alfred Crosby termed it, also loosed a Pandora’s box of allied species that collectively remade California ecosystems. Wild oats and mustard, long allies of European fauna, as quickly replaced the native annual grasses as cattle did grizzly bears. The grazing regimen went from the wild to the tamed, or given the looseness of herding, to the feral. Exotic grasses, overgrazing, and trampling, compounded by drought, all connived to do to pasture what hydraulicking did to rivers and logging to forests. Another surge followed the gold rush. By 1862 there were an estimated three million head of cattle and maybe half a million sheep. The free-ranging herds did to native fauna what Forty-Niners did to native peoples.
The newcomers’ livestock often thrived better than the newcomers themselves. With the secularization of the missions in 1833, large land grants, organized into rancherias, replaced missions. The hide-and-tallow industry became the mainstay of maritime commerce beyond Alta California. Cattle spread throughout the Coast Ranges and into the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. As the range degenerated, or brush crowded out forage, ranchers seized the torch from the faltering indigenes and put it to their own purposes. There was less burning than before, and the fast-combustion of fire now had to compete with the slow-combustion of rangy herds, but fire persisted. When the interior Valley flooded in 1862, followed by two years of drought, herders turned to sheep and moved into the Sierra. Wherever they went they burned.
And burned again. Their trailing smokes signaled the arrival of a new matrix in California’s fire regimes. Cattlemen burned to keep down the brush, or convert brush to grass. Shepherds trailed a spoor of fire as they migrated down the mountains each fall, transplanting the trashumancia of Mediterranean Europe to the American Cordillera. Surveying the San Jacinto forest reserve, H.R. Porter, Jr. wrote, “The whole area is covered with chaparral and subject to overgrazing and fires. The signs of fire having gone through the brush are constantly evident, and smoke can usually be seen. Cattle, sheep and goat grazing is carried on to the limit of the range and beyond. The men riding the range freely acknowledge that burning for the purpose of improving the range has been carried to such an extent as to have very decidedly injured it.” In the Sierra Nevada John Muir thundered against shepherders’ fires, as though the loathed “hooved locusts” could strike sparks when they flocked: “Running fires are set everywhere, with a view to clearing the ground of prostrate trunks, to facilitate the movements of the flocks and improve the pastures. The entire forest belt is thus swept and devastated from one extremity of the range to the other… Indians burn off the underbrush in certain localities to facilitate deer-hunting, mountaineers and lumbermen carelessly allow their camp-fires to run; but the fires of the sheepmen, or muttoneers, form more than ninety per cent. of all destructive fires that range the Sierra forests.” W.J. Lord penned a more considered analysis from Tuolomne County: “Burning at that time became such a practice that people knew when sheep were leaving the mountains by the number of fires set. Smoke… was so thick at time it was hard to see at midday. No attempt was made to stop the fires unless someone’s place was threatened, then back fires were set and usually the fire went some other direction. These fires burned thousands of acres almost everywhere where timber and brush grew in the mountains.”[ii]
Yet all was not pandemonium and havoc. Pastoralism changed the land, such that they changed the character of the pastoralism they accompanied. Where land was fenced and husbandry the norm, fires were constrained; they resembled the spring burning that swept away the strewn branches of well-pruned orchards. But where the estates were vast or the flocks ran over the public domain, the fires could free-range, subject to occasional roundups and brandings. It took much of the 20th century to fence in those herds and their enabling fires. The creation of national parks and forest reserves throttled the most abusive pastoralism in the mountains, as they did migratory logging. By the 1920s ranching was receding to private lands, although these could be vast, either through the legacy of land grants to Spanish grandees or railroad magnates, or by very cheap purchases, the manipulation of land laws (by declaring sites as “swamp”), or outright fraud. The big ranchers, along with timberowners and corporate interests (including the Octopus itself, the Southern Pacific Railroad), were the landed gentry of California. They supplied the beeves for what V.L. Parrington called the Great Barbecue, the lavish liquidation of the public domain into private hands for a pittance. By the end of the century 90% of grazing had migrated onto private land. The most productive ranching was where agriculture also best flourished, the Central Valley. The rest ranged along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and amid the inherited rancherias of the Coast Range.
Little of this scenario was unique to California. What California did to ranching was what it did to everything else: it bulked it up. Much as with light burning, this was where the conflict to regulate free-ranging livestock over the public domain was exaggerated and then resolved. In fact, both issues, burning and herding, climaxed in almost same year. The light burning controversy flared into public discourse in 1910. The test case for Forest Service regulation of grazing, originating in California, was settled by the Supreme Court in 1911. California was the political corral where fights over pastoralism burning in the West were fought out.
§ The Mendocino National Forest is an anomaly. North of San Francisco the Coast Range thickens like strands on a rope. The Mendocino lies on the eastern, drier side of that bulge, but its biota still more resembles the Pacific Northwest than the Coast Ranges below the Bay, and forest management falls under the aegis of the Northwest Forest Plan. Its eastern flank, however, grading into the Sacramento Valley and subject to Valley thermals, is encrusted with hard chaparral that, as the land sinks lower, gradually thins into oak savanna and eventually shakes off its woods altogether to become tumbling hills of grass. Those two biomes, wet forest and dry brushland, meet at the eastern ridgeline. The range even has a unique sundowner wind, but revealingly it is reversed, flowing from the coast inland. The Mendocino is the only national forest in California without a paved road across it.
The lower landscape is a natural for grazing, and ranchers have sought to expand that domain by pushing back against the mountain brush. On the summits were glades that they routinely burned to keep fresh with browse, and from which they let fires spread. Like herders everywhere they resisted any effort to rein in their unrestricted access; and in the mountains, physical access was only as good as ecological access, which for herds meant burning. Unsurprisingly, the Mendocino, and the lands south of it in private ownership, were loud in their clamor for range burning, merged their case with the light-burning arguments from timberowners to the north, and when that failed, became notorious for incendiarism. But brush burners didn’t need to rely on surreptitious slow matches. Fires routinely spilled over from private lands with calculated indifference. The important thing was that the chaparral-clogged slopes got burned. To the Mendocino the Forest Service assigned its toughest fire officers.
After World War II the pressures for burning intensified and found an institutional point of compromise. Ranchers organized into a Range Land Utilization Committee and demanded more range improvement, for which a match was the cheapest tool in the shed; other groups signed on in the hopes of improving watersheds or wildlife habitat; and they found an academic voice when Harold Biswell joined the faculty at the University of California-Berkeley and, fresh from experiences in the southeast, ardently promoted prescribed fire (which at first, in a colossal gaffe, he called “light burning”). Professional rangeland managers agreed that “brush conversion” was “about the only way to increase materially the present area of rangeland.” The livestock industry saw conversion as “an opportunity and a challenge” of the first magnitude.[iii]
The fulcrum to leverage enthusiasm into practice was a law enacted by the legislature in 1945 that authorized the Division of Forestry to issue permits for burning on private lands, to enter into contracts of cooperative agreements with individuals or cooperatives to burn on lands for which the state had primary responsibility for fire protection, and to sponsor research and experiments. On behalf of the Board of Forestry H. L. Shantz summarized existing knowledge, argued for site-specific practices that distinguished between the “brush” in redwood regrowth and the “brush” of chamise-dominated chaparral, and fretted over those “who look upon fire as a cure for all their troubles,” yet confirmed the consensus that “the encroachment of chaparral upon both agricultural and grazing lands” was an issue of “immense importance” and could not be resolved until fire was properly managed. There was no argument about the value of fire when used correctly, only when and where to apply it. In 1951 the Forest Service Regional Forester, Clare Hendee, articulated that agency’s policy: its first charge was to protect watershed and soil, but burning could be used in careful coordination with CDF and the Range Land Utilization Committee, or local Controlled Burning Committees of landowners. The USFS would not, however, burn on private lands, and private landowners who sent fires into national forests would be held liable. Between 1945 and 1952 some 700,000 acres were burned, although 91,000 acres came from escapes.[iv]
As that first wave ebbed, Biswell sought to carry fire from the scrub to the timber by creating a demonstration site at Hoberg’s resort in Lake County, immediately south of the Mendocino. His message was received by students and later by the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conferences, but got scant traction elsewhere; what mattered for range burners was the brush. That scientific message was summarized in 1954 by Arthur W. Sampson and L.T. Burcham’s Costs and Returns of Controlled Brush Burning for Range Improvement in Northern California. They confirmed that the practice worked – that was the good news. The bad news was, only a fraction of chaparral landscapes were amenable to genuine conversion, burns yielded mixed results (particularly if not seeded afterward), and each burn demanded planning, staffing, equipment, and supervision. As with light burning before, the economics, they concluded, argued against expansive practice.
Meanwhile, fires escaped. Tort law did what fire prevention hectoring could not; enthusiasm cooled. In 1957 the public agencies came to a similar conclusion when the Klamath Forest, after careful preparations, kindled 500 acres of smashed brush, and watched the flames scamper over nearly 13,000. That misstep quenched Forest Service ardor for burning for the next two decades.[v]
§ The exception was the Mendocino. It had a history of experimental tinkering, partly in response to local pressure and partly from the forced prompting of large wildfires; and it could count on local support since its chaparral rubbed against a stubborn local culture of burning. From the origins of organized fire protection in California it had served to test, demonstrate, and propagate. In the early years it was where ranchers and foresters squared off over deliberate burning. In the postwar era it was where they found, along with hydrologists, wildlife biologists, and surprisingly fire control officers common ground in well-burned land. Suitably fired brush would improve forage, increase useful runoff, and assist fire suppression.
The 1947 Schuyler fire served as a catalyst. Soon afterwards the forest enlarged its ambitions and entered into a cooperative agreement with the state Fish and Game Department to administer 12,000 acres for deer habitat. A second jolt came in 1953 when the Rattlesnake fire burned over a crew of 15 amid the chaparral-encrusted ravines that all parties wanted to thin. The upshot was that the Mendocino became the scene of active research, a counterpoise to Biswell’s plots at Hoberg’s. This took the form of the Grindstone Project, an expansive program of chaparral “management,” which translated into patches of type conversion and fuelbreaks along ridges and soon became a demonstration site. In Robert Cermak’s words, the Grindstone Project “led the way in chaparral management for the entire state.” Samuel Dana and Myron Krueger, respectively emeritus dean and professor at UC Berkeley, declared that there could be “no question as to [the] urgency” of the brushland issue throughout the state.[vi]
Yet even as it hacked, sprayed, and burned over the ridges leading to Doe Peak, applications for permits subsided, and more precipitously, applications for reburns fell. Historic rangeland burning dropped faster than the grade of Grindstone Creek. The reasons are many, but a big one was that not all fires worked, and another, that not all brush was equal and interchangeable. One “brushfield” might be improved with fire, another, worsened. Because of past fire history brush flourished in some areas that might support trees or grass; and for such sites keeping fire out or shrewdly putting it in could restore the old regime. But for many areas chaparral was the natural and durable cover. Burning to convert it to something else did little good, and the attempt was costly. The price of escapes was potentially ruinous.
Still, while brush burning struggled across the state, it flourished at Grindstone because many communities wanted it. The fire community itself – so often skeptical if not hostile to landscape burning – sought a successful program of controlled fire. Wildlife habitat and fuel abatement could substitute for range improvement as justification; public lands were not subject to the same economic pressures as private; and the memory of the Rattlesnake fire still festered. From using fire to manage chaparral, interest shifted to managing chaparral to control wild fire. At Grindstone Canyon it seemed possible to bond enduring local desires to the national trends of an emerging fire revolution.
An era of formal demonstration ensued. In 1973 the Forest Service, California Department of Game and Fish, Glenn County, and local ranchers joined forces to crush 1,500 acres of brush and burn 12,000 acres within a matrix of fuelbreaks along 100 miles of ridgetops. Mission creep carried the program up from the brush into the timber. Plans called for rotational burning every 10 years on grassy fuelbreaks and 20 years on resprouted chaparral. The fire-fuel cycle and the fire-forage cycle would come into sync. Subsequently, the California Division of Forestry and the Soil Conservation Service joined to renew another program, this time in 1981. By now the Grindstone’s role as a demonstration site included firing by helitorch. Enthusiasts noted that costs of treatment had plummeted from $85/acre in 1973 to $3-$5 in 1980. The announced goal was restoration to something like presettlement conditions. The Grindstone becane the flagship of six demo sites in and around the Mendocino. It was hoped that the lessons learned could be applied elsewhere, not only in Southern California but “in other parts of the world where conditions are similar.” In 1982, partly based on the Grindstone experience, California replaced its range burning law with a more comprehensive chaparral management act.[vii]
For most of the 20th century, in brief, Grindstone Canyon has persisted as a historical vortex. Because of the early rancor over folk burning, it became a hot spot in the saga of systematic fire protection. Because of the Rattlesnake fire, it acquired some of the cachet attached to other tragedy sites like Blackwater Canyon and Mann Gulch. Because of the ambition, in the formative years of the fire revolution, to reinstate fire and restore California to something of its presettlement status, it was proclaimed an exemplar for demonstrating how fire ecology and fire behavior – ecological burning and fire control – might converge. While times changed and fire control morphed into fire management, Grindstone was where new generations of fire officers could break a lance or two as they sought to solve the fire and brush conundrum, like mathematicians drawn to Fermat’s Last Theorem.
In an odd way the scene behaved as though administrative history was recapitulating fire history. Demonstration projects returned with the seeming frequency of slope-sweeping chaparral fires. Every couple of decades Grindstone reincarnated into an avatar better suited to its times. In this transformation there was little mystical. Because it didn’t stand cheek-to-jowl with a metropolis, it could tolerate experimentation, field trials that neighbors cheered on rather than shut down. Because of past experiments there existed a body of research data, and no less critically, an infrastructure, that made it relatively easy to start over, to clean out the old tracks and direct them to new purposes. Pilot programs for fire management resprouted with the vigor and regularity of chamise.
But then reinvention is an old California trope.
§ At the onset of the postwar era it seemed that California might emulate its bicoastal counterpart, Florida, where range burning held fire on the land. The 1945 rangeland improvement act encouraged controlled burning. In 1958, four years after the peak of the postwar boom in permits authorized under it, Harold Biswell published an extended argument that what was good for Georgia was also good for California. The two groups that would most likely keep fire on the ground, ranchers and foresters, had signed a cease-fire. In overgrown brush they had found common cause.[viii]
It didn’t happen. As always the reasons are several. California lacked a cultural taproot for burning. Even in the postwar era, those who owned land in Florida assumed you burned unless something compelling stopped you. Most burners were surrounded by others of like mind. In California the big landowners assumed you didn’t burn, and had neighbors who thought the same. Its culture of burning, like its grasslands, was not based on perennials but annuals. The deep-rooted Florida fire culture could weather the bad seasons. California’s needed constant refreshment.
Then there were ecological considerations. California’s indigenous grasslands had been early savaged by European colonization; Florida’s interior remained largely untouched. In Florida unburned land quickly regrew, thickened, and became impenetrable; five unburned years might render it unusable, and a decade, the scene for explosive fires. Florida ranchers needed to burn annually to freshen pasture and hold the ornery rough at bay, and they found ways to keep burning until they passed the torch to public agencies. In California unburned land remained as seemingly quiescent as the weather. Degradation resembled an ecological wasting disease rather than a lethal fever. Ranchers could skip a year or two, or even a decade of burning. While they fretted over thickening brush, they continually found ways to keep from burning. Increasingly their neighbors wanted fire banned or demanded so many restrictions that firing became hopelessly cumbersome and costly.
In Florida the public and private economies of fire converged. After some false steps the Florida Division of Forestry buttressed the argument that burning was a landowner’s right. It could even intervene on private lands and burn where the vegetation presented a hazard. In California, whatever their intentions, public and private diverged, and even when they sought to join, they could not resist the outside pressures. Most of the land that needed burning was private but most of the apparatus to do the burning was public. CDF, for example, could send honor camp crews to do work that ranchers could never afford, and the Forest Service could command national resources, and suffer the occasional breakdown, that local landowners could not. After a surge of range burns, the program faded.
In 1982 California sought to better match means and ends by replacing the 1945 range improvement act with a more widely purposed chaparral management program that authorized CDF to contract with private and public landowners on state responsibility lands to do the requisite burning. CDF would share costs and its forces would put dozers and torches on the ground. If an escape occurred, it would assume liability. The old constraints – costs, capability, tort claims – were cleared away. But law, markets, and public opinion still turned against range burning. The numbers continued their downward slide. In the early years annual range burning amounted to 140,000 acres per year. By 2000 “vegetation” burning overall was 20,000 and falling.
The fact was, small ranches could not compete economically against the big ones or challenge imported beef and mutton. Every consideration turned against them. They could not swap herbicides for burns. Air quality in the Central Valley was often obscene, and while smoke was not the worst offender, it was the most visible. Predators took more calves and lambs. Public lands were hostile to fires that slopped over borders. Suburbanites and exurbanites, if they tolerated fire, wanted it far from their fencelines. As ownership of surrounding lands slipped away from ranchers, so did their grasp on the torch. And that is the core reformation: California increasingly segregated between the public wild and the private city. Its fires reflected that split – restored on the public land, banned from the private. In Florida ranchers held that vast rural middle; in California, the middle suburbanized. The old fire border inverted. More and more, fires from public lands threatened private ones outside. The carrots for good burning got smaller, and the sticks for bad burns got bigger.
Still, range burning did not go quietly into the night. CalFire’s new vegetation management program allowed it to conduct burns on state responsibility lands, not just issue permits, which also left it accountable for fires that slipped their leash. A California Prescribed Fire Council expanded the population of fire partisans, and fire associations could create a shared pool of labor and machinery. But it was too little, too late. The new landowners, descendants of the pioneering patriarchs, rode BMWs and raised houses. Transhumance became mechanized; the new “hooved locusts” of the backcountry were OHVs. The corded Coast Ranges resembled a boa constrictor, bent on squeezing pastoral fire. Every gasp for breadth by ranchers or change of ownership or new escape or additional regulation allowed the economic boa to tighten its coil.
By the late 1980s some 90% of livestock was raised on private land, mostly in the Central Valley. Instead of moving cattle to the mountains in the dry season, modern ranchers shipped them by rail or truck to the Northwest; they fattened the herds on feed lots. Elsewhere, private ranches were not converting chaparral to grass but transmuting rural landscapes into urban. The threats came less from predation by feral dogs than by feral developers. In Florida development rimmed the state’s beaches and only later dappled the interior, allowing controlled burning some elbow room. In California postwar development flourished amid the sites that were the prime free-range landscapes for herding. In the Central Valley ranchers sold out to irrigation agriculture. In the Coast Range they sold out to developers. Unlike Florida or the Flint Hills, California ranching did not become a holding company to keep fire on the land. Instead ranching withered; it sank under flood irrigation; it subdivided away. Successful ranches were either very large or became feedlots. The former decided it could do without fire and the latter, that fire had no place.
Pastoral burning found itself condemned, slight by slight, each act trivially venal by itself, to a purgatory of landscape fire.
§ In The Pastures of Heaven John Steinbeck tells the story of an emigrant who arrives from The East, anxious to create a dynasty, or at least to transfer a sense of landed gentry. In a Coast Range valley that an astonished Spanish soldier had named las pasturas de cielo (the Pastures of Heaven) Richard Whitehead erects a large house and plans a family to occupy it. “Husbandry” toward land was then an anomalous idea. “Few people in California in that day felt a responsibility toward their descendants.” Neighbors warned that a house built for 500 years was “not how we work out here.” You build a shack because, sooner rather than later, you “might want to move.”[ix]
Over the years everything turns against Whitehead. His wife has only one child, John. That son marries poorly, and also has one son. The ranch gradually sinks into genteel disrepair. “In the West, where, if two generations of one family have lived in a house, it is an old house and a pioneer family, a kind of veneration mixed with contempt is felt for old houses.” The American style is to build “flimsy houses and soon move on to some new promise.” The son, Bill, has scant interest in either house or ranch. He and his wife move to town.
Eventually, John decides to restore the land to productivity. “’Burn it off,’” says the hired hand. “’If you burn that brush this fall you’ll get fine pasture next spring.’” The burn goes smartly until a small whirlwind scatters embers like chaff; somehow one lodges in or under the house; the house burns to the ground.
That, in cameo, is the story of California’s ranching society. Most ranchers of course didn’t burn themselves down. They couldn’t burn – the threat of a calamitous escape was enough to check even attempts. But neither could they survive. A service economy did what fire suppression couldn’t. Most of their descendents headed to the city, and allowed the city to take over the ranch. They just sold out, as the Whiteside neighbors had always insisted they would.
August 2011 / [pdf]