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Sage SootHills: Post-Fire Restoration

Editor’s note:

Most of this information is from Neal Hedges, Chelan-Douglas Land Trust Stewardship Director, or Ted Alway, owner of Derby Canyon Natives. Due to lack of recording equipment (we blew our budget on our giveaway contest), these answers are not direct quotes but paraphrases of what Neal and Ted told us.

Article by Shelly Forster

What effect did the Wenatchee Complex Fire have on CDLT holdings in the Sage Hills (including properties around the Horse Lake Reserve)?

In total 1,126 acres burned. The fire that swept through at low intensity, resulting in surface burns that wiped-out some vegetation but should allow quick recovery. In addition, the fire burned significant lengths of CDLT-maintained fences and a number of signs.


What are the biggest post-fire concerns in the Sage Foothills?

Soil-erosion risks increase with ground-cover loss, especially where the fire was intense enough to kill roots. Noxious weeds are a concern in areas that lost a lot of plant cover. Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens) and whitetop (Cardaria draba) are already re-sprouting this fall.

The destroyed fences need to be removed and/or reconstructed. Trespassing may increase in some areas where fences and signs were lost. Vehicles, bikes, and walkers in these areas may damage fragile recovering zones.

What restoration has been done in the Sage Foothills, and what remains to be done?

Fortunately, the Forest Service performed 90 percent of the raw rehabilitation work. Their crews refilled most of their fire lines and constructed new water bars to minimize erosion. They left 3.5 miles of fire lines to be rehabilitated, half of which volunteers completed and re-seeded on Make a Difference Day (10/27). Volunteers also removed a portion of the destroyed fences. On a separate occasion, Alcoa volunteers constructed and donated three new covers for damaged wells.

Future restoration will include removing burned fences, and installing new fences and signs to minimize trespassing. An ongoing project for site stewards and trail users will be to remove burned debris that blows into trails and fences. Finally, some areas will have to be reseeded to ensure that healthy native plant communities return.

Why do we care which plants return after fire?

Noxious weeds are very good at growing in disturbed areas. As they creep in, they shoulder out natives and eliminate plant community diversity.  It’s important to maintain diversity because different plants serve different ecosystem roles. For instance, mule deer need specific plant species like bitterbrush for winter browse. Planting native seeds now will provide strong competition against weed invasion.

It is especially important to block cheatgrass after a fire because it grows in a spreading mat, rather than isolated clumps like native bunch grasses. When it ignites, cheatgrass spreads fire farther and faster than native bunchgrasses. Cheatgrass invasion has increased the frequency of large burns in the shrub steppe, which may destroy steppe species adapted to infrequent fires.

What are some technical considerations for shrub steppe restoration?

It’s important to replant soon after a disturbance so invasive weeds face competitors from the get-go. In post-fire restoration, grasses are the first priority, followed by shrubs, then flowering plants. In areas that have burned intensely enough to kill all vegetation, grasses should be sown quickly, but it is important to recognize that native plants are adapted to specific growing seasons. In the local shrub steppe, autumn is the best time to sow grass seeds because some seeds won’t grow without overwintering in the soil. Furthermore, many of our native grasses are cool-season, so they will begin to grow in late winter before we could even plant fresh seeds in the frozen ground. Planting in the fall gives seeds the longest possible window to capitalize on the short, spring growing season.

When planting native grass seeds, it’s best to maximize contact between seeds and soil by scarifying the soil before seeding, raking the seeds under, or walking across the seeded bed. Seeds should be planted approximately 1/4” below the surface, and will grow poorly if they are broadcast and do not then imbed in the soil. No winter care is necessary for grass seeds, but mulching may enhance growth by keeping seeds moist. Seeds planted on a level surface don't need to be covered for the winter, but those planted on erosion-prone slopes can be protected with a layer of straw or jute matting.

Fall is also the best time to plant flowering plant seeds and native shrubs, such as bitterbrush and sagebrush. In riparian draws, thirstier shrubs like red osier dogwood can be planted. For the Wenatchee Complex Fire restoration, the CDLT is planning only to sow grass seeds in bulldozer lines.

 How does the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust choose which seeds to plant during restoration?

The CDLT tries to use seed mixes that imitate the historical pre-invasive plant community found at a particular site. For instance, although cereal wild rye now grows in the Foothills, CDLT won’t reseed with it in burned areas because it is an exotic weed. 

Seed mix choice depends on the landscape. North-facing slopes are cooler and moister than south-facing slopes and will be seeded with species like Idaho fescue that wouldn’t be planted on sunnier slopes. Similarly, higher elevation slopes are planted with mixes for cooler, moister soil than lower slopes. Soil texture also determines seed choice.

Where do the seeds come from?

The CDLT purchases seed mixes from BFI Native Seeds (aka Benson Farms or BFI) in Moses Lake. BFI collects wild grass seeds from areas close to their intended use. For instance, the seeds donated for the Foothills restoration didn’t originate hundreds of miles away; they were likely collected from a location like Badger Mountain or the Colockum Wildlife Area.

Locally, Ted Alway of Derby Canyon Natives (in Peshastin) sells native seeds and plants. Ted collects seeds for shrubs and flowering plants from a combination of private and federal land (using a collection permit). Derby Canyon will sell green plants until mid-November this year and will sell seeds through the winter. The nursery is open to the public on Saturdays and during the week by appointment.

What are some resources for individuals interested in post-fire or native-plant restoration on private land?