Independent Scientists Take Issue With BLM Soda Fire Recovery Plan

May 24, 2016

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell Tuesday will visit the sagebrush burned in last year’s massive Soda Fire in southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon. The Bureau of Land Management is working to recover the area, but a group of private scientists are concerned about the way the recovery is being handled. Specifically, that the agency is hurrying through the recovery without following its own concepts for adaptive management. The BLM though, says the project is being handled correctly.

The Soda fire burned 280,000 acres of federal, state and private land. The BLM has spent $14 million dollars on the rehab effort so far and says things are off to a good start.

But four outside scientists have been watching and are skeptical. Dr. Roger Rosentreter, a former BLM ecologist, and Dr. Eric Yensen, a biology professor who’s taught at Boise State and the College of Idaho, signed a letter with two other biologists, asking the BLM to reconsider some of its practices. This report details what they found on a trip to the Soda Fire landscape, including several pictures they use to detail their concerns.

One issue the critics have is the BLM’s use of drill seeding. This is a method that employs heavy equipment that can break open the soil and deposit seeds. Rosentreter says the success rate of drill seeding is 25 percent or lower.

Lara Douglas is the Boise District Manager with the BLM. She defends drilling as a less intrusive method than, say, plowing. The BLM has seeded about 17,000 acres with this method, or six percent of the burned area. Douglas says it’s too early to say if it’s working yet.

Despite what the scientists say, Douglas says the BLM is planning for decades of recovery. She says the Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation Effort going on now is what happens in the very initial stages after a fire.

The professor of biology, Dr. Eric Yensen, takes issue with the BLM’s plans to plant grass-heavy seeding mixes. He says they won’t be very successful in replacing the diversity of plants, insects and animals that were lost in the fire. These and other concerns were outlined in their letter to the BLM below.

Douglas acknowledges that the area won’t be exactly the same as it was. She says 200,000 acres of aerial seeding applied grasses, forbes and sagebrush to the Soda Fire. The BLM has used 14 different seed mixes during the emergency recovery. The BLM's initial recovery plan is below.

Here are the supporting documents to the BLM plan.

Douglas says the four scientists haven’t been involved in the entire process and there will always be differences of opinion. But she says the BLM is hoping to use some of the scientists’ input during the recovery.

This is the response the scientists received from their letter to the BLM.

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

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