Western governors blame cheatgrass for 2007 wildfire woes

Western governors blame cheatgrass for 2007 wildfire woes

6 August 2007

published by seattlepi.nwsource.com

Boise, IDaho, USA — Four Western governors declared war Monday on cheatgrass, a nonnative weedy grass they blame for filling the West’s open spaces with flammable fuels feeding this summer’s massive wildfires.

Still, their efforts could be complicated by a shortage of seeds of other grasses needed to restore the charred landscape before cheatgrass takes hold. In fact, some of the federal Bureau of Land Management territory where such seeds are collected has been burned.

And environmentalists are leery about the plans for replanting, fearing they’ll concentrate on grasses that provide forage for livestock rather than native vegetation that helps wildlife such as sage grouse.

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter hosted the meeting with Govs. Jon Huntsman from Utah and Jim Gibbons of Nevada. All three are Republicans. Wyoming Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal participated by phone.

So far this year, wildfires in Idaho, Nevada and Utah have burned thousands of square miles, including the giant Murphy Complex fires on the Idaho-Nevada border that torched an area as large as Rhode Island.

By Sept. 1, the governors want a pilot project that will include planting grasses, in hopes of preventing cheatgrass from gaining a greater foothold. Their program will also include new cross-border pacts aimed at helping states share resources and gear when fires erupt, the governors said.

“Our agreement was premised on the idea of declaring war on cheatgrass,” Gibbons told reporters at a Boise news conference. “It’s more than just burning grass out there – it’s an economy at risk, it’s state resources that are at risk, it’s the environment that’s at risk.”

Land managers must still determine how many acres the pilot project will encompass.

A big hurdle to the governors’ reseeding plans: Officials say there aren’t enough seeds to go around. Every year, about 80,000 acres of federal land in the three states sees restoration, the governors said; this year, more than 10 times that area burned.

In the last decade, surveys by U.S. Forest Service scientists at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Provo, Utah, show that 2.5 million pounds of grass seed were needed annually for restoration projects – but that only 765,000 pounds were available, half from collecting seeds on public land and half produced by private companies.

In intense fire years that torch thousands of square miles, the bottleneck is even more dire, said Durant McArthur, a Forest Service research geneticist in Provo. That leaves more ground vulnerable to fast-spreading cheatgrass.

“It provides all these fine fuels, and comes back year after year,” said McArthur, who this year watched as a sagebrush research site in Utah that he’s overseen for 20 years burned in a 39-square-mile wildfire in July.

Federal officials including U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne have said a combination of factors, including drought, high temperatures and intense lightning storms led to the massive fires.

However, Otter has criticized federal wildland firefighters for not reacting quickly enough.

He and U.S. Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo last week also chastised environmental groups such as the Hailey, Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project for filing (and winning) lawsuits in U.S. District Court that reduced cattle grazing. That increased dry fuels, adding to the fires, the Idaho Republicans contend. Environmentalists contend livestock grazing contributes to the spread of cheatgrass and subsequent wildfire danger.

“We’ve done less to prevent its (public lands’) evolution into the fire stage, by not grazing it earlier,” Otter told reporters Monday. “All of these things are going to be part of our plan that we will go the Bureau (of Land Management) and we will go to Congress with to try to initiate this project.”

The Western Watersheds Project, which wants cattle grazing ended on the West’s public lands on grounds that it’s destructive, fears the governors’ reseeding plans will concentrate on nonnative grasses like crested wheatgrass that are favored by the livestock industry – not true native species such as bottlebrush squirreltail or sagebrush.

“We mustn’t confuse providing forage for cattle with restoring native sage-steppe vegetation,” said Jon Marvel, the group’s director. “That necessarily conflicts with the political desires of Otter and Craig.”

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