Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Morning on the desert

By Sunny Healey, Silver Creek Preserve manager

Morning on the desert! I can smell the sagebrush smoke; 
An' I hate to see it burnin', but the land must sure be broke.
-Katherine Fall Pettey, from Songs from the Sage Brush, 1910

Near the North Fork of the Boise River. Photo by Sunny Healey/TNC

The high-desert sagebrush steppe ecosystem is hard to simplify and even more difficult to replicate from scratch. This summer we lost more of that ecosystem when the Beaver Creek fire burned so hot that the plants are not expected to grow back anytime soon. The rain we wished for did arrive but it came falling out of the sky with such intensity (and questionable timing) that it started to dramatically erode the mountainsides. We got to see geomorphology in action, right from the kitchen window for some people. The celebration of fire containment and houses and lives saved was dampened by the 4 feet of mud up against the garage.

By the sheep bridge on the Big Wood River. Photo ©Sunny Healey/TNC

To prohibit further erosion and mudslides, experts recommended a series of measures to be prescribed in the fire rehabilitation plan, one of which included reseeding priority areas within Blaine County. The recommendations came after field inspection by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Forest Service (USFS), Geologic Survey (USGS), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), BLM, Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) and others, In addition to stabilizing the hillsides, the reseeding will improve wildlife habitat more quickly, provide increased resilience and allow us once again to be hiking the hills, gazing at a big bull elk standing majestically amongst the wildflowers, native grasses and sagebrush.

Soldier Creek Preserve. Photo ©Sunny Healey/TNC

The NRCS and USFS suggested performing aerial reseeding this fall. In the beginning, it was going to be bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue and a quick-acting sterile cereal seed to the rescue. But several groups came together to ensure diverse native species would be added to this reseeding mix. With the support of Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary, IDFG, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the NRCS, Dayna Gross (TNC) and Dani Mazzotta (ICL) drafted an application to enhance the seed mix with native species. Choosing the seeds turned out to be an interesting and semi-controversial discussion that included private and public lands, county, state and federal funding, and price and availability of seeds, with major timing constraints, and some measurable (and some total) uncertainty. Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson’s comments about private, federal and state property lines being part of a tapestry that is woven together by natural systems and habitats that cannot be compartmentalized for political convenience helped conceptualize and focus the importance of the reseeding initiative.

Native forbs should be included with the grasses and sage seed mix for many reasons but partly because different species will inhabit different layers of soil.  If a particular soil layer is not inhabited, it provides an opportunity for the notoriously crafty noxious weeds to take up that niche.

Stanley, Idaho. Photo ©Sunny Healey/TNC

The ideal mix is too complicated and expensive but a few seeds were considered and selected for their relevant attributes.  Lewis blue flax, named in honor of Meriwether Lewis, provides erosion control, pollinator habitat and beautification. What the Intermountain Native Plant Growers Association refers to as a ‘handsome and statuesque bunchgrass,’  Great Basin wildrye provides good cover for deer and antelope, important winter forage for elk, and serves as habitat and a food source for upland game birds, songbirds, and small mammals.  Western yarrow, which has a long history as a powerful healing herb, is also a great food source and is commonly used as nesting material for birds. It is an early succession species and readily establishes on disturbed sites.  The beautiful bright-yellow arrowleaf balsamroot flowers grow quickly in the spring and are good browse for wildlife stressed by winter conditions. The most sought-after seed of the mix was sagebrush. Though its leaves are bitter and toxic to some ruminants, sagebrush provides food and habitat for pronghorn antelope, mule deer, pygmy rabbit and the gray vireo. It is essential to sage grouse, and cows and sheep commonly graze on sagebrush slopes. Its scientific name Artemisia tridentata refers to Artemis, the Hellenic goddess of the hunt, wild animals and wilderness. Native Americans burned dried sage leaves to purify tipis and to bless pregnant women and young warriors.

The part of the seed mix selection process that most inspired me was the value of sagebrush, literally and otherwise.  Great Basin wildrye costs $12/lb., blue flax $10/lb., antelope bitterbrush up to $40/lb., and Big Mountain sagebrush $50/lb.  For this restoration project, 2500 critical acres are being reseeded at a rate of one quarter to one pound per acre for each seed type.  How much will it cost to reseed all that land?  In the end, we were able to get a suitable mix for about $50,000, not including the plane ride.

But it made me wonder, how much sagebrush do we have?  What if wildfires or land use changes destroyed too much sagebrush? How much would it cost to reseed the entire ecosystem?  Or, rather, what is the current value of all the sagebrush in the American West?  In 2005 a conservation strategy and assessment from Colorado estimated over 106 million acres of sagebrush in the western U.S. The Handbook of Western Reclamation Techniques suggests seeding sagebrush at two pounds per acre.   At current prices and suggested application rates, it would cost $10.6 billion.

This is a simplistic equation and not very realistic because there are many more variables besides seed costs and acres but the question made me think about some of the reasons I love sagebrush and how life in Idaho wouldn’t be the same without it: fishing the long lonesome trails along the Little Wood River; listening to the last songs around a cowboy campfire with a backdrop of stars and sage; reading  about the essence of the West from a child’s point of view in my New York City niece’s school project about a ride across the Camas Prairie; that feeling as you quietly traverse the open range of the Rock Creek Valley that a mountain lion is watching from a secret hideaway in the basalt ledge above. During the reseeding effort I learned that a few dedicated people and a lot of hard work can make a big difference and that beyond any price we could try to attribute to it, plain old everyday sagebrush has significant wildlife, spiritual, cultural, historical and economic value. 

"Sagebrush ain't so pretty?" Well, all eyes don't see the same;
Have you ever saw the moonlight turn it to a silv'ry flame?
An' that greasewood thicket yonder—well, it smells jest awful sweet 
When the night wind has been shakin' it; for smells it's hard to beat.
-Katherine Fall Pettey


Ken Miracle said...

Love sage brush. Need to include low black sage in reseeding in the right locations wherever possible ... a Sage Grouse winter favorite :-}

Trish Klahr said...

Beautiful descriptions Sunny. I enjoyed the weaving of science with economics and interesting facts about these amazing plants. I'm so glad this restoration seeding project got funded! Regards to all, Trish