Cheatgrass is on everyone’s mind during this fire season. Smoke has filled our area for more than a month thanks to record levels of fires in California. Can we be facing a similar fire disaster here?
Yes, fire is, despite all of our “Smokey the Bear” indoctrination, often a positive rejuvenation of old plant communities. Plants age and get decadent, meaning they produce little vegetation, (food for animals) and nature periodically uses fires to basically do what we do by pruning.
Fire also helps keep forests thinned down and for many plants, fire is actually necessary to establish seedlings.
So what are the concerns about fires today? Cheatgrass has the ability to “out-compete” native plants, and today thick stands of cheatgrass dominate lower elevation areas throughout Nevada that have burned. Areas with nothing but cheatgrass are now common, areas once covered by native plants and grasses. And with cheatgrass, being very thick and highly flammable, the fire cycle can repeat with great frequency, never allowing native plant communities a chance to re-establish.
Cheatgrass has been around for over 100 years, yet the size and frequency of fires in Nevada has greatly expanded in the past decade. Why?
Simple. The BLM and Forest Service, under intense political pressure from the radical environmentalists, have dramatically cut back on grazing in Nevada. Cattle and sheep will eat cheatgrass, especially in the spring, and will substantially thin the grasses and thus reduce the fuel supply fires need to spread. Here in Nevada, grazing levels have been reduced by more than 60 percent in the last two decades.
Once a fire has burned through a traditional native plant community, cheatgrass quickly fills the void. In areas of low moisture, mainly Nevada ranges below roughly 6000 feet in elevation, the native plants will not come back for decades, even without repetitive fire cycles. Grazing helps the natives to compete through physical removal by eating the cheatgrass. But, with grazing under attack, the “land management” agencies instead try to artificially “plant” natives by “reseeding” vast areas.
This sounds good, but has been extremely costly – tens of millions of dollars for relatively small areas – and even worse, has been nearly a total failure. Despite the good intentions, repeated attempts have largely failed to reestablish especially the highly desirable native grasses. Cheatgrass simply out competes them.
So, is there nothing that can be done? Is all hopeless, and will Nevada slowly transition from the “sagebrush state” to the “cheatgrass state”?
Yes, without some serious changes. First, increase grazing in areas already dominated by cheatgrass. Second, give up on trying establishing “native” plants through “reseeding”. Instead, turn to non-native but highly desirable and highly fire resistant plants such as forage kochia and various wheatgrasses and wildryes that have proven they can out compete cheatgrass, while being fully compatible with native plants. Forage kochia especially has shown to be a “miracle” plant, highly valued by wildlife and livestock, and fire resistant. It also grows well in the most difficult types of terrain, dryer, south facing lower elevations currently almost exclusively covered in cheatgrass with no hope for recovery.
We have unintentionally harmed Nevada with the introduction of cheatgrass. Now, thanks to our dedicated range scientists, we have the ability to intentionally introduce a solution. The choice is ours.
Ira Hansen is a lifelong resident of Sparks, owner of Ira Hansen and Sons Plumbing and his radio talk show can be heard Monday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. on 99.1 FM.