David Zirnhelt. Photo submitted

Zirnhelt: A trip down memory lane

Regular columnist David Zirnhelt returns with his column Ranch Musings

There was no doubt about what I was going to write about this week. The grasslands of the Cariboo-Chilcotin and the rest of the interior of B.C. are a treasure of nature.

As I drove south towards Big Bar Guest Ranch, I recalled vividly the visit there to its official opening in the mid-nineties. A nice touch was that once on the road west from the highway at 59 Mile, everyone waved!

That doesn’t happen everywhere. In fact, it is less frequent as neighbours and travelers know less about each other.

It still offends me when, on a quiet rural road, a passerby does not wave back.

I digress. I was attending a field day and road trip with the students at Thompson Rivers University, their instructors and other experts on grasslands and their care.

This is the 20th anniversary of the Grasslands Council of BC (GCC) which held its inaugural meeting at Big Bar in 1999. Later this month there will be a full celebration of the work of scientists, ranchers, and government managers of the grasslands.

As late as 2007, many in this part of the country really didn’t know much about these special areas along the rivers and the valleys of the dry interior.

This was the year that Chris Harris of 108 Mile along with contributors and science advisors, Ordell Steen of Williams Lake and Kristi Iverson of Lac La Hache, produced an amazing book, ”The Spirit in the Grass.”

Chris Harris still talks about how, when he was producing his remarkable photographs of the grasslands and speaking about his book, most people had no idea about the uniqueness of these areas.

The subtitle of the book is “The Cariboo Chilcotin’s Forgotten Landscape.” I grew up in the grasslands around 150 Mile House, never realizing the importance of this landscape except for its values for grazing cattle and horses.

The First Nations of course had kept the openness vital with frequent low intensity burning which was part of their stewardship of the land, its plants and animals.

Today, some 32% of the endangered species of this part of BC live in the grasslands which covers only 1% of the land base.

The students of TRU, as part of a learning module on grazing and range management, were treated to Chris’ slide show set to music written especially for his photographs. If you haven’t seen this production visit his website and get the Blue Ray disk.

A day trip to the Churn Creek protected area with members of Friends of Churn Creek including Peter Opie, president, and Rancher John Holmes of Empire Valley Ranch was exciting. We heard of the progress towards better condition of the ecology of the grass region.

The grasslands are in better condition than when the protected areas was created in the late nineties.

This is not without the considerable efforts of the dedicated members of the Friends of Churn Creek who volunteer to assist with prescribed burns and the management of invasive plants in the area.

I spent some years on the Grassland Council and celebrate the role it plays in the near absence of the provincial government in stewarding these special places.

The GCC of BC is dedicated to ensuring two main things: the preservation of this unique landscape which in the Cariboo Chilcotin is in 95% “natural” condition and to the preservation of the working ranches that along with the First Nations are the private owners of about half the grasslands.

The absence of stewardship will further threaten this gift of Creation.

A walk in this green paradise in June is one of the most uplifting things one can do.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake.

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