In August of 1999, in the space of only about a week, almost 1.7 million acres of land in the Great Basin burned. A series of lightning storms, most of them with little or no moisture, ignited hundreds of rangeland and forest fires.
Putting out the fires was one challenge. The other, and more formidable problem, was preventing much of the burned land from being overwhelmed by annual grasses and noxious weeds. The long-term ecological diversity and stability of the Great Basin’s ecosystems faced a threat far more serious than flame alone.
Annual grasses, primarily an aggressive invader from Eurasia called cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), already dominate about 25 million acres of the Great Basin, roughly one-third of the land in the area. Cheatgrass lives to reproduce and is especially adept at taking over disturbed areas, such as recently burned land. A single stalk of the light, feathery cheatgrass can produce 1,000 seeds, and a single acre may contain hundreds of thousands of the plants. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates that non-native plants invade 4,000 acres a day. Cheatgrass is a volatile fuel that carries fire quickly, and is the primary reason behind the Great Basin’s downward ecological spiral: The more cheatgrass and other annual weeds, the more fire. And the more fire, the more cheatgrass and other annual weeds.
Before the fires in the Great Basin were controlled, a team of specialists met in Boise, Idaho, to review the consequences of the big blazes of 1999. The team concluded:
The Great Basin’s ecological resiliency is fading as annual grasses and noxious weeds increase their dominance.
Traditional means of fighting invasive species and restoring native habitat are not enough to reverse the downward trend.
A true effort to restore, and not merely rehabilitate, the burned areas was needed to resolve the serious ecological problems in the Great Basin.
Such a restoration would be expensive, but the cost of doing nothing ultimately would be many times higher as non-native, invasive species dominate more land.
Restoration will not transform the Great Basin to its composition of 150 years ago. Rather, it would seek to restore some areas of high values, reduce the effects of annual grasses and noxious weeds in others, and reverse the destructive cycle of wildland fires and weeds.
The meeting in Boise was the beginning of the Great Basin Restoration Initiative, or GBRI. The GBRI team is seeking to provide technical assistance and guidance, obtain funding, and keep the issue of the failing Great Basin ecosystems in the public’s vision.
Much is at stake in the Great Basin. Without a concerted, coordinated effort that relies heavily on local partnerships, the Great Basin could reach a point of no return, where the slide toward ecological disaster cannot be reversed.
The wild fires of 1999 that roared across more than a million acres may have served one beneficial purpose. They may have sent the unmistakable message that now is the last, best chance of saving the Great Basin.