The weedy future of the Great Basin

Fire and cheatgrass conspire to create a weedy wasteland

  • The Great Basin

    Diane Sylvain
  • Mike Zielinski, BLM fire rehabilitation coordinator

    Jon Christensen photo
  • James Young, Agricultural Research Service scientist

    Jon Christensen photo
  • Lone cow stands against barren landscape

    Jon Christensen photo
  • Healthy sagebrush ecosystem

    Jon Christensen photo

DAVEYTOWN, Nev. - If it weren't for the cows, I might have wondered if we were still on Earth. We stood on a barren, blackened plain that stretched toward an ethereal mountain range. The Slumbering Hills hovered on the hazy horizon. Nothing seemed alive, except for the cows and my guide, Mike Zielinski, the fire-rehabilitation coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management in nearby Winnemucca.

We had come to see the future of the Great Basin.

For more than two weeks last August, a lightning-caused fire scorched more than 62,000 acres here. And this was only one of dozens of wildfires that burned nearly 2 million acres - 3,000 square miles - of the Great Basin last summer.

Someone with a little knowledge of Western ecology might think the fires were positive events. They raced out of control through degraded rangeland choked with dry cheatgrass, a fire-loving annual grass that originally came from the deserts of central Eurasia. Perhaps the fires would allow a healthier mix of plants to grow back with the spring rains.

But Zielinski and other land managers in the Great Basin know the truth: Fire and cheatgrass conspire to build each other up and ultimately destroy the native ecosystem.

With every new fire, cheatgrass takes over more and more acreage, as the fire-loving annual survives while the natives die out. And with each new crop of cheatgrass comes the certainty that successive fires will burn hotter and more often, converting still more native sagebrush grasslands into uniform carpets of the short blond grass.

Zielinski has experienced the runaway cycle firsthand. Around Winnemucca, wildfires burned from 6,000 to 8,000 acres a year when he started working here in the 1980s, Zielinski said. By the 1990s, the average was up to around 100,000 acres a year. Last year, 630,000 acres burned in the Winnemucca District.

If the trend continues, scientists predict, fires will burn the heart out of the Great Basin in the next decade or so and irreversibly transform the region's characteristic sagebrush steppes into a weedy wasteland that routinely goes up in smoke every few years.

"We're almost to the point of no return," said Robert Abbey, the state director of the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada.

Back from the brink

But federal land managers haven't given up. In the wake of the fires, they have launched one of the most ambitious ecosystem restoration projects in the West. This winter and spring, teams of federal employees, hired contractors, state wildlife agency employees, and volunteers seeded as much of the burned landscape as possible in hopes of holding back the cheatgrass invasion and eventually returning the land to native species.

The BLM is spending more than $40 million on this emergency rehabilitation effort. Officials said it is the biggest single post-fire rehabilitation plan ever undertaken by the federal government.

But it still isn't enough. The emergency effort has reached only about a third of the land that burned last summer and fall, largely because of a shortage of seeds, money, equipment and workers. Of the seeds that are being sown, less than a third were natives, and only 1 percent was sagebrush, the fragrant perennial that anchors much of the Great Basin ecosystem, but now, strangely, is disappearing.

The BLM recognizes the severity of the problem. "The Great Basin is in trouble," the agency warned in the latest of a series of reports on the aftermath of the fires. "A large part of the Great Basin lies on the brink of ecological collapse."

"Something must be done to stop the downward spiral of ecological conditions in the Great Basin," writes BLM director Tom Fry in a cover letter to the report, titled The Great Basin: Healing the Land. "What we've done before - a combination of treatments primarily designed to stabilize soils after a wildland fire - has not reversed this trend."

So the BLM is now scrambling to put together a long-range restoration plan. In the immediate aftermath of the fires, the BLM proposed spending up to $25 million a year over the next decade on a Great Basin Restoration Initiative to try to slow down the accelerating cycle of fires and restore the native sagebrush grasslands in Nevada, Utah, Oregon and Idaho. Since then, the proposal has been scaled down somewhat. Abbey said that he hopes to pull together about $15 million to make the transition from rehabilitation to ongoing restoration this year - around $2.5 million in new money, with the rest coming from existing programs, including emergency fire-rehabilitation money.

Still, the investment would be substantial for an agency that spends on average $26 million a year on emergency fire-rehabilitation efforts nationwide. It would also represent a significant shift in the BLM's $48 million annual budget in Nevada. And it could portend a major shift in the BLM's focus, from managing the land for forage for cattle and sheep to preserving and restoring healthy sagebrush grasslands.

The Healing the Land report could not state more clearly the change that is needed. "A restoration effort, on a scale never seen before in this country, needs to be undertaken to stop the downward ecological trends in the Great Basin," the report concludes. At the same time, it recognized the difficulties in store: "Restoration of the Great Basin ecosystem is a monumental challenge, perhaps the single most demanding land-management task faced by BLM."

Altered terrain

Out on the Daveytown allotment, named for a nearby mining ghost town, the difficulties were starkly apparent earlier this spring. Zielinski scraped up a handful of dirt and found it filled with cheatgrass seeds. The cows seemed to be waiting for the cheatgrass to pop up on the burnt plain.

On the horizon, a lone tractor pulling a drill seeder kicked up a cloud of dust across the base of the Slumbering Hills. Said Zielinski, "It just seems like such an impossible task when you see one drill being pulled way out there."

By late spring, the cows would be gone. With any luck, tiny green seedlings would be pushing up through the ashes. And the struggle to reclaim this patch of the Great Basin would begin.

Historically, fires burned smaller and with less intensity in sagebrush grasslands. The frequency in any given patch of healthy sagebrush ranged from once every 11 years, which is just long enough for sagebrush to get established, to as seldom as every 200 years.

But that started to change in the mid-1800s, when cheatgrass seeds came to North America as a contaminant in grain seeds from Europe. Farmers called it cheatgrass because it cheated them out of profit by lowering their yields. With big spiky seeds that easily stick in hide and hair, cheatgrass readily expanded with herds of cattle and sheep to most of the West. Wherever animals overgrazed the perennial bunch grasses, cheatgrass got the edge it needed. Westwide, it is now the dominant grass on more than 100 million acres - an area the size of Utah and Colorado combined.

In winter and early spring, cheatgrass sends its roots deep, where they monopolize water and nutrients. It sets seeds early in the summer, and when it dries, it becomes explosive tinder. Sagebrush simply cannot survive or reproduce when cheatgrass-dominated lands burn every two to five years, as they tend to do. And the tiny seeds of sagebrush fall right around the plant, so its stands expand very slowly.

But it is sagebrush that is the critical element in this ecosystem.

"When the sagebrush goes, the structure goes, and when the structure goes, most of the vertebrates go," explained Peter Brussard. A professor of biology at the University of Nevada, Reno, Brussard is co-director of the Nevada Biodiversity Initiative, a federally financed effort to document and monitor the state's ecological health.

Some species benefit temporarily when cheatgrass takes over, including mice that feast on the abundant seeds. But most animals are left homeless. Small birds like the sage thrasher, small mammals like the pygmy rabbit, and a host of reptiles like the sagebrush lizard need sagebrush to survive. The Great Basin Bird Observatory, which is compiling a breeding-bird atlas for the region, has found that cheatgrass-dominated grasslands support less than half the number of bird species that breed in healthy sagebrush steppes.

Most at risk are sagebrush-dependent species, like the sage grouse, which must have sagebrush for food and shelter. Sage grouse have suffered alarming population declines in the West, as sagebrush grasslands have been lost to cheatgrass and fire. A number of sage grouse populations, including those in the Great Basin, appear to be headed for the endangered species list. A listing would add political muscle to efforts to restore the habitat (HCN, 3/13/00: Endangered species must learn to wait).

James Young, a scientist with the federal Agriculture Research Service in Reno who has studied cheatgrass invasions for 40 years, said that what once seemed like an endless ocean of sagebrush in the Great Basin is itself "an endangered landscape." But even more alarming, when I asked Young if he knew of any successful restoration of native sagebrush grasslands, he simply said, "No."

An ecological Band-Aid

So far, the only successful strategy for fighting the spread of cheatgrass, Young said, has been to plant other exotic species from Eurasia, like crested wheatgrass, a perennial grass, and forage kochia, a shrub. These plants are more resistant to fire and grazing than their native counterparts, so they can compete with cheatgrass. They also provide forage for livestock and big game wildlife.

Using these exotic species is an "ecological Band-Aid," said Young, "but it's the best thing we've got now."

"I wish it was so simple as taking native seeds and throwing them out there," said Mike Zielinksi. "But it's a lot more complicated."

Zielinksi drove me out to one of the projects he worked on 17 years ago, when crested wheatgrass was all that was used for reseeding after a fire. It was good forage for cattle and it slowed fire down a little. But no native perennials have regained a foothold here.

Farther on we crossed through a section where four-wing saltbush and kochia were planted along with crested wheatgrass. Four-wing saltbush is native to lower elevations in the desert, but it does well with slightly higher rainfall, too. The hope is that these shrubs, by occupying the same niche as sagebrush, will keep cheatgrass from forming a dense carpet. When the saltbush and kochia die, sagebrush may eventually occupy the niche again. But there is no real evidence for that yet, said Zielinski.

Down the road and a bit higher in elevation we came to a more recent seeding, where sagebrush was added to the mix. In among the crested wheatgrass, cheatgrass and mustard weeds, tiny sagebrush plants were coming up after two years. Cattle have been kept off this allotment and will remain off at least another year.

"It's a very slow process on these shrubs," said Zielinski. "Even when you look at a five-year old sagebrush, it's not very robust. It takes a long time."

Higher up the mountainsides, where there is more precipitation, restoration efforts have used native bunchgrasses and sagebrush, in addition to four-wing saltbush and kochia. We hiked through diverse stands of grasses and shrubs. At least up here, there seemed to be hope for restoring some semblance of the native sagebrush grasslands.

Zielinski himself was skeptical about planting sagebrush in the beginning. But these different projects showed how rangeland rehabilitation efforts have gradually evolved toward the philosophy that is now at the center of the Great Basin Restoration Initiative: restoring the sagebrush grasslands, not just stemming the tide with plantings of less invasive exotics. But some people are still skeptical.

The critics

John Falen, a Winnemucca rancher, scoffs at the idea that Nevada needs more sagebrush. "Just look around," he said. "We're not going to run out of sagebrush."

Falen has a grazing permit on the Daveytown allotment. He is also chairman of the public-lands committee of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association and the recent past president of the organization. I met him at a public meeting in Winnemucca, where the BLM was discussing its emergency reseeding efforts.

"I think planting sagebrush is ludicrous in Nevada," Falen said.

The issue is one of more than passing interest to Falen. This winter, the BLM seeded sagebrush along with other species on portions of the Daveytown allotment, and Falen will have to keep his cattle off those areas for at least two years.

But while ranchers like Falen fear the restoration efforts will lead to more cutbacks in grazing, environmentalists fear the reseeding efforts will simply use more exotic species to provide more forage for cattle. Indeed, most of the burnt land was seeded with a mix of crested wheatgrass, four-wing saltbush and kochia, to try to compete with the cheatgrass that had already taken over. Environmentalists made their concerns known to the BLM at meetings in Carson City and Reno this spring.

"Under an emergency atmosphere, decisions were made to use a considerable amount of non-native species," said Rose Strickland, a veteran activist with the Sierra Club in Nevada. "If I understand restoration properly - and maybe we don't know what that means - these emergency efforts are in direct conflict with restoration. So how do you reconcile using non-natives with the plan to restore the Great Basin ecosystems?" she asked Bob Abbey, the state director of BLM.

Abbey replied that the BLM had bought all the native seeds it could get hold of this winter. An ongoing restoration effort would provide a market for native-seed purveyors, he said. The supply should increase to meet the increased demand and prices would go down. But, he added, non-native plants would still be used to compete with cheatgrass and for planting firebreaks.

Abbey said the agency was working to identify surviving remnants of native sagebrush grasslands that need to be protected from cheatgrass and fire. Those will be a top priority and restoration efforts will work outward from there.

The BLM faces many daunting challenges in this effort. Perhaps the biggest is distrust. "It sounds like a great new mission for the BLM and recognition that past and current BLM management is not working and that it's actually leading to ecosystem collapse," Strickland said after reviewing the latest report on the restoration effort. "But I'll believe it when I see it."

The BLM not only has the difficult task of convincing people in the Great Basin that it can do the job. It must also persuade lawmakers in Washington, D.C., that restoration of the sagebrush grasslands is necessary. The sagebrush steppes of the Great Basin are not the most charismatic landscape in the West.

What the agency has going for it right now is the alarming result of last year's fires: mile after mile of blackened, charred lands. The starkness of that picture, and the knowledge that things will only get worse if nothing is done, means the agency will probably at least get the chance to start its restoration initiative.

"Until I saw the devastation myself, it wasn't a priority to me," acknowledged Bob Abbey. "The cost is substantial, but the alternative is even worse."

Jon Christensen writes about the Great Basin from his home in Carson City, Nevada.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Are cows the ultimate weed seeders?

- A few facts about weeds

For more information:

  • The Great Basin: Healing the Land is available from Bureau of Land Management, 1340 Financial Blvd, Reno, Nev, 89520-0006 (775/861-6400). The BLM will hold public meetings on the Great Basin Restoration Initiative this summer.
  • Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn is holding a Fire Summit in Reno, Nev., May 31 and June 1, cost $45. For details, contact Nevada Association of Counties, 775/885-7863.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Jon Christensen

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