‘We are at the mercy of the wildfire-cheatgrass dynamic’; Proposed restoration causes opposing views

ST. GEORGE — The Bureau of Land Management is seeking public comment on a schedule to reduce cheatgrass that fuels wildfires and the restoration of the sagebrush steppe in the Great Basin – an issue causing contrasting views between the BLM and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Proposed area under the programmatic environmental impact statement for sagebrush restoration to be implemented, location and date unspecified | Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

The BLM is seeking comment on a programmatic environmental impact statement that analyzes approximately 38.5 million acres in areas across Utah, California, Washington, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon of the nearly 120 million acres of sagebrush steppe to be implemented for this project.

The project area also encompasses parts of the Colorado Plateau and could potentially be used by St. George field offices.

The public comment period is open now until June 2.

Sagebrush communities are home to some 350 species, such as the sage-grouse and the pygmy rabbit, and are crucial to sustain these ecosystems, which also include perennial grasses and wildflowers that grow in the interspaces between the sagebrush.

Project manager for the Great Basin regional support team and wildlife biologist Ammon Wilhelm told St. George News that the primary intent of this programmatic is to address the two major influences of sagebrush steppe degradation in the Great Basin: cheatgrass and wildfire.

The BLM estimates around 45% of historic sagebrush populations have been lost while nonnative grasses, such as cheatgrass, has rampantly spread allowing for wildfires to rip quickly through large areas.

“Those two interact to kind of promote each other, so the more fire you have the more cheatgrass you have. The more cheatgrass you have, the more fire you have,” Wilhelm said. “And they are really removing sagebrush communities at a rapid pace. Because of that, we’ve struggled to keep up with restoring sagebrush communities.”

The hope is that the programmatic would work in tandem with fuel break placements in order to get ahead of the fire cycle.

Implementation impacts on local BLM agencies

Programmatic environmental impact statements look at things like soil, erosion, habitat to offer a way for local BLM offices to expedite the process of implementing their own restoration projects. They need only to prove the project is congruent with what is outlined in the statement.

Area where pinyon-juniper has been mechanically cleared, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Kya Marienfeld, St. George News

“If they chose to do a project, they would still be responsible for some appropriate level of appropriate public outreach, and they would have to review our analysis to see if it fits with what they’re doing. And then they would have to issue a subsequent decision that would be their office saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this project,'” he said.

This programmatic in particular would take care of about 75% of what a plan would need to be completed, Ken Frederick, lead public affairs specialist for the Idaho State Office of the BLM, told St. George News.

“They just have to look at local conditions and make sure it satisfies the local needs,” he said.

This, in addition to the area included in the programmatic, is causing some concern.

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Wildland Attorney Kya Marienfeld told St. George News that this draft includes a great portion of the Colorado Plateau in with the Great Basin.

“Which doesn’t really make any sense. just ecologically they are very different places with very different restoration concerns, different fire regimes, different vegetation. It’s just very strange to see that huge chunk of Utah outside of the western swath of Cedar City and Fillmore and the west desert, which is the Great Basin being included,” she said.

This is part of what Marienfeld said is a continuous onslaught of things that the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and other western landscape agencies have been doing in the last few months “to try to cutout public engagement and public oversite as much as possible.”

Essentially, she said if the BLM’s programmatic goes through it has the potential to override what would otherwise be a robust, comprehensive National Environmental Policy Act review process for local agencies.

In this case, once an environmental impact statement is approved, a BLM local agency would only need to compose a two-page document called a Determination of NEPA Adequacy, “which is literally just a checklist,” she said.

“Feasibly, you could have a project that was completed, or at least started, before anybody outside the agency knew it was happening,” she said.

While there is some benefit to having the ability to streamline projects, cutting out the public is not the right thing to do and is certainly not what is outlined by law, she said.

“Unfortunately, it’s just setting itself up to be way more adversarial than it needs to be,” she said. “Because the public doesn’t have the opportunity to weigh in during the process. They only get to see the results.”

She also mentioned the fact that this all being pushed through at a time when people’s attention is overshadowed by the burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic. The alliance was one of many agencies asking for a reasonable extension to this proposal.

“People are clearly preoccupied at the moment,” she said.

Proposed treatments

The BLM lists five categories for proposed treatment in the programmatic: manual, mechanical, chemical, prescribed fire and targeted grazing treatments.

Area where pinyon-juniper has been mechanically cleared, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Kya Marienfeld, St. George News

In some cases, the BLM would cut down juniper-pinyon woodlands even though they are a native species to the Great Basin. The need for the removal has to do with a type of imbalance within the dynamic between the sagebrush and the pinyon-juniper, Wilhelm said.

“They naturally kind of ebb and flow. Over time, juniper moves into the sagebrush and then a fire would push the juniper back, and then the sagebrush would move back into that juniper. And it kind of moves back and forth in this natural ebb and flow,” Wilhelm said.

One of the causes for pinyon-juniper overburdening the land has to do with fire suppression in higher elevations, he said. While at lower elevations, sagebrush has been largely lost to cheatgrass and wildfires.

In areas where the juniper-pinyon has outgrown the sagebrush, it’s a much easier process to remove the pinyon-juniper than it is to restore sagebrush in areas overtaken by cheatgrass and wildfires, he said.

As pinyon-juniper habitats are important to the ecology, they are mainly looking the transitions areas between the woodlands and the sagebrush, he said.

“There’s always some potential for injuring or disturbing the habitat of these species. But we always try to minimize those impacts to the extent practicable when we’re implementing these projects,” Wilhelm said.

Cheatgrass and wildfire

Frederick said the BLM considers cheatgrass and wildfire as the single greatest threat to the working rangelands of the Great Basin.

A fire aggravated and spread by cheatgrass, Hurricane, Utah, May 18, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

“How fire works – to do something about it – you either have to change the heat that the fire is producing, change the topography or change the fuel,” he said. “So that’s what firefighting boils down to. We can’t do anything about the topography. Usually, the weather conditions under which a fire is burning – we can’t do anything about that either, but what we can do is alter the fuel.”

Yet tackling cheatgrass is not a simple process.

“We don’t have great methods for getting rid of cheatgrass. There are things to minimize its footprint and to slow its ability to come in and establish,” he said. “One of the best things we have for fighting against cheatgrass are maintaining our intact sagebrush communities and developing new, intact sagebrush communities.”

He said once established, sagebrush, perennial grasses and wildflowers that, once established, can outcompete the cheatgrass and keep it from dominating a site.

“The struggle comes when an area burns through and the sagebrush is burned up.”

Some of the measures used to remove cheatgrass is by plowing, targeted grazing or using an herbicide. After removing the cheatgrass, sagebrush, grasses and wildflowers would be seeded in.

“But without coming back and doing that over and over, you can’t really keep it at bay,” he said. “So the best way is to temporarily remove the cheatgrass and get the intact sagebrush community established because then they will be able to compete better with the cheatgrass.”

Restoring intact sagebrush communities, however, is a long-term process, especially in areas where the removal of cheatgrass is necessary for restoration.

Sagebrush against a mountain backdrop, Beaver, Utah, May 23, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

An intact sagebrush community has less continuous fuels than a cheatgrass-dominated community. Thus, fires move slower.

Along with these restoration efforts, fuel breaks would allow for better control of wildfires and keep them smaller.

“We’re hoping in the long-run, we end up with fewer acres burned by working with both of these programmatic environmental impact statements together. To allow local offices good plans for restoring and protecting those restoration efforts.”

When a crew is fighting a fire, they are essentially breaking down the fuel and disrupting the continuity of the fuel that’s feeding the fire.

“Right now we are at the mercy of the wildfire-cheatgrass dynamic. Cheatgrass is out there on a 100 million acres … If we’re ever going to do anything about that, we have to turn that around,” he said.

Wilhelm said fire alone is not the issue, as fire is a natural component for sagebrush steppe.

“We’re having fire much more frequently, the same areas burning more often, and the fires are bigger than they used to be that’s causing the real problem.”

Instead of burning every 10 to 250 years through an area, they’re burning every one to five years, he said. Because of that, areas that have been burned through multiple times have lost the seed sources needed for sagebrush to reestablish.

Unintended consequences

Wilhelm said there is a risk anytime they go out to take any sort of action on the landscape.

“There’s no 100% guarantee of success with what we’re proposing to do. And so we recognize that, and we try to plan for as many contingencies as we can, and we try to set ourselves up for success. But we do recognize that there are those risks.”

With the proposed restoration methods, for most areas, the aim is to work in places that are already degraded, where there is a loss of wildflowers, perennial grasses or sagebrush.

“It could get worse than cheatgrass. But cheatgrass is pretty bad. Wildlife are not a fan of just pure cheatgrass.”

Cheatgrass on Bureau of Land Management land | File photo, St. George News

Marienfeld said not being addressed is a largely overlooked cause in relation to cheatgrass is considering the effects of climate change.

“Cheatgrass comes in when it’s too warm, when there’s too many droughts for native species to reestablish. Without addressing that as one of the causes – they’re saying, ‘Oh, we’re just going to go and clear all this vegetation, or we’re going to cut down these trees.’ Drought is really just going to get worse and worse because of climate change.”

The changes in climate alter everything and make it more challenging for native vegetation to reestablish.

“So going in and completely clearcutting the landscape and hoping that you’re going to get native vegetation back in there, I think is unfortunately a pipe dream unless you have some fortunate circumstances,” she said.

Whether or not human intervention actually benefits the overall health of a sagebrush steppe remains a hot topic, Marienfeld said. She added that some of these efforts have more to do with protecting range cattle than sage-grouse and disregard the lack of evidence showing the efficacy of restoration efforts.

Area where pinyon-juniper has been mechanically cleared, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Kya Marienfeld, St. George News

“There’s no data given on prevention or return of cheatgrass. No data on improved sage-grouse habitats by prior clearings,” she said. “What are the actual effects of these projects?”

In considering past projects that were “deemed successful,” Marienfeld said it’s usually due to a natural factor that has nothing to do with human intervention, such as a really wet spring or an absence in drought for a year.

“Most of the time when they (restoration projects) fail, which is most of the time, it’s because the ecosystem acted like the ecosystem is going to. Where it was hot, it was dry. You get rid of all the surface crust and surface cover and dust comes in and cheatgrass comes in. And that’s to be expected. For the agency to not really look at that is really disheartening in this big project.”

The programmatic also overlooks the impacts of grazing. The number one thing that could be done in order to decrease the encroachment of cheatgrass is to take the cows off the land, she said, or at least rest areas for about two years.

“The cows come in (and) trample that sensitive soil crust. They eat all the tiny forbs and vegetation that you’re trying to re-establish and then on that degraded landscape, cheatgrass moves in,” she said. “Having any discussion of degraded sage-grouse habitat or mule deer habitat or vegetation in the arid west without talking about grazing is just disingenuous.”

Passive restoration efforts, such as taking cattle off the ground, wouldn’t require tax dollars, she added.

“When you can literally not do something instead of do something – for a whole bunch of money – and that would make more difference, then why aren’t we doing that?”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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