Guest Opinions

The value — or threat — of cheat grass is a matter of debate in Idaho

Sally Jewell, former U.S. secretary of the interior, examines a patch of cheat grass on the side of Hull’s Gulch Trail in the Boise Foothills on Tuesday May 19, 2015. Jewell was in Boise to announce a collaborative strategies plan that would help local, state and federal firefighting agencies better deal with intense wildfires.
Sally Jewell, former U.S. secretary of the interior, examines a patch of cheat grass on the side of Hull’s Gulch Trail in the Boise Foothills on Tuesday May 19, 2015. Jewell was in Boise to announce a collaborative strategies plan that would help local, state and federal firefighting agencies better deal with intense wildfires. Idaho Statesman file

When my husband and I were first married we had a little brown dog named Pup. One day Pup got a piece of cheat grass in his eye and we took him to a vet in town. Fortunately, the vet’s hand was steady enough that day that he was easily able to extract the cheat grass from Pup’s leaking, infected eye.

Though dry, brittle cheat grass is a problem for pets, it’s dangerous in southern Idaho during the summer. Then cheat grass becomes the highly flammable fuel that can contribute to the start and spread of wildfires. It’s hard to conceive the villainous nature of cheat grass when it first comes up in the spring, soft green tufts covering our landscape, making the hills and canyons look like the moors of Scotland. In June acres of cheat grass change color and become Idaho’s version of “waves of purple grain” from that much-loved melody.

So pretty, yet so deadly, cheat grass. If ever I needed more confirmation of this fact, I noticed while climbing to the top of Camel’s Back hill that the city park services have posted information regarding the invasive and dubious nature of cheat grass. In the posting, flames of fire lick through the lettering. In fact there has been a concerted effort by local and federal agencies to seed the Foothills with perennial grasses and the high desert with crested wheat grass in order to reduce and displace the cheat.

I talked to an Idaho rancher about how awful cheat grass was — is — and he looked at me like I was from another planet, like maybe I’d just stepped off the plane from New York City in spaghetti-strapped heels.

“That’s ridiculous,” he announced unapologetically. “Cheat grass makes cattle fat and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s great forage.”

He then went on to detail how his little sister used to call it “cheap grass” instead of cheat grass because indeed, it was veritably free food for cattle grazing on a desert that didn’t grow much else.

I mentioned how invasive it was and how cheat grass stole water and nutrients from other native plants, how overgrazing had set the stage for this opportunistic weed.

“So? Survival of the fittest, right?” he said, arching his eyebrows. “Besides, I’m not so sure over-grazing promoted cheat as much as years of persistent drought.”

Then he proceeded to tell me that cheat grass stabilized the soil and offered watershed protection. Otherwise dirt would erode and fly with the wind. Had I ever been on the desert in a windstorm?

“But what about fires? Cheat grass spreads fire!” I was becoming agitated.

“Not a problem if you graze the grass off when you should instead of letting it grow unrestricted. Talk to the BLM about that.”

He actually walked away from me saying, “Thank God for cheat grass.” Oddly, it felt like our disagreement was almost political, and we were as far away from each other as, say, a Republican is from a Democrat.

Diana Hooley writes from her home in Indian Cove, south of Mountain Home.

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