Slow burn

I'm giving a ridiculous thumb up because my heart swells at the sight of deciduous trees.

I'm giving a ridiculous thumb up because my heart swells at the sight of deciduous trees.

The Cedar City Field Office handles 2.2 million acres of land.  Although much of that is desert, we have a few areas with real, proper trees — none of this juniper nonsense.  The problem is that these trees are often ailing on account of changes in burn patterns, usually less frequent burns than the region historically saw.  Unsurprisingly, human beings are largely responsible for the changes through fire suppression. You can hardly blame their logic though; fear of being burned to death isn’t entirely unreasonable.

The resulting shifts in vegetation are noticeable, however.  Our stands, groves, and the occasional forest tend to be too dense for their own good and the ground is choked with decades of debris just waiting to burn all too eagerly.  Not only that, but the lack of fire has permitted the spread of the dreaded Juniperus osteosperma into lands where we don’t think it belongs. Our office has a fuels management team which is responsible for try to clear up this whole mess and for which we sometimes survey.

The favored method of control isn’t to go and carefully remove by hand all the downed trees and flammable debris from the ground. Budget and manpower issues aside, no one really wants to do that. Instead the BLM tends to burn things which, to be honest, sounds like way more fun anyway. A controlled burn, unlike a presentation in a 100-level college class, is not something that you can just wing; our office recently executed a burn that had been 10 years in the making.

Up in the mountains where we inventoried sage-grouse breeding habitat, there are a few aspen stands. They’re struggling thanks to over-grazing by cows and wildlife and are being choked by an explosion of juniper. The aspen are growing in the middle of sagebrush which is itself threatened by the same juniper. Our office’s proposed solution is to burn around the groves and clear out the non-aspen by hand within the groves. We hope that the sagebrush will rebound quickly and that exclosures around the aspen should keep the saplings from falling prey to the ravages of elk and cows. The one catch is that we’ve seen plenty of sage-grouse in the aspen and surrounding sage which means that the burn will need to be very carefully controlled and timed to avoid driving off or outright killing them.

Michelle slipped on the loose groundcover while doggedly searching for a raptor nest.

Michelle slipped on the loose groundcover while doggedly searching for a raptor nest.

We’ve also been searching for Accipter gentilis, the northern goshawk in areas with struggling ponderosa which could benefit from a proper fire. Raptors are protected under federal law and so we get to make sure that any potential burns don’t interfere with nesting and breeding. When pressed to explain our methodology, I usually resort to Gwen Stefani: we’re wandering around with a boom box looking for ‘holla back girls’. In a show of inter-agency cooperation, the Forest Service has lent us a ‘kek box’ which can blast several different goshawk calls (including their characteristic ‘keks’) that the birds will normally respond to. Our job has been to hike slopes so steep and treacherous that we fear for our extremities — a fellow seasonal broke her ankle trying to fight through unreasonably thick curl-leaf mountain mahogany — while playing back the calls and listening/looking for responses. We’ve only found one pair and they had a seriously ramshackle nest on a tiny scrap of private land which means that burns will likely be approved.

With any luck, we’ll be able to sort some of these problems out. Humans broke the system and now we’re responsible for keeping it running and eventually repairing it. I’m still hopeful.

Nelson Stauffer, BLM Cedar City Field Office, Utah

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