Centrocercus Urophasianus or Sage-grouse, a Nevada protected game bird - image - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

On April 1, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed a final decision to construct and maintain a system of up to 11,000 miles of fuel breaks to control wildfires within a 223 million-acre area in portions of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

A Trump Administration executive order titled Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and Other Federal Lands To Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk drove the creation of the firebreak plan.

Intact sagebrush communities are disappearing across the Great Basin due to gigantic and severe wildfires, the spread of invasive annual grasses and the encroachment of pinyon-juniper.

According to the BLM, sagebrush communities in the Great Basin are home to over 350 species of plants and wildlife. Roughly 45 percent of the historical range of sagebrush has been lost.

“This is a major step in fulfilling the President’s commitment to western communities by implementing more effective wildfire treatments that will better protect Americans, their property and their lands,” said Secretary Bernhardt in a press release.

The plan to cut 11,000 miles of fuel breaks across the Great Basin has two broad, stated goals. The first is to enhance fire suppression activities. The second is to improve and expand habitat for threatened native species like the greater sage grouse.

Image – US Bureau of Land Management

The decision enables land managers to use a variety of methods to create and maintain fuel breaks: manual, mechanical, chemical, targeted grazing, and prescribed fire.

Vast Nevada has been home to mammoth sagebrush steppe wildfires in recent years, some as large as a million acres and largely fueled by invasive plant species like cheat grass. The BLM says fuel breaks will give firefighters better opportunity to more safely and effectively combat wildfires.

Patrick Donnelly is Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) 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.”

In the final EIS, the BLM acknowledges that some who offered comment during the public hearing process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act question the potential effectiveness of fuel breaks to improve habitat or better protect against fires.

“The skepticism is primarily based on a misunderstanding about the role of fuel breaks in fire suppression and the perception that they are somehow a new idea,” the BLM wrote in the PEIS.

In making the decision, the BLM says it assessed more than 1,400 fuel breaks and other types of fuels treatments and determined that 79 percent of fuel breaks are effective in helping to control wildfires and that 84 percent are effective in helping to change fire behavior. But there are few if any peer-reviewed scientific studies that support the BLM’s findings or illuminate the ecological effects of fire or fuel breaks on threatened native species like the greater sage grouse, a species noted for sensitivity to habitat fragmentation.

A much cited 2019 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment titled, The ecological uncertainty of wildfire fuel breaks: examples from the sagebrush steppe, critically questions if fire breaks can enhance fire suppression and improve and expand sage grouse habitat at the same time.

Eleven thousand miles of fuel breaks translates into 667,000 acres of vegetation being altered or removed. For Patrick Donnelly and the CBD, that’s too big a disturbance without adequate scientific backing.

“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.”

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 decision enables the use of targeted grazing to manage fuel breaks.

Donnelly called the provision a giveaway to the livestock industry.

“Targeted grazing has long been a desire of western livestock producers. They want 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 the BLM wants them to eat from these firebreak areas. We can really see this as a giveaway to the livestock industry,” Donnelly said.

The plan promises that fuel breaks be cut along existing rights of way and roads as much as possible to prevent habitat fragmentation and the spread of invasive plant species.

Worth noting, the final PEIS does not authorize specific projects. Local BLM district and field offices within the Great Basin will use the PEIS to comply with National Environmental Policy Act requirements when planning and analyzing specific fuel breaks or fuels reduction projects.

An electronic copy of the ROD, the Final PEIS for Fuel Breaks in the Great Basin and associated documents are available at https://go.usa.gov/xnQcG.


Bromus Tectorum and Fuel Breaks Described

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.

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 exceeds the width of the fuel break.
  1. 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. Pre-emergents prevent 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.
  1. 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.”