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The Bureau of Land Management is about to embark on one of its most ambitious – and sensible – projects this year.

The federal agency is collecting comments on a plan to create fuel breaks and restore rangeland in the Great Basin. And it’s about time.

The Great Basin Ecosystem Strategy is intended to “reduce the threat of wildfire and support rangeland productivity.” It is being spearheaded out of Idaho but more Nevada acreage is involved than any other state. Everything north of the former Nevada Test Site is involved, along with about two-thirds of Idaho, Utah and Oregon; nearly half of Washington; and northeastern California.

The reason for this massive scale is the explosive growth of wildfires.

“Wildfires have begun to exceed 100,000 acres on a regular basis, and areas are re-burning more often, states the BLM. “ Large and frequent fires often result in conversion of sagebrush to annual grasses like cheatgrass, and native habitats cannot recover naturally.”

Elko lies roughly in the center of the Great Basin as well as the project’s scope. The 2017 wildfire season here was a wake-up call illustrating the need for fire fuel breaks around inhabited areas, as multiple fires threatened both Elko and Spring Creek. Thankfully, fast-working fire crews were able to minimize any damage.

This year we may not be as lucky – unless serious efforts are made to protect communities in advance.

The second part of the project is important to both ranchers and recreation.

“The fuel break PEIS (programmatic environmental impact statement) will help us to limit the size of wildfires and provide better protection for the public and firefighters,” said BLM Nevada State Director John Ruhs. “The restoration PEIS will speed the recovery of burned areas, helping the vegetation to recover faster and minimize the disruption of local economies.”

Elko is among the 14 places were public meetings are scheduled this winter on the dual-action plan. Anyone wanting to support them should attend the session from 5-7 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Red Lion Hotel ballroom.

The programs are being called “programmatic” because they will be adopted across the board, reducing the need for individual environmental studies.

That sweeping scope is essential if action is to be taken quickly, but it also may draw opposition from environmental groups. The BLM has already identified seven objections that could become issues during the study:

1. Fuel break construction and associated road improvement for firefighter access could increase human activity in remote areas and introduce noxious and invasive weeds and increase the incidence of human-caused wildfires.

2. Fuel break construction could remove or alter sagebrush habitat, rendering it unusable for some species.

3. Fuel break construction on either side of existing roads may create movement barriers to small-sized wildlife species by reducing hiding cover.

4. Fuel break construction in highly resistant and resilient habitats may not be necessary because those sites are less likely to burn or will respond favorably to natural regeneration.

5. After habitat restoration treatments, historic uses such as livestock grazing and recreation activities may be temporarily halted until the treatment becomes established and objectives are met.

6. Fuel reduction treatments in pinyon/juniper could disrupt traditional tribal use of these sites.

7. The use of non-native species in fuel breaks could affect listed species and affect species composition in adjacent native plant communities.

The use of non-native species may be an unfortunate but unavoidable choice. A half-million dollar USDA program underway at the University of Nevada, Reno is using genetic studies to determine the most compatible native seed and seed combinations.

“Seeds from outside the Great Basin have been used in the past with little success, and our approach is exploring the use of native seeds growing in local conditions, soil, climate and with other vegetation,” said Beth Leger, associate professor of plant ecology in the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources.

Millions of native seeds from seven species of plants have been collected since the project started last summer.

We have no idea how much the Great Basin Ecosystem Strategy will cost to implement. What we do know is that it must be done soon or it may be too late to save this rapidly changing landscape.

If it is successful, the massive, 70-million acre Great Basin will be less natural but safer and more useful for humans.

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