OWYHEE — A small pink flag fluttered in the wind as students formed a semicircle around the charred remains of a massive sagebrush. The ground beneath their feet was scorched black, just like the base of the sagebrush.
Its branches reached skyward, gray and bare.
"Do you know why there is a black circle?" Martha Brabec asked the students Oct. 27.
Brabec held a shovel, a spade and a bag of soil with tiny, light-green sagebrush plants inside. Rehabilitating more than 2,500 acres burned during June’s Table Rock Fire was one of the first tasks for Brabec, the newly appointed foothills restoration specialist with Boise Parks and Recreation.
The plants in her bag were a first, too: the first native sagebrush from a Duck Valley Indian Reservation greenhouse used for wildfire rehabilitation.
The reservation on the Idaho-Nevada border illustrates the kind of collaboration between tribes and federally managed lands that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell called for in October. Boosted by a major federal agreement, a champion in the Bureau of Land Management and a new full-time staff, the greenhouse program at Duck Valley is finally getting off the ground.
That matters for Shoshone-Paiute tribal members, who see potential for an economic and educational boost on the reservation. And it matters for Idaho, where native sagebrush, willows and forbs from these greenhouses can rehabilitate burned lands and restore wildlife habitat.
Big demand to fill
In Idaho, as in many other Western states, wildfires peak in July and August. Some are sparked by lightning; others, like the fire at the popular Boise foothills landmark, are human-caused.
In 2015, U.S. wildfires set a record with more than 10 million acres burned, the National Interagency Fire Center reported. In southern Idaho, after the fires are extinguished, the demand is high for sagebrush plants to rehabilitate these areas in the Great Basin’s sagebrush steppes.
Fires used to be a 70- to 100-year event, said Susan Filkins, a Boise-based BLM natural resource specialist. Now they happen every five to seven years. One of the reasons is cheatgrass, an invasive species from Eurasia and a fine fuel that spreads fires like a wick.
Because of the demand, land managers usually contract with commercial nurseries and private contractors for sagebrush plants a year in advance. Until Duck Valley Indian Reservation's greenhouse operation — which sprouted a decade ago but didn't immediately flourish — Idaho had only one major sagebrush provider.
On Oct. 27, 40 student volunteers from Riverstone International School helped Brabec plant 1,000 sagebrush grown in Duck Valley Indian Reservation greenhouses. Nearly 5,000 sagebrush from Duck Valley and elsewhere would be planted at Table Rock, though only a portion were expected to survive. The tribal program also sent bitterbrush plants and blanket flowers, one of the five forb species the Duck Valley program grows.
When no one knew what the black circle around the charred sagebrush meant, Brabec explained: It's a fertile island, where the most soil nutrients are.
Brabec pulled a sagebrush seedling from the plastic bag, then gave instructions on planting one or two seedlings in each fertile island:
Pour half a bottle of water into the hole.
Don’t bend the root ball as you place it in the ground and cover it with soil. A healthy root ball doesn’t have exposed roots.
Don’t disturb the soil too much. We don’t want cheatgrass to get into the soil.
After planting, the rest of the water goes on the seedling.
"It will give the plants the best chances to grow and become a sagebrush one day," Brabec said. If the seedlings make it to the next year, they stand a good chance of survival. A sagebrush lifetime can be 150 years, Brabec told the students.
"The big ones you see on the side of the road are 50 years old," she said, and the group hummed with surprised reactions.
"Your children's children may see the plants you are planting today," Filkins said, stepping forward.
Late in the year, finding sagebrush seedlings is difficult because demand is high after the fire season. Luckily, Brabec was introduced to Filkins, a BLM liaison for the Duck Valley greenhouse project.
"I'm new in this position, and I didn't have any contacts in place," Brabec said. She's glad to add the Duck Valley reservation, two hours south of Boise, to her contacts list.
Drive along the isolated, two-lane Idaho 51 between Mountain Home and Owyhee and you'll pass an occasional vehicle and signs warning motorists of free-range grazing cattle. A brown-and-white sign welcomes visitors to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, but it’s another couple of miles before the outer limits of Owyhee — houses and tribal buildings — come into view.
Behind Owyhee Combined School, KW Pete shoveled weeds and rocks into a wheelbarrow and dumped them in a pile behind the greenhouses Nov. 2.
It was a quiet day of general upkeep at the greenhouses — not like the flurry of activity a week earlier, when the hydraulic popper machine was removing sagebrush seedlings from foam blocks for the Boise order as Owyhee eighth-graders placed seedlings into plastic bags.
In 2006, Pete helped build the greenhouses as a high school student at Owyhee Combined. Today — as part of the BLM’s Pathways Program, which offers the potential for a full-time job after graduation — he is the student manager of the greenhouse project while he works on a University of Idaho master's degree in environmental science.
After the 1,000 sagebrush seedlings for Table Rock were bagged, they were stored in a freezer overnight to keep them from going into shock. Pete transported the Boise order in boxes that had “Sho-Pai Greenhouses, To: City of Boise” written in the left corner.
“Oh, yeah, that was pretty cool,” he said. “That was a good contract for us.”
The $2,000 contract marked a milestone for the greenhouse program. It grew some plants until 2007, but when Filkins came on board in 2013, the three greenhouses were in disrepair and plant production had lulled.
“It was a little bit overwhelming,” Filkins said.
FFA students were using one of the greenhouses to grow vegetables, but the other two, with holes and broken doors, sat unused.
“It was kind of like, ‘Wow, what did I get myself into?’ kind of moment,” Filkins said. “But I just moved forward and cleaned them up.”
BLM colleagues traveled to Duck Valley from Boise to help Filkins clean and repair the greenhouses for several days. The greenhouses didn't have a full-time staff in 2013; during the first couple of years, Filkins, who lives in Boise, spent a lot more time in Duck Valley than she does now.
The greenhouse program has seen highs and lows over the past three years. The first crop of 50,000 sagebrush died in 2013; it took eight months to grow the sagebrush and one weekend to kill them.
“It was an incredible low,” Filkins said. “I literally spend so much time down there to encourage and tell people, ‘We can do this.’”
It was the Fourth of July weekend when the water and ventilation system shut down because of extreme heat. The plants fried by the time the problem was discovered. A year later, the watering and electrical systems were revamped.
"People think growing plants in greenhouses is easy," Filkins said. "But it's harder because there is so much more to monitor. I took a few days to regroup myself. It was so sad, but we can learn from it.”
August was a high point: The BLM awarded a $350,000, five-year cooperative agreement to the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Owyhee County for the development and collection of native plant materials at the Duck Valley Indian Reservation.
"The purpose is to help us by growing plants that are more acclimated to our part of the country when doing restoration projects," said Peter Ditton, BLM associate state director, who has helped oversee the Duck Valley greenhouse project for the past eight years. "Part of that agreement has been the delivery of plants that we use on our restoration projects for areas that have been burned. The more localized genetic material, the higher possibility of survival for the plants."
The BLM will buy the plants it needs from the greenhouses, and the tribe can sell remaining plants on the open market.
Eventually, the Duck Valley greenhouses will have an operation similar to Lucky Peak Nursery near Boise, Ditton said, but on a much smaller scale. Lucky Peak grows trees and shrubs and stores seed used to rehabilitate forests and sagebrush steppes. Established in 1959, it provides plant material for national forests in southern Idaho, Utah, Nevada, western Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico. Lucky Peak, Ditton said, is one of the BLM's primary sources for sagebrush seedlings.
Filkins and Pete brought a new stability to the Duck Valley greenhouse program.
"Our goal is to educate and provide opportunity for the youth there," Ditton said. "It's a transient population, not in a negative way; they come in and get interested, and then they graduate and move on, unless they go on and pursue it on their own and stay engaged. Having that permanency there, you have someone who can continue to teach them. It's not passed on from student to student."
Though the program wasn't growing at the time Filkins became involved, Ditton said, there wasn't a lapse in its existence. In 2007, the Murphy Complex Fire burned 600,000 acres from Castleford to Mountain City, Nev. A couple of years following the fire, Ditton said, the tribe provided willows for the land's rehabilitation.
"Prior to Susan's involvement, we relied heavily on the school district to get things rolling, and we would provide sporadic expertise," Ditton said. "We realized that we needed more permanency there. That's when I asked Susan if she would be willing to take that on and help out."
Last year, the BLM further solidified the project by adding Pete as greenhouse manager.
Pete, a member of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe, has a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics from U of I.
"He's very a nice young man," Ditton said. "Very capable, and, of course, as a tribal member his interest started with those original greenhouses. That's how he became interested in going to school. That's exactly what we hoped and intended to come out of this program. Our hiring of KW Pete as the greenhouse manager, I think that is a critical step. We definitely demonstrated through the participation of Susan that having someone there in a permanent capacity has really helped."
What's happening in Duck Valley is exactly what Interior Secretary Jewell called for this fall.
In October, at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Conference in Fairbanks, Jewell issued a secretarial order to encourage tribal roles in managing Interior lands with Native American connections. Interior land- and water-management agencies covered by the order include the National Park Service, BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Bureau of Reclamation.
“This secretarial order reflects the Obama Administration’s deep commitment to strengthen respect between the United States government and Native American and Alaska Native leaders and communities while boosting our efforts to increase tribal self-determination and self-governance,” Jewell said in her remarks. “This kind of collaboration with tribal nations will help ensure that we’re appropriately and genuinely integrating indigenous expertise, experience and perspectives into the management of public lands.”
An example outlined in the order is the facilitation of a partnership to manage plant resources, including collection of plant material — similar to the Duck Valley greenhouse project.
"The intent is to provide again those educational opportunities for the kids," Ditton said. "Part of the secretary's youth initiative also fits very well with our needs for more native plant materials. It's not just about growing in the greenhouses, it's also about learning how to collect that seed. We are looking for that closely sourced genetic material. Simply put, having sagebrush seedlings from a bush grown in southern Idaho is a better option than seed from a sagebrush plant in Nevada (being) put in Idaho. There's those genetic differences."
Engaging the youth
The horizon was dark when Filkins and freshman Clayton “Frog” Cota, accompanied by a teacher, arrived at the road leading to Clayton’s house Oct. 4.
Filkins helped Clayton, 14, plant six sagebrush plants near his home on the Duck Valley reservation. Clayton is working on a two-year science project comparing the growth of plants grown in commercial soil with those started in natural soil.
The plants in commercial soil sprouted first, but the ones in natural soil grew stronger. Now the real test was whether they would survive in the elements.
Filkins showed Clayton how to measure his sagebrush, take photos and write notes in his field journal as the cold wind picked up.
"You’ll be amazed what happens when you give a student some seed, soil and a pot," Filkins said. "They will check on it all the time."
The greenhouses also serve as a tool for students' science fair projects and teach them how to grow native foods such as the camas root; one of Filkins' priorities is teaching students about native plants. The greenhouses also provide food to community members as students grow vegetables for tribal elders.
"It's healthier," Filkins said. "They are more likely to eat vegetables they grow."
But here, growing them is no easy matter.
The weather at Duck Valley is unpredictable. The electricity goes out once a month, and the wind is fierce. The growing season is short. It's common to get frost in May, and a 45-minute hailstorm isn't unusual.
"I've done field work in Owyhee, but the wind is so severe here," Filkins said. "The conditions are so extreme. It's a hardy place to live."
Propane is a backup for the greenhouses when electricity goes out. Many people who grow gardens at Duck Valley use hoop houses to protect their crops from the damaging winds, snow and hailstorms.
Just as Clayton finished planting his final sagebrush, the wind started blowing and tiny ice pellets fell, pelting the ground.
How does a program grow?
On Nov. 2, Filkins met with Pete and Rebecca Hoover, assistant greenhouse manager, inside a shop building next to the greenhouses to discuss two new contracts.
They are working with Boise BLM to propagate Great Basin wild rye, biscuitroot and scabland penstemon — a total of 200 plants — for spring planting on federal rangelands in the BLM's Boise district. The $40,000 contract will pay for supplies and labor; BLM provides the seed.
“All three of these species are fairly easy to grow,” Filkins said.
Pete was excited about the new contracts coming in.
“We’ll work with them to get plants they can’t get,” Pete said. “Since we’re small, it’s easy for us to do.”
The second contract, for $3,000, was to grow 300 willows of two species for Columbia spotted frog habitat restoration projects in the BLM's Bruneau Resource Area. The frogs need the willows for coverage to make their nests, and the willows will help redirect water to the area so it becomes marshy.
“I’m helping them diversify to further their security as greenhouses,” Filkins said.
Filkins said the program is on the right track for success with these new contracts.
“We have to have a couple years of successfully contracting and selling plant materials,” she said. “That way the greenhouse program can show they are making money and be able to expand into other greenhouses.”
She predicted an expansion is three to five years away.
“The fact that we have viable plant material that we can sell is a huge success and that we have a full staff,” she said.
Filkins, Pete and Hoover continually network and try to create an interest for plant materials grown at Duck Valley.
“Word has to get out that down in Duck Valley ... this is producing good plant material. It is a business that can compete," Filkins said. "Just having Martha (Brabec) take that little bit of a chance with us was huge. The importance of it is not lost.”
A couple of weeks after the Oct. 27 planting, Filkins returned to Table Rock to check on the newly planted sagebrush. They were taking to their new home — and growing.