If Hollywood was looking to cast a real-life rancher for a part in the hit western series “Yellowstone,” Dave Daley would be a prime candidate. He’s as real as a rancher gets.
A fifth generation Butte County cattleman, his family first settled in the Oroville area in 1850. When he was a boy he rode in the last cow drive across the bottom of Lake Oroville before the building of the giant Oroville Dam in the 1960s.
Daley is the walking opposite of that old western insult: “Big Hat, No Cattle.” His cowboy hat fits just right and his ranches in Plumas and Butte counties support lots of livestock, although two years ago one of the biggest wildfires in California history, the apocalyptic Bear Fire, killed hundreds of his cattle and wiped out grazing lands.
He recalled, “Two years ago I received a call that the Bear Fire (part of the North Complex Fire) had jumped the Middle Fork of the Feather River and was tearing through our cattle range.
“I will never forget that day or the weeks that followed. Everything destroyed. Sixteen people killed in the town of Berry Creek and the entire little town obliterated. The community of Feather Falls was destroyed.
“Hundreds of our cows, all the wildlife and the incredible ecosystem above Lake Oroville were completely erased. Forever.”
Daley wrote these words in a September article for the Chico Enterprise-Record, one of three articles by him that have appeared in that paper over the past two years. Each piece recounts, in vivid firsthand testimony, the utter devastation that occurred when the out of control Bear Fire roared across the Oroville-Chico area about 90 miles north of Sacramento.
“I have visited other post-fire landscapes throughout California,” he wrote. “Those fires were horrific, but I have never seen anything of the intensity of the Bear Fire. Literally nothing alive.”
Daley posted his first eyewitness testimony on the impact of the Bear Fire in a 2020 post on Facebook. The Enterprise-Record picked it up and ran it in its pages and it became the most widely read story the paper has ever published, gaining statewide and national attention.
The North Complex Fire destroyed more than 200,000 acres in a year in which four million acres burned across California. Last year wildfires ravaged 2.5 million acres. And while 2022’s relatively mild fire season brought a welcome respite, it is reasonable to expect that come next summer the wildfires will be back and possibly with a vengeance.
David Daley knows this, and for the past two years he has met frequently with legislators and regulators in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. trying to convince them of the need to change California’s and the federal government’s disastrous forest and land management policies.
“So what has changed in two years?” he asked, answering his own question: “Not nearly enough.”
A politically savvy cattleman (as well as an excellent writer), Daley conceded that those in government generally agree on the need for prescribed or controlled burns, greater thinning of trees, and better grazing and timber policies. But, he said in dismay, “the conversation has resulted in little action.”
In other words, when it comes to politicians and bureaucrats: Big Hats, No Cattle. Lots of blah blah blah while doing nothing meaningful to improve things.
“It is almost as if once it is burnt, the government ignores the problem and focuses resources elsewhere.”
According to Daley, ranchers in California “own or manage” 38 million acres of rangelands in the state, both public and private. Cattle grazing cuts down on grasses and other stuff that can burn, lowering the intensity of fires and potentially limiting their damage.
Because of this, Daley feels that ranchers should be part of the conversation on how to remedy the situation because they’re part of the solution. Unfortunately, many in Sacramento and Washington don’t see it that way.
“To be blunt, the government has created impossible legislative and regulatory barriers (the California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Policy Act, for example),” he wrote. “Bureaucracy doesn’t work. The wheels are too slow, the hurdles too high.”
Adding, “Sierra Pacific Industries (our landlord on half the range) has aggressively removed the burnt timber for the past two years and replanted millions of trees. The Forest Service has done nothing.”
And so it goes. While California burns, the politicians and bureaucrats fiddle. And with fire season (and the elections) now safely behind us, there is almost zero likelihood that anything of consequence will be done in the near term to put a stop to the Bear Fires of the future.
Fortunately there are people like Daley who live and work on the land and are willing to fight to save it: “Those lands belong to all of us. I won’t forget the Bear Fire. Ever.”
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