Conserving and Restoring Native Plant Communities
The BLM conserves, maintains, and restores native plant communities through its land use planning and land management activities. Additionally, there are two administrative management designations which can be used to protect plants: Research Natural Areas (RNAs) and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs).
The BLM designates and manages RNAs to preserve examples of significant ecosystems and provide opportunities for education, research, and collection of baseline data in relatively unaltered natural communities. The BLM presently manages 148 RNAs, most of which protect native plant communities.
The BLM also designates and manages Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs). The ACEC designation highlights areas where special management attention is needed to preserve significant natural, biological, or cultural resources. Today, the BLM manages roughly 900 ACECs, many of which were created specifically to conserve biologically diverse or significant native plant communities.
Under its multiple use mandate, the BLM manages specific attributes of many native plant communities through its Weed Management, Healthy Landscapes, Forest, Range, Riparian, Wildlife, Threatened and Endangered Species, Soil, Water and Air Management Programs.
The BLM restores native plant communities through its Emergency Stabilization and Burned Area Rehabilitation Programs and Range Management and Improvement Programs. The bureau also supports individual restoration projects through its Wildlife and Threatened and Endangered Species Management Programs.
The Red Hills ACEC in California was established in part to protect unique vegetation communities adapted to the serpentine soils of the area. The assemblage of plant species found there, including seven rare plants, occurs nowhere else in the world. Native perennials constitute a large percentage of the vegetation in the Red Hills. This is in contrast to similar elevations in the foothills of California, without serpentine substrates, where native perennials have been mostly replaced by exotic annuals. In the early spring the seemingly barren hills turn yellow, white, lavender and pink, with spectacular native wildflower displays.
The Hot Lake RNA is located on BLM lands in northcentral Washington near the U.S. - Canadian border. The saline lake and surrounding vegetation were designated an RNA because the normal cycle of lake water turnover has been disrupted. The special qualities of the lake support unique aquatic and uncommon saline/alkaline plant species, including red glasswort (Salicornia rubra) and saltgrass (Distichlis spicata).
Case Study: BLM, Partners Grow Native Seed, Restore Vast Sagebrush Landscape
On the vast Columbia Plateau of Washington State, the BLM and its partners are working to restore one of the largest contiguous areas of shrub-steppe habitat and one of only two remaining sage-grouse habitats in the State. The project area covers 200,000 acres of the Moses Coulee in north central Washington.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has identified this area as a priority for protection because much of the sagebrush steppe in the rest of the State has been converted to farms or other development. In this area, large tracts of public lands, including those managed by BLM and Washington State, are separated by small parcels of private land, including farms, ranches, and two TNC preserves.
The goal of TNC, BLM and partners is to restore a large functional shrub-steppe landscape to support a rich variety of threatened wildlife and plants. The project has three major components: plant community mapping, developing native plant materials, and restoring the sage-brush steppe. The mapping component provides a snapshot of the condition of the shrub steppe and riparian habitats, helping to identify the most critical sage-grouse habitat areas for restoration and protection.
Developing native plant materials requires native seed, but information on native seed and native seed development is limited or lacking for the grasses and forbs considered important for sage-grouse habitat or native plant community restoration. Since 2001, the BLM’s Oregon-Washington Ecoregion Restoration Initiative has been working on developing suitable native plant materials for public lands in and around this project area.
There are now successful seed grow-out contracts with private industry and research is being conducted on seed transfer zones and best management practices. For example, seed from five native grass species has been wild collected for grow-out, harvest and reintroduction into selected restoration sites (Idaho Fescue, Bluebunch Wheatgrass, Sandberg’s Bluegrass, Cusick’s Bluegrass and Great Basin Wildrye). Through contracts with two growers, 18 acres of grass seed is under production for over 10,000 pounds.
In addition, 22 species of wildflowers representing local native plant communities have been collected. Through ongoing contracts, local nurseries and farm operations are producing plugs and seed.
This is part of the larger Oregon-Washington Ecoregion Restoration Initiative which, since 2001, has been working on native plant materials development for 15 million acres of public lands.