Restoration and Natural Recovery Following Wildland Fire at the INEEL Roger D. Blew
[photo of wildfire] We have heard so much about the risks wildfire brings to western rangelands.
[photo of wildfire] More and more, fire in sagebrush steppe results in cheatgrass.
[Photo of wildfire] In recent years it seems the risks increase and the consequences of fire loom larger.
[Photo of wildfire] As land managers feel the heat to reduce the risks and repair the aftermath, a question that seems to have been forgotten is, “How was this supposed to work?” “What was supposed to happen after a fire?”
[photo B&W of post fire] Imagine a time and place where wildfire did not result in cheatgrass. Imagine what we might learn about fire recovery if such a place still existed.
[photo B&W of fire recovery] Could that time and place still exist at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory? This presentation will focus less on restoration and more on natural recovery and some of the things that affect natural recovery.
INEEL History • 1940s – Navy Gun Range and Aerial Bombing Range • 1950 – DOE Energy Research Facility
The INEEL is mostly good to excellent condition Wyoming big sagebrush and bluebunch wheatgrass rangeland.
Cheatgrass has invaded the INEEL,... Number of plots cheatgrass frequency
…but, densities are low. cheatgrass density Plants per m2
Why so little cheatgrass? • High elevation • Too cold • Precipitation patterns • Wettest months are May and June • Provides additional soil moisture for perennials after cheatgrass is done.
These fires remove all aboveground plant material leaving only charred remains behind…
This impression is reinforced by the large amount of fire fighting resources usually deployed.
Sometimes after chasing a fire 15 or 20 miles across the desert, burning tens of thousands of acres you have to ask, have we just “saved the foundation?” At least the soil did not burn up!
The Snake River Plain is known for its wind and loess soils.Fires result in substantial wind erosion. These erosion rates are enough that there is a concern that it might affect recovery.
We can only hope that the material is deposited downwind, building soil elsewhere.
Actually, the “foundation”for natural recovery is, of course, those plants that resprout after fire.
This is the expected fire recovery on the INEEL Two growing seasons after fire. Quick recovery of native grasses and forbs, with only limited invasion by non-natives.
Our conclusion about natural recovery… If there was a healthy plant community before the fire… There will be one after the fire.
Even in this good condition rangeland, sagebrush does not re-establish well. This fire is ~70 years old and has only minimal sagebrush recovery. Something’s Missing
In Idaho BLM typically tries to speed sagebrush recovery by aerial broadcasting of seed on snow
Two years after planting, we surveyed 14 km of belt transects… And found lots of things…
Arrowheads • Lithic scatters • Hunting blinds But No Sagebrush No Sagebrush • WWII ordnance • Rare plants • Sage grouse lek • Horseshoes • Tin cans • Kitchen utensils • Harness hardware • Telegraph insulators
Why no sagebrush seedlings? It’s windy in Eastern Idaho and the seeds may have blown away.
We will survey again this year and include some areas that were planted at the same time, but had burned 6 years earlier. This will test if the presence of established grasses facilitated seedling establishment, possibly by reducing the loss of seed by wind.
The greatest risk factor to natural recovery and invasion by non-natives is soil disturbance.
If they are bladed shallow, they often recover satisfactorily. Two growing seasons after fire.
If they are bladed deep enough to destroy crowns, weed invasions can result. But some soil disturbances are not so obvious.
Even soil disturbance associated with drilling seed as part of restoration can effect recovery of natives.
Planting was done on a burned area that was expected to recover naturally. • Crested Wheatgrass • Intermediate Wheatgrass • Oats
Drilling Effect on Native Recovery Total Vascular % Cover
Drilling Effect on Native Recovery Native Grass % Cover
Drilling Effect on Native Recovery Native Forbs % Cover
Drilling Effect on Native Recovery Native Shrubs % Cover
Drilling Effect on Native Recovery Introduced Forbs % Cover
Drilling Effect on Native Recovery Cheatgrass % Cover
Conclusions What did we learn about natural fire recovery? If there was a healthy plant community before the fire, there will be one after the fire.
Conclusions What did we learn about sagebrush aerial seeding on new burns? It’s windy in Eastern Idaho
Conclusions What did we learn about wind erosion and natural recovery? Large soil losses due to wind do not necessarily mean lost plant recovery.
Conclusions What did we learn about soil disturbance? If there was a healthy plant community before the fire… Don’t Mess With It!
Summary • Know your rangeland. • Monitor range condition and trend. • Map areas that may be at risk to invasive plants should there be a fire. • In the aftermath of a fire, these areas are harder locate. • Simplifies BAER planning process.
Summary • Manage for healthy rangeland. • To the extent possible, don’t wait for a fire to consider restoring problem areas. If there was a healthy plant community before the fire, there will be one after the fire.
Acknowledgements Funding for Fire Ecology Research at the INEEL from: • Department of Energy • Bureau of Land Management • The Nature Conservancy