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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: Greenstripping the West’s Grasslands

ENPhotoCheatgrass.jpg
USDA Forest Service
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Today, the West’s amber waves of grass are more often than not a species land managers cringe to see. Cheatgrass, a Eurasian species that most likely arrived on ships a century ago, now runs across millions of acres of the Intermountain West and Colorado Plateau. 

It outcompetes natives—and is perfect fuel for wildfire. Cheatgrass dries to a crispy-fine tinder just as fire season arrives, forming a continuous fuel that’s feeding hotter and more frequent fires into surrounding trees and shrubs.

A self-fulfilling cheatgrass-fire cycle has resulted. To break that cycle, managers are experimenting with a method called greenstripping: long, narrow bands of native perennials planted between swaths of cheatgrass.  

This summer greenstrips are being tested on the west side of the Kaibab Plateau as part of the Kane and Two Mile Research and Stewardship Partnership. Ideally, species selected for planting are fire resilient, drought tolerant, and palatable to wildlife and domestic stock.

On the Kaibab, warm-season natives will be sown. Still, lots of questions remain: How wide should the strips be? How should the seeds be planted? Broadcast seeding will be done on the Kaibab, but drill seeding is an option in other locales. And it may take several years until enough moisture is present to firmly establish the new plants.

Greenstrips could buy time for firefighters, and keep fires smaller. In the longer term, these verdant bands may help restore degraded rangelands, and finally gain traction against the troublesome cheatgrass.  

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