Reseeding fire-ravaged land

Reseeding fire-ravaged land

16 November 2007

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Cove, Fort, USA — A mile or two west of here a gravel road threads Antelope Valley, a broad stretch of burned-over grassland below Bearskin Mountain and the Mineral Range.
    Neither that peak nor that range slowed the Milford Flat fire when it blew up July 6. During the next four days, the fire skipped across dozens of roads and jumped Interstate 15 to burn more than 325,000 acres in Millard and Beaver counties. The fire burned for 2 1/2 months, ultimately torching more than 363,000 acres to make it the biggest blaze in Utah history.
    But the fire slowed in those early days when it hit the gravel track in Antelope Valley, because on either side of the road, grasses planted after a 1996 fire were hardy enough to withstand the inferno. For the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, that is proof its current $17 million project to reseed 300 square miles of federal, state and private rangeland lost to the Milford fire will be a good investment.
    On Thursday, teams of archaeologists walked five abreast across the range, looking for artifacts and planting flags when they found ancient broken pottery, stone tools and even a pile of trash left here some 50 years ago.
    They’d already finished their work in the area farther west, a necessary first step before bulldozers dragging anchor chains studded with iron teeth arrive to clear out charred tree carcasses.

A bright yellow biplane flew over the area Thursday morning, broadcasting a mix of western wheatgrass, Indian ricegrass, bottlebrush squirreltail and sand dropseed. Farther north, where the soil is less rich, the mix will include forage kochia, a fast-growing shrub that withstands fire and helps shelter other grasses.
    After the aerial drop, a seed drill tractor plowed shallow furrows as a lightweight chain dragging behind pulled dirt over the seeds.
    All of the grasses are perennials, and the hope is they will push back the invasive cheatgrass that helped the Milford Flat fire get so big and move so fast, said Harvey Gates, a Fillmore-based BLM range management specialist and operations manager for the restoration project during a multi-agency field trip.
    Now, it’s up to the weather. But time is short.
    Rain is forecast for this coming week, necessary for the seeds to take in the talc-dry soil. The rain, if it arrives, also would halt the project because mud fouls the machinery. If the project doesn’t get ahead of winter, the seeds won’t germinate properly in the spring.
    “We want rain but we don’t want any frost in this soil,” Gates said.
The soil needs to be fixed if it isn’t to blow away. A month after the fire, a dust storm off the burn area caused a 14-car pileup on I-15, killing two women, causing critical injuries to three other drivers and forcing the closure of the interstate for several hours on a busy Sunday. Two other motorists died in July when the fire blew over the freeway.
    Mike Yardley is a Milford rancher who saw 4,000 acres of his farmland and 7,000 acres of his BLM grazing allotment – half of his federal allotment – go up in smoke. He bought a seed drill in Wyoming and leased two more to join the project. He’ll get 80,000 pounds of seed, and in turn will provide the labor, the tractor and the fuel to do his part.

Yardley, a field trip participant, reckoned he will spend $500,000 over the next three years to get his ranch back to where it was before it burned. Meanwhile, he said, “we’ll cull heavy.” That means cutting a herd of 300 cattle to fewer than 200, keeping hay he normally would sell and marketing calves earlier than usual.
    Already, the perennial grasses cultivated after the 1996 fire in the valley are recovering from July’s burn, with new growth sparkling green near the roots. That’s brought wildlife back to the seemingly barren area, their tracks fresh in the ashy dust surrounding nubs of western wheatgrass.
    “We’re seeing a great increase in antelope out here. Elk are all over the place,” Gates said.


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