Fighting fire with seed: aerial planting to combat cheatgrass

Fighting fire with seed: aerial planting to combat cheatgrass

11 January 2012

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USA — If revegetation of burned zones in south Douglas County is a battle for the overall health of the land, then cheatgrass is the primary enemy.

“Cheatgrass is absolutely the enemy,” said Eric Roussel, forester, seed bank and biomass specialist with the Nevada Division of Forestry. “What we’re doing is competing with the bad guy. We are more than the agency that puts out the fire. We’re looking at the bigger picture.”

Roussel joined NDF Forest Health Specialist Gail Durham in the Pine Nut Mountains last week for a massive reseeding operation targeting more than 1,000 acres of private land burned in the Ray May Way and Holbrook fires of 2011.

“We know how cheatgrass comes in, and how huge the fuel loads can get if we don’t do anything,” Durham said. “After cheatgrass establishes itself, you get worse weeds coming in (think knapweed). Once you get in the cheatgrass cycle, it’s hard to break out.”

Durham explained how that cycle begins when wildland fire destroys competing grasses, shrubs and trees. The aggressor infiltrates the burned zone, hoards available nitrogen in the soil, and proliferates in a weedy front against native species.

The problem with cheatgrass? It flares green in early spring only to quickly become a tinder-dry fuse. Invading the natural habitat, it also hinders existing forage plants that are healthier for wildlife.

NDF officials therefore came prepared for battle last week. With an emergency fuels reduction grant, they were able to purchase, transport, and sow 30,000 pounds of seed over two days. They used an industrial mixer to blend a powerful combination of bunchgrass, such as crested wheatgrass, dryland alfalfa, a nitrogen fixer, hardy shrubs, such as forage kochia and sagebrush, and a one-time cover crop of triticale.

Durham said a grant from the Nevada Department of Wildlife funded collection of the sagebrush seed. Gathered by a prison inmate crew, the seed will be used to strengthen sage grouse habitat in the burn zone.

The triticale seed, Durham said, is sterilized. It won’t reproduce, but it will provide a quick and sturdy cover against cheatgrass while the other seeds germinate.

The forage kochia, which stays green and limber most of the year, will provide nursing shelter for junipers and piñon pines.

“There was nothing left from the Ray May fire. It was a hot fire,” Durham said. “Now our seed will have just as much of a chance to start as the cheatgrass already in the ground.”

Sowing 30,000 pounds of seed over mountain terrain required more than a hand-spreader. El Aero Services of Carson City was contracted to deliver the seed by helicopter. Considering the dangling hopper had a 400-pound capacity, dozens of trips were necessary, but the pilot had the advantage of a computer guidance system.

“The computer on board tracks the rate the seed is coming out,” Durham said. “They can adjust the aperture for elevation and speed.”

The only setback for last week’s reseeding effort was the dry weather. The grass seed can last three years in the ground before germinating, but the shrubs have a smaller window of time.

“We still want moisture for the first year,” Durham said. “We’re still hoping for a wet winter.”

For more information about reseeding or juniper/piñon pine management in general, call Durham at (775) 684-2513.

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