What to plant when the fires go out

DENVER, CO The biggest bad guy in the West, at least to people who study plant life on the prairies, is an invasive species that crowds out native grasses, dies early in the growing season, and becomes fuel for the fires that tear across the region.

Cheatgrass, a fast-growing weed that originated in Russia, is one of a number of invaders that have taken over the American West in the last 30 years, leaching nutrients from the soil and supplanting local species. Researchers at the AAAS Annual Meeting say they have in hand the genetic resources to do battle with the invaders, but state and federal government policies are not allowing them to put their knowledge to work.

"Controversies exist on what plants to use in re-vegetating burned and degraded rangeland and grassland sites in the United States," says Kenneth Vogel, a plant geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. "People assume that local collections of native ecotypes are the best adapted for re-vegetating, but we can clearly show that many cultivars of tall grasses are much better adapted for the great plains."

Much is at stake in the decision regarding what and where to plant, as plant life plays a crucial role in the severity and duration, and even the type, of conflagrations that consumed 6 million acres of western lands in 2002.

"Grassy lands are critical to making very frequent, relatively light fires possible and that make controlled burning feasible," Stephen Pyne, a fire historian and professor at the University of Arizona. "We've lost that. We've shifted lands into all kinds of woody material, living and dead. The target ought to be to get the grasses back in."

But to do this, native grasses need a hand up from science, says Richard Dunne, a seed producer and owner of the Wind River Seed Company, near Manderson, WY. He notes that most of the "local ecotypes" favored by recent government p


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