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Know the West

Save Our Sagebrush

In the Great Basin, fires create a chance for redemption


Note: this front-cover essay introduces this issue's feature story, "The weedy future of the Great Basin."

Fire in the West is both friend and foe. Last week in New Mexico, the National Park Service lit a friendly, brush-clearing fire in Bandelier National Monument, only to have it turn foe when howling spring winds drove it through the nearby town of Los Alamos.

Despite the immense damage done to homes and buildings, most ecologists today wouldn't question the Park Service's desire to use fire to reduce brush and replenish the ecosystem. Fire is now viewed primarily as a land healer, not a land destroyer. But there are always nasty exceptions, even in a landscape where humans are scarce.

Last summer, lightning storms struck the Great Basin, setting off fires that blackened nearly 2 million acres of sagebrush grasslands across Nevada and parts of Oregon, Idaho and Utah. The landscape left in the wake of those fires will never return to healthy conditions on its own because of a fast-spreading Eurasian plant called cheatgrass. In the Great Basin, fire and exotic weeds have become co-conspirators against the native sagebrush grasslands.The exotics provide great fuel for the fires, while the fires provide the perfect conditions for the spread of exotics. The more fire, the more cheatgrass and other weeds. The more cheatgrass and other weeds, the more fire.

The stage for this destructive and accelerating cycle was set by overgrazing that began more than a century ago. It has been reinforced by farming, roads, mines and powerlines. Today, up to 25 million acres in the Great Basin are dominated by exotic annual grasses, and with each new fire the acreage increases.

The giant fires may have awakened the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that traditionally has been more concerned about providing forage for cattle than sagebrush habitat for wildlife. In this issue of High Country News, reporter Jon Christensen of Carson City, Nev., goes to the burnt heart of the Great Basin to see how the seeds of a new restoration philosophy are taking root in the Bureau of Land Management. And Lisa Jones gives an up-close look at one of the Interior West's foremost practitioners of restoration: Utahn Steve Monsen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Monsen has a keen sense of history and a practical bent, much like Aldo Leopold, the great conservationist who, more than 50 years ago, wrote about cheatgrass after traveling around the West. Leopold was not very hopeful about what he saw and heard:

"I listened carefully for clues whether the West has accepted cheat(grass) as a necessary evil, to be lived with until kingdom come or whether it regards cheat as a challenge to rectify its past errors in land use," Leopold wrote. "I found the hopeless attitude almost universal. There is, as yet, no sense of pride in the husbandry of wild animals, no sense of shame in the proprietorship of a sick landscape. We tilt windmills in behalf of conservation in convention halls and editorial offices, but on the back forty we disclaim even owning a lance."

That has changed. Even here, on America's back forty, we are proud of our wildlife. And we are ashamed of owning a sick landscape. We want something better. How badly remains to be seen.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Jon Christensen