Encompassing nearly all of Nevada, much of eastern California, western Utah, southeastern Oregon, and portions of southern Idaho, the Great Basin region of the West is typified by mountain ranges, desert habitat, rangelands and — in the past two decades — frequent wildfires.

What's the impact to the land and is the vegetation able to recover after these fires? That's the answer University of Nevada-Reno rangeland ecologist Barry Perryman and graduate student Ann Bollinger chased in a recent evaluation of public lands that had burned during the last 20 years.

By researching Bureau of Land Management (BLM) data and revisiting permanent post-fire transect sites, the pair analyzed how the sites have re-established and identified ecological trends.

Overall, Perryman says they concluded the vegetation is looking “pretty good” on most ecological sites. “Some of the sites were reseeded and some were not but, as a general trend, most of the sites have been able to re-establish perennial grasses,” he says.

He adds, “These burned areas are not turning into an eroded wasteland. The vegetation is re-establishing and moving in a direction able to support multiple uses again — animal forage, wildlife habitat and watershed activities.”

Perryman says a big misconception in post-fire vegetation recovery is the site should look exactly as it did before the burn. For instance, if there were sagebrush on a site that burned 20 years ago, but no sagebrush there yet today, the tendency is to call it “bad.”

But he counters that what it may mean is there hasn't been a seed source and recruitment interval for sagebrush to re-establish.

“Sagebrush needs a specific climatic occurrence to germinate and establish itself. Shrub establishment is a pulse phenomenon. For many years, there may be nothing; then suddenly it's everywhere,” he says.

To that end he adds, “In those areas that have only burned once and the sagebrush hasn't re-established, it is not necessarily bad; it just takes time.”

Cheatgrass is a concern

What the West needs to be concerned about is cheatgrass establishing on post-fire lands, Perryman says.

He explains that in areas with cheatgrass the fire interval changes from an average of 50-75 years to every 5-7 years. Perryman says such frequent fires make it difficult for sagebrush and other perennials to re-establish and make the land productive again.

Perryman says fire needs to be restored to its historical 50 to 75 year cycle in the Great Basin.

“Society has suppressed fire and allowed plant communities to cross a threshold — so there's virtually no perennial grass or forbs in the understory,” he says. “As a result, we've changed the fire interval to 150 to 200 years. Now there are millions of acres at risk for wildfires. We've got a big problem here over the next 100 years.”

To prepare to combat those fires, Perryman says preemptive management is needed now. He references the BLM's Great Basin Restoration Initiative, which puts forth a fire management plan for the region. Congress, however, never funded it.

“It's easy to get money after everything has burned up,” he says.

If the Great Basin Restoration Initiative does ever receive money, Perryman says, “The solutions are in there.” Proposed management strategies to help ward off large-scale fires include:

  • Greenstripping, a process where less flammable species are planted within a cheatgrass matrix. Then, when fire comes along, these “green strips” help control or stop the fire.

  • Prescription grazing with livestock to keep cheatgrass areas from building up excess forage for fire fuel.

  • Prescribed burns, again to help keep vegetative and wood fuel loads minimal.

  • Re-establishment of perennial grasses after fire. Perryman says this is a viable alternative but is limited by technology. For example, there are only about 30 varieties of plant materials native to the Great Basin available, and about 300 varieties are needed. Additionally, establishment is difficult because the seed drills aren't well suited to this terrain. Perryman hopes a new plant materials center being established in the Great Basin will help resolve some of these issues — but he says it will still be a long process.

Kindra Gordon is a freelance writer and former managing editor of BEEF magazine now based in Whitewood, SD.

A new learning resource

There's some good news in the fight against western fires. A new Plant Materials Center for the Great Basin region is being established at the University of Nevada, Reno's Newlands Field Laboratory.

The new center will be dedicated to the selection, testing and development of adapted and native plants best suited to restoring the Great Basin. This will help identify more plants specifically for restoring lands after fires and preventing the spread of invasive weeds, and will accelerate the re-vegetation and environmental enhancement efforts taking place in the Great Basin.

The Great Basin Center is the first plant materials center to be opened by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 17 years.