Improving rain absorption and reducing flood damage with good grazing management

The recent tragic flooding on the Imnaha and the destruction of numerous roads forces us to think about causes and remedies. After last February's flooding, a fair amount of blaming took place. A more practical and productive approach is to consider what can be done to improve the situation.

This summer I took a look at what my neighbors, Dan and Suzy Probert, are doing on the ranch they are managing on the east fork of Crow Creek. We looked at a patch of ground near the Zumwalt Road that had been a farmed field not too many years before. Three years ago this had been solid cheatgrass--an annual grass that reproduces from seed every year. Dan limited the amount of time the grass was exposed to grazing, and he used a bunch of cattle as a tool. Now they have a dense stand of mostly perennial grasses.

As floods begin with single drops of water, which either remain in the ground or run off, the condition of the soil in the watershed is the greatest factor in how well the water cycle functions. With a dense stand of perennial grasses, and with a soil well aerated by a variety of animals--worms and insects, rodents and cattle--the runoff under almost any weather condition is not going to be as high. Because of the large root mass of the perennial grasses in comparison to annuals, water penetrates better. Greater root mass means organic matter, which contributes greatly to the water-holding capacity. There is far less bare ground than with cheatgrass, and consequently less surface evaporation.

Dan and Suzy Probert and others are showing us that goal-oriented, open-minded management can improve soil conditions and the function of the water cycle. They are doing this while producing a profit.

Many people have the idea that if natural-resource management yields a return, it is extractive. We think good management should cost money instead of yielding a return, or that public benefits can only be achieved by spending public money. Many of us do not expect to see improvements to our watersheds without appropriations from public sources or without regulations.

For sixty years, our public natural-resource policy has mainly been the carrot or the stick. The unavoidable message from this approach is that the American farmer and landowner is a donkey--too dumb or undercapitalized to do the right thing.

The Proberts have improved the water cycle on the land they manage without watershed improvement grants, without appropriations of public money. They are using a different kind of decision making, one that regards increasing biodiversity and profit to families working on the land as parts of a single whole. Their goal is not just a stable and prosperous rural lifestyle, not just production of beef at a profit, not just a dense healthy stand of perennial grasses, but all three.

Yet much of our public policy continues to be dominated by the idea that these three are inherently in conflict. On public lands, for example, our national decision-making process seems to be this: first, scientists and experts decide what the desired future condition is. Then production activities (including recreation) are evaluated to see whether they are in conflict with this desired future condition or with each other.

We are never looking at the whole situation here. We are always setting people and their values against the land, instead of regarding them as parts of a single whole. Conflict is built in: between rafters and power boaters, between wildlife interests and stockmen, between birdwatchers and firewood cutters. In more ways than one, we're borrowing from future generations to pay for this kind of decision making.

The question is not who to blame for the flooding. The question is, what does Wallowa County need to be like, and how does the water cycle need to function, to sustain the livelihoods, houses, some sort of road or transportation system, and all the rest of what we truly value, for 7200 or more people for the future? Dan and Suzy, and others like them, are the living, working answers to these questions.

The Wallowa County Chieftain, 1997