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Researchers to Help Restore Burned Nevada Lands

By Kathryn Barry Stelljes
October 6, 1999

Experts on rangelands at the Agricultural Research Service have joined a 33-agency emergency rehabilitation team to revegetate some of the more than 1.5 million Nevada acres that burned during the summer. On Sept. 3, USDA declared five counties in Nevada as agricultural disaster areas.

The fires have wide-ranging effects: Forage for cattle and wildlife has gone up in smoke on private and public grazing lands. Wind erosion on burned desert soils has caused traffic fatalities. Denuded watersheds will be at greater risk for flooding when rains begin.

ARS scientists in Reno, Nev., have more than 50 years of research experience in the delicate, high-risk process of revegetating semi-desert rangelands. They are helping the interagency team decide where to reseed and which plants to use. Over the long term, the scientists are working on ways to keep a fire-feeding weed called cheatgrass from getting a stranglehold on rangeland. The scientists are part of the ARS Exotic and Invasive Weeds Research Unit headquartered at the Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif.

Summer lightning typically starts fires on Nevada rangeland, but an abundance of cheatgrass has helped fuel a greater number of more destructive fires than usual. Some cover hundreds of thousands of acres. Native shrubs like sagebrush and shadscale grow several feet apart, reducing a fire’s ability to spread. But fire spreads rapidly when cheatgrass proliferates. After a fire, cheatgrass returns before most other plants. ARS researchers determined that the first time cheatgrass rangeland burns, there is a chance for rehabilitation if the site is seeded to perennial grasses that year. Otherwise, cheatgrass will reestablish and become increasingly difficult to control. Therefore, land management agencies will focus their revegetation efforts on those areas that have burned for the first time.

Public land managers plan to seed 5 million pounds of seed using highly specialized equipment designed for use in rocky, semi-desert soils. The seed mix includes native shrubs and grasses as well as HyCrest, an ARS crested wheatgrass variety developed at the ARS Forage and Range Research Unit in Logan, Utah. ARS is the lead research agency for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: James A. Young, ARS Exotic and Invasive Weeds Research Unit, Reno, Nev., phone (775) 784-6057, fax (775) 784-1712,