BLM releases details of plan to restore Great Basin

RENO - Nursing the Great Basin back to ecological health will be a monumental task requiring ongoing commitment from the public, land users and governments as well as long-term funding, range specialists say.

But to do nothing leaves a large chunk of the West prone to devastating wildfires and perpetuates a vicious cycle in which invading weeds and grasses overtake native vegetation, providing volatile tinder for yet more wildfires.

''The bottom line is the Great Basin is in crisis,'' said Duane Wilson, a range specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM released a report this month titled ''The Great Basin: Healing the Land.'' Prepared by a team of experts, the document is a blueprint for the Great Basin Restoration Initiative, an ambitious concept conceived after wildfires raged across the West last summer.

In Nevada alone, the mostly lightning-sparked fires destroyed more than 1.6 million acres.

The latest report supplements one issued in November that outlined problems challenging the basin's ecosystems.

Among the biggest problems are the invasion of exotic annual grasses, such as cheatgrass, and noxious weeds and perennials, experts say.

The Great Basin stretches for about 900 miles at its longest point and is 570 miles wide, covering 75 million acres in Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Oregon and a sliver of northeastern California.

Scientists say cheatgrass, which grows quickly and is highly flammable, already has claimed about a third of the basin.

''Without quick, decisive action, much of the native grasslands and shrublands burned will be invaded by annual grasses and noxious weeds,'' the report said.

''The ecological diversity and ability of the land itself to sustain natural resources will be in serious jeopardy. Further, annual grasses ... mean more fires, more invasions and an acceleration of the entire downward ecological spiral.''

The initiative goes beyond restoration of burned areas and emphasizes the need to look at the basin's overall ecological health and other factors that have contributed to its decline over the past 150 years, such as grazing, agriculture and other human encroachment.

But the fix will be neither swift, inexpensive, nor all encompassing.

''Restoration will not rid the Great Basin of cheatgrass and other annual grasses and noxious weeds. It is already too late for that,'' the report said.

The goal, however, is to maintain or re-establish healthy plant communities while sustaining wildlife habitat and multiple land uses, such as recreation and grazing.

For the 2001 fiscal year, the BLM is asking for $2.5 million for the project. The agency hopes to secure $10 million for each of the next 10 years after that, Wilson said.

''It's not going to be cheap,'' Wilson said. ''If funding is piecemeal, the plan would be doomed to failure.''

Members of the BLM's Sierra Front-Northwestern Great Basin Resource Advisory Council were briefed on the plan during a meeting in Carson City.

Most agreed the basin is at a crossroad, but many said the agency needs to do more than study the issue if it hopes to convince the public - and Congress, which holds the purse strings - of the initiative's importance.

''I've seen a lot of sizzle but I haven't seen any steak,'' Doug Busselman, executive vice president of the Nevada Farm Bureau, said after the BLM presentation.

He said ''chasing dollars'' for studies and collecting data to find out what scientists don't know wouldn't cut it.

He and others suggested pilot projects that people can identify with.

''If you're going to get public support, you need to find a patch of ground,'' Busselman said.

John Singlaub, manager of the BLM's Carson City field office, noted the agency is undertaking $40 million in fire rehabilitation efforts.

''That's more than sizzle,'' he told the group.

Regarding the long-term initiative, Singlaub said: ''The first step is to say we have a huge problem here. If we don't take a step now, we've lost the basin.''

The BLM plans to hold public hearings on the initiative this summer.


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