Was there ever an age where the forests didn't burn? Where soil water retention was so great and energy transfer so effective that fires weren't necessary to keep woody biomass at bay?

It turns out there was.

The beginning of the Pleistocene around two million years ago exhibited levels of biodiversity we can only dream of today. Just a cursory glance at Pleistocene history reveals what our sclerotic public landscape is missing: massive herds of grazers. I'm talking millions and millions of animals on annual migration circuits. Compared with the Pleistocene, the number of grass and grazers on the landscape is sinfully low, and the few that we have are mostly grazing the wrong way. Yes, it seems counterintuitive to put more animals on a degrading landscape, but in the words of Nate Chisholm, "what humans find counterintuitive, nature finds innovative."

Here is the crux of the issue: Grass wants to be grazed in a very specific way - severely with long rest periods - and we are letting it down. Grass grows quickly and dumps its root system into the soil when grazed. Then it uses energy stored in the remaining root reserve to grow new solar panels that kick off a new period of rapid growth. Rinse and repeat. If the stem and blades are nipped off again before completely rebuilding its root structure, you have classic overgrazing and the plant dies.

But undergrazing is just as bad, if not as obvious. The plant must be defoliated to allow new growth to spring back. A collection of moribund grass waving in the breeze may have a certain beauty, but it's a sign that energy is not flowing on the landscape, water is not being retained, and fire danger increases. If it doesn't burn, the existing grass eventually chokes itself to death, and new seedlings can't take root or sprout due to a lack of soil disturbance and repacking. Grazing densely, herds of herbivores consume and knock down moribund grass, and their hooves prepare the seedbed for new grass.

In fact, our invention of the plow and hoe are crude implements designed to imitate what herd animals already do naturally.

"How little note is taken of the deeds of nature," said John Muir. Indeed. Per unit of mass, grass transfers more organic material into the soil than any other lifeform if grazed according to its genetic expectation - a huge deal considering that every pound of organic material in the soil holds four pounds of water.

I would be remiss not to mention a tiny but mighty force in this eco-drama: microbes. Microbes digest grass in ruminates' "first stomach" (the rumen). Microbes also make nitrogen usable in plants by converting it into ammonia. So grass and ruminates need microbes, and microbes need grass and grazers cycling organic matter into the soil. Each relies on the other two. If one is missing, the cycle doesn't function properly.

You might be thinking, "The Forest Service and BLM already administer grazing leases, so we should be good, right?" We are grazing, yes, but our scale is far too small, and how we graze is most often disharmonious and destructive. So we have to increase the number of animals and change the way we graze. Some ranchers do a great job moving their cattle frequently (my hat is off to them), but the majority graze traditionally. Traditional grazing flips nature on its head by taking the hands-off approach, allowing animals to graze selectively at their leisure. This method advocates a conservative stocking rate resulting in better performance per animal at the expense of overall ecological health. As a result, less grass grows, woody shrubs encroach a little more, and the extension offices lower the stocking rate. Ad infinitum.

Regenerative grazing is the opposite: densely bunched animals severely grazing a landscape and moving on until the grass is ready to be grazed again. Portable electric fence (and herders, to a lesser degree) can be used to accomplish this. Done properly, regenerative grazing can double or triple the conventional stocking rate while improving ecosystem function, making it less susceptible to fire. From Southern Africa to Australia to Mexico, these results are proven out time and time again: A friend and mentor, Jaime Elizondo, doubled the stocking rate at his Chihuahua ranch in 1999 during the deepest drought in 70 years, and the land improved.

With the extinction of the world's megaherbivores, we inherited a broken system. The ancient agreement between herbivores, grass, and microbes has been interrupted, and now it's on us to kick-start the process. The ONLY scalable way to do this is through large herds of grazers. Let's take the radical step toward harmonizing with the systems nature already has built in. Why not cycle a million cows through the public lands and forests, mimicking the herds of megaherbivores whose activity created a veritable Eden? What a blessing that the cure for what ails us also makes money and feeds people!

We have to revolutionize the way we view and interact with the Public Landscape. It is not simply our playground to be preserved through exclusion. It is not a park to ride our bike. It is a living being with ancestral needs we must meet through vigorous and harmonious participation, because if we don't, we will wake some clear summer day and realize there is no smoke in the air because there is nothing left to burn.