SAN FRANCISCO — Federal officials are convinced that some Idaho cattle ranchers may be deliberately setting fire to government rangeland knowing that it will be immediately reseeded with grasses better for grazing.
Suspected range torching by ranchers first came to light after a federal appeals court ruling last month in San Francisco involving a 1984 Idaho arson case and a ranch foreman who is a Peruvian national.
An estimated eight or nine large range fires a year--some of them burning more than 10,000 acres--are believed to be set purposely by ranchers or ranch workers, according to Dan Hughes, an arson investigator for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Boise, Ida.
There are fears now that the practice may be spreading from southern Idaho to eastern Oregon, northern Nevada and Utah, Hughes said.
"It's gotten to the point where a certain group of people have decided the risk of being caught is minimal compared to the benefit," he said.
Although a handful of renegade ranchers may get the benefit of cheap feed, the cost to taxpayers can be staggering.
The single fire allegedly set by the Peruvian national cost $99,786 to fight, Hughes said.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Warren Derbidge, who prosecuted the ranch foreman, said the motive for burning in some cases is "to get rid of inedible vegetation. The first thing that comes back will be lush grasses."
Can Cost Taxpayers
"If it doesn't come back thicker, the BLM goes out at taxpayer expense and reseeds," Hughes said. That is done to prevent soil erosion and to protect land maintained by the BLM.
Hughes said he believes that range torching has been around at least seven years in Idaho, where the BLM controls 11.9 million acres of range. He said he fears that with the approach of another summer fire season, it is "only a matter of time until a firefighter gets seriously hurt."
Tom Hovenden, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Assn., said that if range burning exists, it involves only a small number of people.
The association represents 1,000 Idaho cattle ranchers and cattle feeders. Idaho produced 1.75 million head of cattle this year, Hovenden said.
Anyone who would burn rangeland, risk burning miles of fence and cattle, "(has) got to be a loser to sink to that," he said.
Ranchers can obtain permits to burn off brush on BLM land and most ranchers use grazing conservation measures known as "rest rotation" to prevent overgrazing, Hovenden said.
Derbidge said, "I am confident it is not only a problem in Idaho but wherever the BLM controls large chunks of land in the West that are used for ranching."
He suggested that the problem may also exist to a smaller extent in Montana, Wyoming, Washington and California.
Derbidge prosecuted one of the few cases of suspected arson with a possible link to deliberate range burning.
The Peruvian ranch foreman, Ricardo Beraun-Panez, working in central Idaho in 1984, was accused of setting a huge range fire that scorched thousands of acres of BLM and private land.
Beraun-Panez was questioned by Hughes and a deputy sheriff about the fire in the back country. At first, he denied setting it but ultimately confessed, telling officers that he wanted to clear land of brush so it would be easier to drive cattle, according to court documents.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco recently ruled that the confession could not be used against him in a trial because Beraun-Panez had been threatened with deportation during the questioning.
That threat, in effect, placed him in custody. He should have been informed of his legal rights on the spot, the court ruled.
Hughes said that even though the case was "shot down by the appeals court" the arrest and arson charges may have had a deterrent effect in that part of the state, because the number of suspicious fires went from 12 to 15 a year to nearly none.
Difficult to Prove
But Hughes and Derbidge both emphasized that arson is virtually impossible to prove when it is done on open rangeland, unless someone is caught setting the fire.
Hughes said the vast majority of ranchers would never subscribe to the practice of torching the range.
But he said he was told point blank, by a person leaving the area, that the deliberate range burning was being done.
"When a guy gets into tough financial times, he'll lie and cheat," Hovenden said. "Even the best of people will do things that amaze you."