The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has proposed to create and maintain a system of fuel breaks across the Great Basin region. The proposed project area encompasses 224 million acres and includes parts of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. The fuel breaks would be cut along roads and rights-of-way on BLM-administered lands within “sagebrush communities.” The BLM’s preferred plan would eventually cover some 38 million acres.

An environmental impact statement has been prepared to evaluate the plan. So-called fuel breaks can vary widely in form, size and method of treatment. In the proposal, a fire break is defined as a “natural or man-made change in fuel characteristics which affects fire behavior so that fires burning into them can be more readily controlled.”

Bromus Tectorum and the Rangeland Wildfire Problem

In recent years there has been an explosion in the number of acres burned on federal land in Nevada with several open range wildfires larger than 100,000 acres. The invasive Bromus Tectorum or cheatgrass is the culprit. Early Great Basin farmers inadvertently introduced cheatgrass through contaminated grain seed and other means. Now, 150 years later, cheatgrass carpets desert valley bottoms and has been documented on Great Basin mountaintops. The plant with no value to pollinators primarily haunts regions under 6000 feet in elevation, especially the pinyon/juniper woodland, sagebrush, and salt-desert shrub communities.

There has been a spike in range land acreage burned in Nevada over the past several years – image – data from US Bureau of Land Management, graph, Nevada Capital News.

Fuel Breaks

Treatment is broken into four categories, manual, mechanical, prescribed fire, and targeted grazing methods. Three broad types of firebreaks are proposed.

  1. Brown Strips

Vegetation adjacent to interstate highways and other high traffic roadways would be removed.

From the environmental impact statement:

  • Brown strips would require more intensive maintenance than other fuel break types and must be regularly maintained due to the higher likelihood of invasion by nonnative annual grasses compared to other fuel break types. Their effectiveness is short-lived without regular maintenance.
  • Brown strips are the simplest of the linear fuel breaks with respect to potential fire behavior, because they are devoid of vegetation and thus cannot burn, however due to their narrow width, there is a higher potential for breaching, or breaking through, during higher intensity fires, where flame length or spotting distance exceed the width of the fuel break

2. Mowed Fuel Breaks or Targeted Grazing Fuel Breaks

The system of BLM roads and rights of way in the western United States is vast and enables access to some of the most remote and untrammeled areas of the lower 48 states. Mowed Fuel Breaks or Targeted Grazing Fuel Breaks are proposed to be created up to 500 feet wide on either side of lightly traveled BLM roads.

From the environmental impact statement:

  • Mowed fuel breaks are the preferred method of treatment in patches of intact sagebrush, because they are relatively easy to implement and, if wide enough, can help to disrupt wind driven fires and limit wildfire spread; however, reducing the canopy cover can increase herbaceous plants in the short term, necessitating further intervention (Shinneman et al. 2018).
  • Native perennial grasses, as the target vegetation state, would not be removed. Other native vegetation could be retained.
  • Follow-up pre-emergent treatments may be used in low resistance/resilience areas with less than 20 percent pretreatment perennial grass and forb cover. (Nevada Capital News note – pre-emergent prevents seeds from germinating)
  • Treatments in certain vegetation states such as invasive annual grassland may need to occur every year. Treatments in sagebrush would be less frequent.
  • Targeted grazing would be used to remove, reduce, or alter vegetation in the identified fuel break and may be used as a maintenance tool.

3. Green Strips

To create a green strip, the BLM proposes to remove and replace more flammable plants like cheatgrass with perennial plants that retain moisture later into the growing season such as forage kochia and other plants. The proposal says land managers would use plants that also successfully grow at wide intervals, which, according to the proposal, would further prevent the spread of wildfire. Green Strips could be up to 500 feet wide.

If given the latitude of 0 to 500 feet, according to the proposal, how wide would a firebreak be?

BLM  officials would calculate “the width of a fuel break by determining a separation distance that would allow firefighters to safely engage in suppression efforts against a fast-moving fire. In wild-land fire, safety zones are used for this purpose. These same guidelines can be used by local managers to apply on local projects.”

Reaction

Patrick Donnelly is Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity and said the massive project is way off-target.

“This is an expensive, misguided boondoggle. BLM is proposing blading 11,000 miles of fire breaks across the Great Basin Desert with really no evidence that they work the way BLM is proposing that they do,” Donnelly said. “We should be very suspicious of this effort because it’s not based on science. It’s based on essentially conjecture and anecdote that this is an effective way to combat wildfire.”

Listen to an audio interview with Patrick Donnelly.

A Trump executive order titled Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and Other Federal Lands To Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk appears to be the Genesis of the proposed fuel break project. Donnelly says the plan will not solve the rangeland wildfire problem and is nothing more than a Trump Administration giveaway to the livestock industry at the environment’s expense.

“I think BLM is desperate to look like they are doing something about fire, but they’re unwilling to make the investment and make the hard choices necessary to truly fight fire before it starts. Meanwhile, this plan has this component of targeted grazing, which has long been a desire of western livestock producers to basically throw off the shackles of seasonal grazing restrictions and just turn lose their cows to eat everything in sight. This proposal includes targeted grazing to clear fire breaks, which is a sort of ludicrous idea that cows are going to be able to go out and eat just the vegetation that they BLM wants them to eat from these firebreak areas. We can really see this as a giveaway to the livestock industry.”

The BLM manages livestock grazing on 155 million acres of federal lands. Fifty-seven million acres of Nevada are under BLM management with some 18,000 active grazing permits on 21,000 allotments. The terms and conditions for grazing on BLM-managed lands such as stipulations on forage use and seasonal duration are set forth in each permit and lease issued by the BLM to public land ranchers. According to the BLM, grazing leases are typically 10 years in duration and renewable.

Targeted Grazing Methods

From the proposal – Targeted grazing uses livestock (goats, sheep, and/or cattle), intensively managed by a grazing operator, to consume vegetation within a specific area. Land managers would decide on a site-specific basis when and where to apply targeted grazing. This would be based on a number of factors, including vegetation state, desired vegetation objective, terrain, and current year growing conditions. A targeted grazing plan would be used to achieve objectives, while avoiding damaging nontarget species (See PEIS Appendix D). For fuel break maintenance scenarios in which targeted grazing may be used, repeated treatment may be necessary. Timing of targeted grazing treatment would depend on the vegetation being targeted and the objectives of the treatment, balanced with other design features. Temporary fencing may be used to limit the grazing to the fuel break footprint. Where temporary fencing is not used, the grazing operator would follow a graduated-use plan to limit grazing impacts outside the fuel break footprint.

For Donnelly and his organization, there are many grave concerns with the proposal, but the core issue for the Center for Biological Diversity is the potential habitat disturbance 11,000 miles of fire breaks crisscrossing the Great Basin could cause.

“There is going to be enormous ecological impacts from this project, in particular the fragmentation of high-quality sagebrush habitat. When you bulldoze or mow a 500-foot-wide swath of destruction across intact habitats, you are bisecting those habitats, you’re halving the genetic variability of those populations, you’re turning one population of wildlife into two. Wildlife will not use those huge bladed or mowed areas, and in some cases, wildlife won’t cross those fuel breaks. So fragmenting habitat is one of the chief anthropomorphic disturbances that has contributed to an overall decline of wildlife, both of the Great Basin and elsewhere.”

There is no easy, sustainable solution to Nevada’s rangeland wildfire problem. Donnelly says the fuel break proposal only repeats and expands what he believes are failed rangeland management policies.

“BLM is very misguided in how they’re trying to attack the wildfire problem. They are essentially doubling down on a century and a half of mismanagement of our range lands. And in particular, we spend a century and a half heavily manipulating our range lands to accommodate livestock, and now BLM thinks they can just continue this cycle of intensive landscape manipulation, and that’ll solve our problems. It won’t solve our problems with fire.”

Donnelly is calling for something tantamount to a cheat grass Marshall Plan for the Great Basin.

“We need to be outplanting native vegetation and seeding at an epic scale, a scale that we’ve never conceived of before. The biggest jobs program the Great Basin has ever seen should be ripping up and eliminating cheatgrass through natural methods and outplanting native plants. That is the only way we’re going to get a grip on the fire issue and the degradation of habitat for the greater Sagegrouse and other wildlife.”

The fuel break proposal would use forage kochia and other plants to create Green Strips. Donnelly opposes the introduction of non-native species with a troubling potential for unintended consequences.

“You want to talk about a euphemism,” Donnelly said. “Calling these things green strips may be true in terms of their color, but not in terms of their function. The green strips are areas of destruction of the natural environment where the BLM will rip up all the vegetation then dump a bunch of herbicide on it to kill anything that remains and then plant it with non-native plants in particular forage kochia and other non-native seeds as well. Creating their completely unnatural micro ecosystem that has the ability to spread outwards.”

The notion that Nevada’s high desert is a wasteland meant for exploitation is to misunderstand the complexity and depth of the interrelated ecosystems that make up the millions of acres of BLM land and the life that exists there, to say nothing of the natural beauty.

“You are introducing non-native species and in places that may be entirely natural and intact. It’s important to remember they’re proposing to do this in some of the most remote and undisturbed landscapes in the American West,” Donnelly said. “We’re talking about Monitor Valley, Ruby Valley, places that are iconic, and are very undisturbed and natural. They want 500 foot wide swathes of destruction cut across some of our most precious and beautiful landscapes.”

Livestock have a well-documented impact on the habitat of the sagegrouse and any species that lives in a grazing allotment. Livestock are an invasive species.

“We need to restore natural ecosystem function, so restoration of native vegetation is huge,” Donnelly said. “Then we need to address degradation of our range lands by cattle. The Great Basin Desert is not meant to support half-ton ungulates. That is not natural in the sagebrush ecosystem. Cows are not supposed to be there and so cows are damaging our ecosystems. Does that mean we need to get every cow off of the range land in the Great Basin? Probably not. But it could mean increasing resting intervals, for instance, the number of years you allow range land to rest between grazing. It could mean in certain places cows just shouldn’t be there, but that ongoing degradation of the range land creates new vectors for cheatgrass expansion and prevents the land from healing.”

Streamline the Process

Since assuming the office of president, Donald Trump, through executive order and top down administrator pressure has worked to “streamline” the approval process of proposed projects on federal land. The Forest Service has proposed a radical reconsideration of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Donnelly says the massive fuel break project is part of the effort to circumvent public and scientific scrutiny of projects proposed on federal lands.

“They have been using this euphemism of ‘streamlining NEPA,’ which really means short cutting, and they are short cutting all of our bedrock environmental laws. From the National Environmental Policy Act to the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air and Clean Water Act, you name it, the Trump administration is trying to go around it, is trying to shortcut it, so that they can do the bidding of Trump’s campaign donors. It’s really that simple, so we’re trying to highlight that, and I think this project is a good example of that streamlining, short cutting. The environmental impact statement is cursory. It contains almost no site-specific analysis at all, and furthermore, it sets up a framework where they can avoid site-specific analysis in the future by setting up exemptions for future analysis.”

An electronic copy of the Draft Programmatic EIS and associated documents is available on the BLM Land Use Planning and NEPA register. For comments to be considered, they must be received by the BLM no later than midnight MST on August 5, 2019.