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Unique Utah program works to restore land blackened by wildfire

Published August 24, 2013 1:01 am

Re-seeding • The Watershed Restoration Initiative helps agencies plan for reseeding after fires.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Where most people standing in the charred landscape of Utah's recent wildfires see black, a select group sees green — as in what the land will look like after restoration.

Wildfires such as this summer's Rockport 5, Millville and Patch Springs fires have become increasingly common in the past decade, leaving Western states scampering for resources to revegetate land left barren.

In Utah, a unique program that involves state and federal agencies allows discussions about restoration to begin even as wildfires still smolder.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) created the Watershed Restoration Initiative in 2005 to help agencies plan for massive fires and work together to reseed quickly after fires.

And that is key.

"If you want a successful re-seeding, you have to get it on the ground right before the snow flies," said Tyler Thompson, habitat conservation coordinator for the DWR. "

Restoration officials not only race against the snow, they also race against cheat grass, a nasty invasive plant species that takes over burned lands and propagates a vicious cycle of wildfire-conducive landscape.

Native and fire-resistant species planted in restoration areas help firefighters stop fire. An example is the Black Mountain Fire north of Cedar City in July. The fire was large and growing quickly until it hit an area revegetated after another fire ravaged the area.

"If that area previously burned had come back as cheat grass, it would have added highly flammable fuels," said Paul Briggs, fuels program manager for the Bureau of Land Management's Color Country District."Having that vegetation change was critical in helping bring the new fire under control. "

Reseeding also helps control erosion and restore wildlife habitat.

Funding from the federal Emergency Stabilization Plan provides a basic seed mix to stabilize the soil, Thompson said. "We supplement those seeds with a mix of forbes and shrubs that are palatable for wildlife."

Once a seed recipe for each restoration site is determined, the mix is made at a seed warehouse Ephraim and delivered to the agencies in charge of getting it on the ground.

In most cases, such as the large Wood Hollow Fire burn near Ephraim last year, specially designed planes are used to seed the landscape.

"We are just barely starting to see the long-term benefits of this type of treatment," Briggs said.

It usually takes five years to see a response from big game populations and two or three years for vegetation to respond.

"We are just crossing that threshold in many cases and it is exciting to see the results," he said.

brettp@slttrib.com

Twitter: @BrettPrettyman