Letters from the West

BLM decides to build fire break network along Interstate 84

The Bureau of Land Management is preparing to begin building a 356-mile network of fuel breaks along a 57-mile section of the Interstate 84 corridor from Boise to Glenns Ferry.

The Paradigm Fuel Break Project is aimed to slow down and reduce the size of wildfires in the area, which are mostly caused by humans. But critics say the agency’s choice to plant an invasive exotic plant threatens the rangeland it hopes to protect.

The corridor is one of the busiest areas for wildfires in Idaho. Nearly 60 percent has burned since 1980. Fire threatens both rural homes and freeway traffic, due to the prevalence of invasive annual grasses, weeds and brush.

Fuel breaks are swaths of ground prepared and managed to deny a wildfire a continuous source of fuel. Several different styles of fuel breaks will be created during the Paradigm project. BLM wants to plant greenstrips with kochia a plant that outcompetes cheatgrass, the fast-drying annual grass that takes over an ecosystem by causing frequent fires that destroy native plants. But the Idaho Native Plant Society and others say kochia is also an invasive alien plant and should not be used.

BLM officials say it remains green into the summer after other plants have dried, and that makes it ideal for greenstrips. It plans to plant 274 miles or 9,854 acres in kochia.

Fuel breaks covering 82 miles or 3,024 acres will be developed using short-statured perennial plants, mowing, disc lining, chemical treatments and targeted grazing. These alternative methods will be preferred within designated slickspot peppergrass habitat or other buffer or avoidance zones, such as the Oregon National Historic Trail.

The proposal, which has clear its environmental review, comes after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued an order in January calling for Interior agencies to use a comprehensive, science-based strategy to address the more frequent and intense wildfires that are damaging sagebrush in the Great Basin region of Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California. Goals of the strategy include reducing the size, severity and cost of rangeland fires; addressing the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species; and positioning wildland fire management resources for more effective rangeland fire response.