A Brigham Young University professor and his students are part of a $13 million federal research program designed to study ways to manage vegetation in the Great Basin using controlled burns and other interventions to reduce catastrophic wildfires.
Bruce Roundy, a professor in the wildlife and wildland conservation program in the Department of Integrative Biology, will supervise BYU's $1.4 million portion of the grant, awarded by the government's Joint Fire Sciences Program. Roundy, with the assistance of 3 to 4 graduate students and 8 to 10 undergraduate students, will help coordinate a thousand-acre controlled burn in Utah next fall and study vegetation and hydrologic responses to the fire.
"Over the past century, our fire-fighting efforts have resulted in overgrown wildlands with large amounts of fuel," Roundy said. "So now we are at risk for large, catastrophic fires, and at risk for weed invasion afterwards. We need to study ways to avoid this predicament in the future."
The Joint Fire Sciences program, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, National Parks Service and other federal agencies, is designed to provide land managers with practical knowledge about how to use disturbances like controlled burns and tree-cutting to improve and restore the health of wildlands such as those in the Great Basin.
In many cases, Roundy says, native plants like sagebrush are being crowded out by foreign invaders. Cheatgrass is an aggressive weed that hogs water and causes frequent wildfires, which destroy sagebrush and other native plants. Additionally, native trees like juniper and pinion have begun pushing down to the valley floors because of lack of fire . These trees use water and nutrient resources and reduce native shrubs, grasses, and flowers that used to grow in the sagebrush ecosystem. The grant will test how to properly manage sagebrush lands by the use of prescribed fire and mechanical treatments.
The results of the project will guide vegetation management in a multi-state area that includes Oregon, Idaho and Nevada, in addition to Utah. Other members of the multi-disciplinary team will explore fire's effects on hydrology, birds, insects and even economics, human perceptions and sociological aspects.
"The irony is, because we haven't allowed natural fires, we get even bigger fires, then, after weeds invade, our fires are too frequent," said Roundy. "This project will show us ways to get the ecosystem back into a healthy balance."