Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: Native, not invasive plants, are best to curb wildfires

I am a recently retired ecologist, having worked 25 years for the U.S. Forest Service and my last five years as the program lead for the BLM’s Colorado Plateau Native Plant Materials Development Program in Utah. I am writing in response to the May 11 article, “BLM decides to build fire break network along Interstate 84.” Many of our Western landscapes are broken. Much of the original wound happened many years ago when unmanaged livestock numbers grazed in harsh desert climates. But then populations grew, and along with that, the demands for natural resources, both renewable and nonrenewable, grew. Non-native plant species were introduced intentionally and unintentionally. Once-intact landscapes became fragmented through development. And sage grouse numbers, once in the millions, dwindled to somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000. Today, many of these broken ecosystems are on life support; some say they are beyond repair and that we must learn to live with something less. I still hold out some hope, and I’m not alone.

Following the fires of 1999 and 2000, in which millions of acres burned in the West, Congress directed “the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to report jointly to the Congress by December 31, 2001, with specific plans and recommendations to supply native plant materials for emergency stabilization and longer-term rehabilitation and restoration efforts.” Since then the BLM has been a lead supporter of native plant materials research at universities, such as the University of Nevada at Reno, as well as through their support of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station Great Basin Native Plant Program (GBNPP) in Boise.

These efforts are internationally recognized. The partnerships among agencies, researchers and private industry have increased the availability of the best-suited native plant materials for restoration efforts in the country. In addition, they are working to understand how climate change is likely to affect restoration efforts, while at the same time developing the technology and cultural practices for native seed growers to produce these materials in agricultural settings. These programs are supported strongly by BLM Director Neil Kornze and by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Crested wheat, once established, tends to keep other native grasses and wildflowers at bay, but does not typically escape from its original seeded site. Forage kochia is not so kind. In recent research out of Oregon State University, Erin Gray found that forage kochia expanded on 89 percent of the 28 sites studied at an average of about 200 meters, but as much as 700 meters away from the edge of where it had been seeded. Forage kochia is not the most invasive species, but is invasive nonetheless. The study found that while invasion of adjacent sites “might not occur instantaneously,” evidence showed that it might certainly occur over time — distance that kochia expanded from original location was directly related to the age of the seeded site; the older the seeding, the greater the expansion.

It is, therefore, disappointing to see the agency use a non-native invasive species such as forage kochia to build a “356-mile network of fuel breaks along a 57-mile section of the Interstate 84 corridor from Boise to Glenns Ferry.” BLM has been working diligently to understand the interactions of native species with exotic invasives such as cheatgrass (and forage kochia for that matter). Through research and development funded by the BLM, locally adapted native plant materials are available. They are not invasive, and they can not only help reduce the severity of future fires, but also restore resilience and provide forage and habitat critical for sage grouse.

Wayne Padgett is an ecologist who retired in 2013 as the program lead for BLM’s Colorado Plateau Native Plant Materials Development Program based in Salt Lake City.