ST. GEORGE — Open land incinerated by the Turkey Farm Road Fire and Cottonwood Trail Fire are among the restoration projects approved by the Utah Department of Natural Resources, which altogether total nearly 100,000 acres of land burned by 36 wildfires this year.
The restoration projects are part of Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative.
According to a press release issued by the DNR, the currently approved restoration list does not include Utah’s most recent fires or those still actively burning, so the number of fires and acres approved for treatment is expected to increase as the wildfire season concludes.
Besides the Turkey Farm Road and Cottonwood Trail fires, other restoration projects in Washington County include the 785 acres burned by Anderson Junction Fire and the 2,807 acres burned in the Veyo West Fire. Projects in Iron County include the Lund Fire and Big Summit Fire.
Tyler Thompson, program manager for the Watershed Restoration Initiative, said fire season doesn’t end once flames are extinguished, and wildfire restoration is a critical step to reduce future catastrophic wildfire, restore native vegetation and watershed functions and increase habitat and forage for wildlife and agriculture.
“There’s a lot of effort and collaboration with our partners that goes into restoring critical watersheds and wildlife habitat areas,” Thompson said. “Healthy watersheds are necessary for how we manage natural resources in Utah.”
Work begins immediately with cultural resource surveys, as well as seed purchasing and testing. Nearly 1.3 million pounds of seed will be used during the aerial and ground-based reseeding, which will begin in October and run through next year. In some instances an anchor chain and bullhog will also be used as part of the restoration projects.
Thompson told St. George News the quicker they can start these projects the better.
“If we don’t get something in there to compete with the inevitable flush cheatgrass then we’re now having to fight that invasive species along with trying to get an establishment of seed and species that we put in the ground,” he said. “We really have a short window of time before we start to see that nonnative species start to germinate and begin to compete.”
For Cottonwood Trail and the Turkey Farm Road restorations, Thompson said they will be using mostly native with some nonnative seeds. One of the issues they are having is that many of the native seeds they tried to purchase for these projects aren’t currently available on the market.
Past experience in this area has also contributed to their plan to plant nonnative species, he said, as the native species they planted in 2005 and 2006 were not successful.
“The biggest danger in that area to the tortoises and all the other wildlife there is the fact that if you don’t put a vegetative type in place there that can resist fire, it can be put into this negative feedback loop, where it becomes a monoculture of cheatgrass and then burns a couple years later, comes back to a monoculture, burns again,” he said.
Restoration projects like this tend to be controversial. In a past interview with St. George News, Kya Marienfeld, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said it remains unclear as to whether human intervention for these types of restoration projects actually proves beneficial, especially when it comes to cheatgrass and the effects of climate change.
“Cheatgrass comes in when it’s too warm, when there’s too many droughts for native species to reestablish,” Marienfeld said in May. “Without addressing that as one of the causes – they’re saying, ‘Oh, we’re just going to go and clear all this vegetation, or we’re going to cut down these trees.’ Drought is really just going to get worse and worse because of climate change.”
Marienfeld added that when it comes to considering past projects that were deemed successful by agencies such as the DNR or Bureau of Land Management, the “success” is usually the result of a natural factor, such as a really wet spring, as opposed to human interaction.
“Most of the time when they (restoration projects) fail, which is most of the time, it’s because the ecosystem acted like the ecosystem is going to. Where it was hot, it was dry. You get rid of all the surface crust and surface cover, and dust comes in and cheatgrass comes in.”
According to the press release, the total combined cost of the projects is over $16.5 million. Funding for the reseeding habitat restoration projects comes from many state, federal and private sources, including the Utah State Legislature, BLM and the U.S. Forest Service. Utah will be responsible for about one-third of the total cost.
Along with reseeding areas after wildfires, this initiative also works to decrease catastrophic fires in Utah by implementing preemptive habitat projects that will help reduce fuel buildup. In 2020, there are over 100 projects that will be implemented to reduce fire fuel buildup on over 250,000 acres statewide.
The Watershed Restoration Initiative is a partnership-based program designed to improve high-priority watersheds throughout Utah. The program is in its 15th year and is coordinated by the DNR.
Since its inception in 2005, WRI partners have completed over 2,250 projects and treated nearly 2 million acres of upland, stream and riparian areas statewide with an investment by all partners of about $275 million. Over 40% of WRI’s project work over the life of the program involves wildfire restoration.
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