Table Rock area’s ‘black scar’ will take years to heal

A botanist visits Table Rock after its June 2016 fire

Botanist Ann DeBolt walks in late August the trails burned in the human-caused fire near Table Rock on June 30. She is among those hopeful that native plants will be able to re-establish themselves in the area. She has seen hopeful signs.
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Botanist Ann DeBolt walks in late August the trails burned in the human-caused fire near Table Rock on June 30. She is among those hopeful that native plants will be able to re-establish themselves in the area. She has seen hopeful signs.

Walking the singed trails around Table Rock with Idaho Botanical Garden botanist Ann DeBolt is like going on a treasure hunt.

Among black skeletons of serviceberry, sage and bitterbrush, DeBolt spots new growth — chartreuse bursts at the plants’ bases. In another spot willow is re-establishing itself, along with charred clumps of arrowleaf balsam root and even a few stands of milkweed blooming out of the ashes.

But it’s too early to tell whether the hopeful spurts of green will last, competing for space and water from cheatgrass, rush skeletonweed, medusahead and other invaders. It will certainly take years for the area, a winter range for wildlife, especially deer and elk, to recover.

DeBolt leads spring wildflower walks for the Idaho Botanical Garden through the Foothills below Table Rock. Next spring, along with primrose, fescue and any sagebrush that might have survived the fire, “there will definitely be more weeds,” she said, the opportunists that move in after fire damage.

Since the human-caused June 30 fire that burned 2,500 acres and one family’s home, DeBolt has gotten numerous calls from people devastated by the loss. Authorities say people lighting fireworks started the fire. Ada County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Patrick Orr said his office has “checked out several dozen tips and done dozens of interviews,” but no arrests have been made.

The fire’s proximity to town and the blackened landscape left in its wake mean its effect on residents was unique, said Michael Young, volunteer/habitat restoration coordinator with Idaho Fish and Game.

“I don’t think any particular fire in my career has drawn this much public interest,” Young said. “People see this black scar. Almost from Day One, people were calling, wanting to help.”

Not only is Table Rock an iconic landscape, but it’s fragile. We take it for granted that these hills will look the way they always look. But they can change overnight.

Sara Arkle, foothills open space senior manager for the city of Boise

Replant, but slay cheatgrass first

Idaho Fish and Game owns 1,000 of the burned acres, the largest share. The Idaho Department of Lands and the city of Boise own 300 and 164 acres, respectively. Several private landowners own the rest.

Young and other staffers from Fish and Game have visited the burned area multiple times. So has Sara Arkle, open space senior manager for Boise. Signs now dotting the path up Table Rock urge people to stay on the trails and note the city, Ridge to Rivers and the Bureau of Land Management are working to restore the burned habitat — one indication of the collaborative effort now in the works.

Fire is a disturbance. With any disturbance, there is a chance for opportunity.

Sara Arkle, foothills open space senior manager for the city of Boise

Fish and Game’s first step will be a project to combat invasive cheatgrass. Before and after the fire, said Young, “we have continued to see this transition to cheatgrass that is still occurring” — a common concern after wildfires. “Our best path forward, we think, is to try and do some cheatgrass control before replanting sage and bitterbrush and hopefully helping some native grasses get a foothold.”

City staff and affected landowners also agree on that priority, said Arkle.

“If there’s a silver lining in the fire, it might be the opportunity to get rid of invaders and lay the groundwork for more resilient landscapes,” she said. And partnering is important: “It wouldn’t make sense for 164 acres of city land to be restored only to be surrounded by acres of cheatgrass.”

Cheatgrass is so menacing because it sprouts earlier in the spring than natives, edging them out, then dries by the beginning of fire season, providing masses of fuel for wildfires.

Young said his agency will use Plateau, an herbicide made to control grasses that compete with native species, and add bacteria that inhibit the growth of cheatgrass to the soil on most of the Fish and Game-owned land. The city will use the same strategies as Fish and Game on the land it owns, said Arkle.

The challenge is large, especially considering Fish and Game is also working on restoration projects related to the Soda and Mile Marker 14 fires from this year and last.

The Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation has joined the fundraising effort for restoration and is accepting Table Rock donations on its website. Like Fish and Game, the foundation has been fielding high volumes of phone calls from people who want to help, said executive director Ann Dehner.

“When it’s time there will be plenty of boots of the ground,” she said.

The landscape is guaranteed to change

A full restoration of Table Rock pre-cheatgrass is probably not possible because of the spread of the noxious weed, Arkle said. And because soils in sagebrush ecosystems don’t hold a lot of water, burned landscapes are slow to recover.

“We’ll still see charred skeletons for years to come. But the hope is we’ll also see the green seedlings coming up beneath them,” said Arkle.

She’s looking ahead to five years from now, when Table Rock’s recovery will be measured by the amount of improved wildlife habitat — including critical range for mule deer and elk — and continued community engagement.

Beyond the on-the-ground rehab, we hope there will be a larger awareness of the fragility of our landscape.

Sara Arkle, foothills open space senior manager for the city of Boise

“Having volunteers out there planting sage, bitterbrush, syringa and willows, strong persistent native perennial grasses and flowering perennials,” Arkle said. “Yes, there will be cheatgrass. The hope is it isn’t outcompeting the natives.”

Before the fire, the city was in the process of hiring a restoration specialist for native landscapes. Arkle took job candidates to the Table Rock burn scar as part of their interview — a baptism by fire.

Martha Brabec got the job. Her first day was Aug. 31. Brabec’s first focus now and throughout the fall will be Table Rock, said Arkle.

Homegrown help

More than 350 new people signed up for Young’s standing list of Fish and Game volunteers immediately after the fire — a 35 percent increase over his existing 1,000. “That’s huge,” he said.

He’ll probably start organizing Table Rock-related opportunities for them this fall, he said, continuing for more than a year. One project will enlist them to collect seeds from native sagebrush — from plants as close to the burned area as possible to increase the likelihood that the species will grow well.

The U.S. Forest Service will partner with Fish and Game to grow the seeds at the Lucky Peak Nursery. The seedlings will be ready to be planted in fall 2017 and spring 2018. That’s when Young will have another opportunity to call upon his growing list of volunteers to help plant.

Boise will buy native seeds and seedlings with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Zoo Boise Conservation Fund. The zoo specified that its conservation money must go to habitat restoration rather than trails because of the zoo’s particular mission to support wildlife.

“The thing about having the ability to help with conservation is that there is no shortage of choices. There’s a huge number of places that could use our help,” Zoo Boise Director Steve Burns said. But designating money for Table Rock was an easy call, he said. People have stopped zoo employees in the grocery store to thank them for the grant and applauded zookeepers who talk about it at the zoo.

The zoo fund has mostly been used for international conservation projects, in particular Gorongosa Park in Mozambique.

“It’s the similar theme of restoration,” Burns said. “We’re helping restore Gorongosa, destroyed in a war. Now we can help restore Table Rock that’s so important to the community.”

You can volunteer

Sign up online at to volunteer for Idaho Fish and Game. Call Michael Young at 208-327-7095.

Sign up online at to volunteer for the Boise City Parks Department.