Letters from the West

Idaho’s Soda Fire rehab project a ‘learning exercise,’ Jewell says

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell walked through wildflowers and the charred stumps of old-growth sagebrush Tuesday to see for herself how federal managers and scientists had spent $14 million on a massive effort to rehabilitate 280,000 acres burned last year by the Soda Fire.

Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and range managers showed various sites where they planted sagebrush and seeded non-native grasses, native grasses, sagebrush and forbs, and applied herbicides and other agents. Their goal is not only to stabilize the area to prevent erosion for the short term, but also to lay the long-term groundwork for a $65 million, five-year restoration program.

Jewell’s tour came after several scientists, including retired Boise BLM botanist Roger Rosentreter, criticized the size, placement and scope of the seedings, especially use of a tractor-pulled seed drill that carves a line through the biological crust in which to deposit the seeds and treatments. Jewell acknowledged their concerns and said she welcomed any scientific questions about the work that has been done.

The key to the success of the restoration effort will be the extensive monitoring by the U.S. Geological Survey. This includes 2,000 sites that eventually will allow satellite monitoring to determine how successful each treatment is.

Such landscape research has not been done in previous rehabilitation programs, Jewell said, but it’s too early to determine the results.

“The amount of science that’s being learned here is nothing short of incredible, and I think that will advise us for many years to come,” Jewell said later Tuesday at a news conference at Boise’s National Interagency Fire Center.

Jewell described the program as a “learning exercise” that will help guide fire restoration efforts by comparing areas treated one way against those treated with a lighter touch.

“If something that we have done enables more cheatgrass, we will understand that because we have done the science,” said Jewell, who was accompanied on Tuesday’s tour by Kris Sarri, her principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget.

Jewell also announced $10 million for the Wildland Fire Resilient Landscapes Program, which seeks to restore landscapes threatened by wildfire.

One of the projects in the Bruneau and Owyhee River watersheds seeks to cut and grind up juniper that has expanded into sage grouse habitat. The $500,000 program is a partnership with private ranchers, the BLM, the Idaho Department of Lands and Office of Species Conservation, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Owyhee County.

Owyhee County Commission Chairman Kelly Aberasturi was concerned about the cost of the rehab program and who is watching it.

Jewell responded that local BLM staff are in charge, but she pointed to local partnerships — including working with elected officials such as Aberasturi — as the key to getting anything done.

“Our approach has been all lands, all hands, not just in terms of fighting the fires and suppressing the fires but in terms of rehabilitation,” Jewell said. “This all lands, all hands working across the landscapes and working across agencies is the wave of the future.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Soda Fire

The Soda Fire began in a hay bale on private land Aug. 10. It quickly spread in Southwest Idaho and an eastern slice of Oregon, burning 280,000 acres of rangeland, sagebrush and sage grouse habitat. The 280,000-acre fire was the largest in Idaho in 2015.

Fire investigators determined lightning was the cause.

About 37,000 acres of “core” sage grouse habitat, meaning the highest-quality habitat, burned in the fire. Another 168,000 acres of “important” habitat, the next-best category, also burned.