BLM launches a native seeds strategy for damaged landscapes

The initiative aims to restore burned ecosystems and target fire-prone invasives like cheatgrass.

 

From the air, Steve Ellis could tell the Soda Fire burned hot. Flying thousands of feet above large swaths of burned sagebrush steppe last Sunday, Ellis, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management, searched the Idaho landscape for islands of vegetation that might have survived the more than 283,000-acre blaze. He saw none.

The conversation in the aircraft quickly turned to landscape rehabilitation. ‘How are we going to seed this? When are we going to get in there?’ Ellis asked his colleagues. Already, crews have been deployed, hoping to get an early start on planting natives before invasive weeds, like cheatgrass and medusahead, get a foothold.

Such post-fire rehabilitation and restoration is an uphill battle for land managers and conservation organizations in the West. Bigger and longer fires make it difficult for crews to take advantage of small planting windows, inflate seed prices and increase demand for personnel and equipment. As a result, many burned areas aren’t replanted, leading to severe post-fire soil erosion. But the federal government is hoping to change that with their new National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration.

19959446813_3302c239e4_o-jpg
BLM Wyoming Seeds Of Success Program Conducts Seed Research at University of Wyoming
Bureau of Land Management

The strategy, developed as part of the Department of the Interior’s Rangeland Fire Initiative, will guide ecological restoration by creating a national network of facilities to provide storage for genetically appropriate, locally adapted seeds and coordinating seed collectors, farmers and growers to supply such seed. By supporting vegetation types that are resilient to drought, intense fires and invasive species, the strategy hopes to combat the effects of climate change and protect important habitat for species like the greater sage grouse.

Today, three seed storage facilities in Idaho and Nevada can accommodate up to two million pounds of seed — a marked increase from the mere 800,000 pounds housed by the original Boise facility five years ago. But Patricia Roller, national seed coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management, says more storage, especially cold storage, is still needed.

Each year, the seed warehouses meet with vendors and participate in three to four large seed-buys. In bad burn years, increased demand pushes the cost of seeds up. For example, in 2012, when more than two million acres of sagebrush habitat burned in four Western states, drought-resistant bluebunch wheatgrass seed went from $4 to $5 a pound to $20 per pound. Increased storage, Roller says, would allow the BLM to purchase seed at lower costs when wildfires aren’t raging and store those seeds until they’re needed.   

The BLM also partners with nurseries to obtain seedlings. Right now, the U.S. Forest Service’s Lucky Peak Nursery outside of Boise is growing three million sagebrush seedlings for the torched West — their largest crop ever.

But even three million seedlings may not be enough to restore burned areas in the Great Basin, where fire-prone invasives, like cheatgrass, have outcompeted native vegetation on a massive scale and altered fire regimes.

In wet years, cheatgrass flourishes — and this year’s predicted “Super El Niño” could exacerbate the weed’s spread, making wildfires more likely.

“In forests, the main thing that drives forest fires is drought and desiccation; but in the Great Basin, it’s the wet conditions that promote fire,” explains Bethany Bradley, a researcher with the University of Massachusetts’ Spatial Ecology Lab. In her spatial analyses, Bradley has found increased fire in the Great Basin after an El Niño year that can be associated with cheatgrass growth. 

“I think the biggest challenge in invaded areas is that even if you can get some natives in, if it burns again, you’re back to square one — and that’s all too likely in much of the Great Basin.”

The national seed strategy, though, should help land management agencies better meet that challenge. As Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell put it in a press release, “having the right seed in the right place at the right time makes a major difference in the health of our landscapes.”

Gloria Dickie is an editorial intern at High Country News

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!