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Beige Plague

Grassy invaders are stoking immense wildfires that are wiping out huge swaths of sagebrush, a symbol of the West. Land managers are losing this turf war.

August 02, 2008|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

ELKO, NEV. — Around every bend of the dirt road, Tom Warren recites another name, another date. The Sheep, the Amazon, the Winters, the Suzie. The list goes on and on.

It is a chronicle of loss, of wildfires ravaging one of America's mythic landscapes, the sweeping, lonely sagebrush country of the West.

On mountainside after mountainside here, in valley after valley, the richly textured, muted green of sage has yielded to a monotonous, dried-out sea of dirty-blond cheatgrass.

The annual grass, a tough native of Eurasia, is fueling a devastating cycle of fire that is wiping sage from vast stretches of the Great Basin and, with it, an ancient ecosystem that is home to the pronghorn antelope, strutting sage grouse and other prized wildlife.

The Great Basin, which swallows most of Nevada and reaches into parts of Utah, Idaho, Oregon and California, is the epicenter of a plague of wildfire driven by the spread of nonnative plants. Some of the biggest conflagrations in the nation over the last decade have burned in this high-desert region.

"The Winters fire took out that mountain and went on for 20 miles," says Warren, a rehabilitation manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. He is glancing out the window of a government SUV as it bumps across the backcountry of northeastern Nevada.

He points out the 150,000 acres charred by the Sheep fire. It consumed islands of shrub that had survived an earlier blaze. Not even the skeletons of sage are left.

It's like that across much of the 135-million-acre Great Basin.

"If something hasn't burned yet, it's waiting to burn," said Steve Knick, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Idaho. "Just the rapidity with which the landscape has changed is unbelievable."

Grassy aliens carpet the ground. They dry out quickly and burn in an instant. When lightning strikes a bed of dead cheatgrass, it's like dropping a match into a lake of kerosene.

Country that used to burn every few decades -- or once a century -- is burning every few years.

Cheatgrass fed the largest blaze in Utah's recorded history, last year's Milford Flat fire. It galloped at freeway speeds across 363,000 acres of rangeland, incinerating hundreds of cattle.

In the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, where lightning fires historically stayed small and isolated because there wasn't much to burn, flames are following the spread of tassel-headed red brome.

In 2005, after high rainfall produced a luxuriant crop of brome and other exotic grasses, 1 million acres of the Mojave were charred.

Air pollution may be abetting the invaders. Researchers have found that high nitrogen deposits are fertilizing nonnative grasses in parts of Southern California. In southern Nevada, experiments have shown that brome thrives at elevated levels of carbon dioxide expected in the atmosphere by mid-century.

Nowhere is the grim mating of wildfire and invasive grasses more evident than in the huge Elko District of the Bureau of Land Management in northeastern Nevada. This endless country of jagged mountains and gently sloping basins is burning with a regularity that is brutal and on a scale that is staggering.

In 2006, 950,000 acres of the district were scorched -- about the size of Rhode Island and roughly a tenth of all the wildlands that burned in the entire United States that year. Last summer, fire raced across nearly 600,000 acres, an area bigger than Orange County.

The blazes can be traced by color. If the land is tan, it has burned and turned to a thick mat of cheatgrass, ensuring that it will burn some more. Whether cruising down Interstate 80 to Reno or dodging the washboards on a primitive road in the middle of nowhere, it's hard to escape that khaki stain on the landscape.

Since Warren started working in the 11-million-acre Elko District in 1984, it has lost more than a fifth of its sage habitat to fire. Courtship grounds for the sage grouse, crucial winter range for mule deer and browse for pronghorn antelope have all been vaporized.

The Elko District has spent $40 million since 1999 reseeding and rehabilitating the charred lands, with limited success. "It's a system where it's easier to lose things than it is to get them back," Knick said.


Rooted in nostalgia

From frederic remington paintings to Gene Autry songs and John Wayne movies, the cultural imagery of the West is steeped in North American sagebrush -- Artemisia tridentata and relatives.

Cowboys bed down in it. Wagon trains roll past it. The sun sets on its rolling expanses.

In "The Call of the Wild," the early 20th century poet Robert Service asks:

Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sagebrush desolation,

The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?

Have you whistled bits of ragtime at the end of all creation,

And learned to know the desert's little ways?

Jon Griggs started working as a cowboy on the Maggie Creek Ranch west of Elko 17 years ago. For the last decade, he has been manager.

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