Photograph of bales of hay arranged so that they form dams to help prevent erosion in a channel at the base of hill.
Straw bale structures helped to protect a burned drainage area from flooding and 
erosion after a wildfire near Winnemucca, Nevada.  (BLM)

Great Basin Restoration Initiative

By Mike Pellant

The Great Basin Restoration Initiative (GBRI) began in 1999 as a result of a catastrophic wildfire season that burned 1.7 million acres of rangelands, mostly in Nevada.  BLM’s Nevada State Director Bob Abbey worked with the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) to address the cycle of invasive annual grasses and wildfires in the Great Basin.  A team of BLM and state resource and fire specialists set out to identify the resource, social, and economic issues caused by invasive species and wildfires in the Great Basin and lay out a strategy to address these issues.  This strategy became known as the GBRI, and it was outlined in two publications, “Out of Ashes, An Opportunity” and “The Great Basin:  Healing the Land.”  I was selected as the GBRI coordinator in 2003 and, understanding the great challenges facing the public lands of the Great Basin, I felt a strong responsibility to move the initiative forward.

The GBRI strategy envisioned a basinwide restoration program grounded in science, monitoring and evaluation, technology transfer, and local involvement.  The goal was a strategic, proactive program emphasizing the restoration and maintenance of rangeland health.  The funding mechanism for GBRI was eventually incorporated into the national fire plan, “Managing the Impacts of Wildfire on Communities and the Environment:  A Report to the President In Response to the Wildfires of 2000,” which called for restoring, rehabilitating, or maintaining fire-adapted ecosystems using appropriate tools to provide sustainable environmental, social, and economic benefits.  The GBRI has provided a framework to incorporate good science into land treatments, develop native plant seed sources, and share information across the Great Basin. 

In 2001, the GBRI staff led development and implementation of the Great Basin Native Plant Selection and Increase Project, part of BLM’s native plant program.  This regional project involves 27 cooperators working on increasing the availability of native plant seeds and developing strategies and equipment to increase managers’ success in restoration projects.  A strong partnership with the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station has supported the direction and accomplishments of this applied research project.  The GBRI staff also led the Joint Fire Science Program’s SageSTEP Project to test treatments to address cheatgrass and pinyon and/or juniper encroachment in sagebrush steppe ecosystems.  I was involved in the design and implementation of this regional science program, helping to establish 17 research sites across the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau and serving as a liaison between BLM managers and project scientists.

The GBRI staff has also been involved in developing strategies and protocols for regional assessments and planning.  In 2006, the BLM selected a site proposed under the GBRI, the Owyhee Uplands (in the corner of Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon), as one of two pilot regional projects supported by the national assessment, inventory, and monitoring program.  This project provided a wealth of information on assessing and monitoring landscape-level resources, which has been integrated into the BLM’s healthy lands and sage-grouse conservation programs.

Climate change and its effects on the resources and people in the Great Basin represent new challenges.  Science tells us that temperatures will rise, precipitation will become more variable, and an increase in greenhouse gases will favor nonnative vegetation, such as cheatgrass, over native vegetation.  It also tells us that wildfires will increase in size and intensity, which appears to be happening now. 

In fact, wildfires have continued to grow.  I remember that the “big” wildfires back in the Boise District in the early 1980s were 100,000 acres.  We are now entering the era of the “megafire” as evidenced by the 2007 Murphy Complex Fire, which burned 653,000 acres of rangeland in south-central Idaho, extending into the Jarbidge Mountains of Nevada. 

Over the past decade, the GBRI has had a positive influence on science-based restoration in the Great Basin, but huge challenges remain.  I used to think that success would be measured by smaller and fewer wildfires and greatly reduced cheatgrass in the Great Basin.  I now realize that success is maintaining intact native plant communities and strategically restoring the highest priority areas.

Aldo Leopold wrote in 1949, “I  listened carefully for clues whether the West has accepted cheat as a necessary evil, to be lived with until kingdom come, or whether it regards cheat as a challenge to rectify its past errors in land-use.  I found the hopeless attitude almost universal.”  GBRI has provided hope that with good science and dedicated land managers, the situation is not hopeless, even though the challenges are great.

Mike Pellant is the coordinator for the Great Basin Restoration Initiative and the DOI representative to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.  He started his BLM career in 1976 as a range conservationist and inventory team leader in Moab, Utah.