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Rising from the ashes: How the South Hills will recover from the Badger Fire

From the The Badger Fire changes the South Hills series

SOUTH HILLS — The excavators rolled over the black hills like a herd of mechanical brontosauruses.

The giant yellow machines weren’t in the South Hills to dig. Instead of buckets, their hydraulic arms carried what looked like huge, toothed rolling pins. When one of the six excavators came across a juniper snag, it lowered its metal rolling pin — called a masticator — chewing up the dead tree and spitting out a flurry of splinters.

When they’re done, these lumbering behemoths will have turned 1,000 acres of black snags into a carpet of wood chips. Those wood chips will cover the soil, minimizing erosion. By tearing up the ground with their treads, the excavators are also working freshly applied seed into the earth, given it a better chance to grow.

The U.S. Forest Service created this mulch field to jump-start post-fire growth. The mastication project is just one of several ongoing efforts to help the South Hills recover from the Badger Fire.

Restoration continues after South Hills Badger Fire

A tree masticator mulches a juniper tree Nov. 10 in the South Hills near Oakley. Up to six machines will be chewing up and grinding down about 1,000 acres of burned up juniper trees in the Trapper Creek area.

Certain areas, mainly at lower elevation, may never fully recover. In those places, land management agencies are battling invasive species and spreading seed on the ground. They’re trying to establish native grasses and shrubs that might not return quickly, or at all, without human help.

Up in the timber, the South Hills won’t need as much intervention. The forest ecosystem evolved with fire and needs fire to stay healthy. The higher elevation vegetation has changed, but it has always been changing — growing old, then burning and starting over, again and again, fire after fire.

The Badger Fire leaves behind a mixed legacy of positive and negative environmental impacts. Fresh growth, both good and bad, has already begun. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management hope the work they do today improves the South Hills’ ecological health in the future.

“It’s not going to be all done in a year,” U.S. Forest Service District Wildlife Biologist Scott Soletti said. “It’s definitely a marathon and not a sprint. But I guess the marathon has begun.”

First steps

Rehab work began before the Badger Fire stopped smoldering in the timber. Land management agencies deal with the most time-sensitive issues first, and in the case of the Badger Fire, erosion prevention was at, or near the top, of the priority list.

Healthy vegetation is critical for erosion prevention. That’s because plants hold onto soil with their roots. When roots die, it becomes easier for water and wind to wash away topsoil. Plants also suck up water, and if a fire kills that natural sponge, there’s a greater chance of runoff.

The Forest Service has been working on the South Hills’ extensive road system, mainly physically hardening the roads to prevent bad wash outs during the spring wet season.

“That’s primarily to be able to deal with the extra water and soil movement that’s going to occur basically due to the vegetation being burned and removed,” Soletti said.

Depending on spring weather, there could be lots of road rehab needed this summer, too. The Forest Service has also been working on culverts and other drainage infrastructure to minimize possible erosion damage, and stabilizing soils along ATV and single-track trails. The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation has chipped in on some of those projects.

The fire destroyed or damaged some campground structures, but fixing and replacing the burned infrastructure can wait.

“The immediate (goal) is basically keeping what you have from washing away,” Soletti explained.

Erosion isn’t just a problem on roads, it can also devastate denuded hillsides and wash sediment into creeks. Aerial seeding of native plants this fall and winter will accelerate recovery. If there’s enough rain — so far there hasn’t been very much, BLM Burley Field Manager Ken Crane said — grasses and forbs will sprout quickly. The sooner those plants grow roots and lock the soil in place, the less dirt will blow and wash away.

The mastication project on the eastern side of the South Hills should give the recently seeded grasses and forbs a special advantage, and ultimately improve sage grouse habitat. Soon, native plants will start growing out of the wood chips.

“By masticating the juniper, we’re distributing that woody slash out on the landscape, and that will help retain soil and reduce erosion and runoff effects,” Soletti said. “The other thing that we get is a benefit from running the masticators over the area, we’re able to work that seed into the soil and make sure we get good soil-to-seed contact.”

Restoration continues after South Hills Badger Fire

From right, Scott Soletti, U.S. Forest Service district wildlife biologist, goes over plans with fuels technicians Aaron Melville and Amber Blanchard on Nov. 10 in the South Hills near Oakley. The effects of the Badger Fire aren't all negative. 'The things that make the South Hills such a cool place are still going to be there,' Soletti says. 

The need for seed

The South Hills’ forests evolved with fire. They’re specifically adapted to regenerate after burns, and in many instances, they won’t need much, or any, help. For instance, thick carpets of lodgepole pine saplings will cover the ground within a few years in some places. There’s no need to seed lodgepole, Soletti said, noting that in some areas it’ll have to be thinned.

The lower elevation sagebrush steppe won’t come back to life as easily. That ecosystem did not evolve with frequent fire, even though burns have become far more common in sagebrush in recent years. It takes at least a decade, often several, for sagebrush and other shrubs to return.

Restoration continues after South Hills Badger Fire

U.S. Forest Service District Wildlife Biologist Scott Soletti lets a handful of soil fall through his fingers Nov. 10 at a rehab site in the South Hills. At Trapper Creek, the Forest Service has aerial seeded bluegrass, antelope bitterbrush and mountain big sagebrush, among other species. 

Historically, sagebrush steppe fires would mainly have burned in a mosaic pattern. Those patchy burns would leave islands of vegetation, and as those islands recovered they expanded, filling in the burn scar. Few islands survived the Badger Fire, so it’d be slow and difficult — potentially impossible given the proliferation of non-native, invasive species such as cheatgrass — for native species to recolonize naturally.

Fires didn’t used to be so devastating, either. In the past, mild burns were more common. Grasses can survive a mild fire, growing back from the roots, but a severe one will kill them. The Badger Fire was mainly a high-severity burn in the lower elevation areas of the South Hills.

You can tell the burn was hot by looking at the ground, Crane said. There aren’t any sagebrush or bitterbrush stumps left and there’s a lot of white ash. That white ash suggests extreme heat.

“That was the most disappointing part of how that fire burned through that lower country,” Crane said. “We won’t really know, until we start seeing some growth in the spring, just what the mortality of the perennial grasses is. We anticipate it to be very high.”

Because the Badger Fire burned up the low elevation areas so brutally, the BLM and Forest Service are attempting to help the steppe recover by seeding native grasses and forbs (mainly wildflowers). Sagebrush reseeding will take place this winter — that’s the optimal seeding time for the shrub. The BLM will also plant sagebrush seedlings next fall.

Crane said the BLM has aerial seeded all of its land that burned in the fire, a bit more than 13,000 acres. The BLM dragged chains over a good chunk of that acreage — chaining, just like driving over the ground in an excavator, agitates the soil and improves germination rates.

The Forest Service has already done some seeding and plans on putting seed on 3,000 to 4,000 acres. Planes will drop seed on the Dry Creek and Hudson Ridge areas this winter.

Unfortunately, Soletti said, seeding is expensive. It costs between $40 and $80 an acre. Idaho Fish and Game and Pheasants Forever are chipping in to help the Forest Service pay for the work.

The point of masticating and reseeding (there will be herbicide spraying to kill noxious weeds, too) isn’t to return the land to exactly what it was before, Soletti said. The aim is to put the land in a position where natural ecological succession can happen; to help it resist the spread of invasive species and build resilience so that ecosystems can withstand future fires.

“Our goal is ultimately just to allow natural processes to happen,” Soletti said, “and if something is threatening those natural functions, to do some sort of targeted treatment.”

An unfair fight

Even if the low elevation rehab work goes well, the land won’t be as healthy as it was before. Cheatgrass, the bane of Idaho desert ecosystems, will gain ground.

“I’m confident that we’re going to see a notable increase in cheatgrass everywhere,” Crane said. “That’s just the nature of the plant.”

Cheatgrass’ expansion is basically a given, so the real question is how that expansion will impact native species.

“Is it trace amounts that really has no effect on ecological processes, like what you typically see at high elevation sites?” Soletti said. “Or is it like (some areas of) the Snake River Plain where it’s 100% cheatgrass cover and there aren’t any other plants out there?”

Cheatgrass starts growing earlier in the year than native grass species, greedily sucking up moisture. That head start means it can dry up the ground before native plants have a chance to grow. The invasive also dries out earlier, burning more readily than native plants. Cheatgrass expansion usually leads to more fires.

Crane explained that, hopefully, the freshly applied native seed will successfully establish and “over time it will help suppress the cheatgrass that will undoubtedly show up this spring.”

Both Crane and Soletti said if all goes well, cheatgrass won’t dominate ecological processes in the burn area. It’ll take a couple of years before biologists can accurately gauge the reseeding efforts’ success.

“If we can just capture this opportunity to get something going in a positive manner, we’ll have a better chance of long-term management,” Crane said. “Our first shot is always our best.”

Rising from the ashes

Cheatgrass will expand after the Badger Fire. The question is how much. 

What to expect

The Badger Fire isn’t all bad.

“It’s going to be ugly and we have a lot of work in front of us,” Forest Service Minidoka District Ranger Randy Thompson said of the burn scar. “But I think it’s an opportunity to do some good.”

Climate change, a century of fire suppression, invasive species and other factors might have influenced the Badger Fire and made it bigger and fiercer than it would have been naturally. The burn has left a host of negative biological and ecological impacts. But at the same time, the fire carried out important ecological functions in many areas.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” Soletti said. “The things that make the South Hills such a cool place are still going to be there.”

Subalpine fir removal is a positive in many ways. A lot those trees were unhealthy, diseased and due to burn, Soletti said. The Badger Fire has killed some off, or thinned the stands. There will be a good mix of young and old trees now. Parts of the late-succession subalpine fir community will be replaced by early-succession species, restarting the natural ecological cycle.

In the South Hills, aspen is a major early succession species.

“The aspen response to this fire, in a couple of years, is going to be pretty impressive,” Soletti said.

Aspen needs fire to regenerate. In most cases, while a fire might kill off the aspen above the ground, the roots survive. The trees are clonal, and sucker. Aspen was already on the South Hills landscape, but conifers were shading it out, so a big fire paves the way for growth. An increase in aspen means more food and cover for ungulates.

Soletti emphasized that while the South Hills might look depressing after the Badger Fire, there are plenty of positives.

“Fire is going to regenerate those (higher elevation) plant communities,” Soletti said. “While it’ll look different, it’s part of that natural ecological succession.”

The South Hills has always been changing, cycling between conifer forests and more brushy communities century after century. It’s not accurate to label the Badger Fire as simply good or bad. In many ways it’s a story of two ecosystems, high and low.

Crane said it was hard to watch the Badger Fire burn up important wildlife habitat down low. He’s trying to focus on the bright spots.

“It still gives you a gut ache to look up there and see that country burned,” he said. “But you have to remain optimistic, and we have been very successful in our efforts to at least get burned areas started in the right direction. … All you can do is hope.”

Soletti was up in the South Hills in early October, helping with recovery efforts while the last patches of the Badger Fire still flickered in the timber.

Even then there were signs of new life in the forest. At one point he walked down to the edge of Rock Creek and crouched to look at the ground near the water’s edge.

“This is all sedge,” he said, running his fingers through the green, grass-like shoots poking out of the black ground. “It’s already coming up.”

Rising from the ashes

U.S. Forest Service District Wildlife Biologist Scott Soletti inspects fresh blades of sedge Oct. 9 along Rock Creek in the South Hills. Plants began sprouting just weeks after the fire swept through. 


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