Volunteers helping sagebrush, wildflowers grow where fires burned
After the Hansen Road fire burned along the hills just outside Benton City in southeastern Washington this past summer, signs of life are slowly springing back up from the blackened ground – now with some help from the region’s Native Plant Society.
“It looks like the grasses for the most part seem to be coming back from the fire because they were already dormant,” said Mickey Chamness, with the society. “It was starting to grow again already. So, I think that a lot of things that were dormant are going to have survived fine.”
About 30 volunteers met up at a local hiking hotspot on a cold November afternoon to replant sagebrush tubelings and scatter seeds on a small section of the burn scar. The digging boundary was marked with red flags.
“We can't plant up [outside of the boundary]. Archaeologically, it’s not allowed because Native Americans may have used the area, and it hasn't been surveyed,” Chamness said.
The tiny yearling sagebrush stretch about an inch tall, their roots reaching about five inches down. The group aimed to plant 30 sagebrush and a few rabbitbrush. They also planned to spread sagebrush, bitterroot and wildflower seeds, squashing them into gopher mounds.
A week earlier, the group planted 400 sagebrush about 12 miles away, in an area called Horn Rapids Park. The young sagebrush cost about $2.50 each.
“We had so many new faces that I've never seen, and so many young people,” said Alexis Sullivan, the chapter’s new restoration chair.
The volunteers dug holes at varied intervals and filled them with water. Once the water drained, they carefully placed a plant inside and patted dirt around the top, dripping one last sip of water on top of the plant before moving on.
“Take your time if you want. Touch some dirt. Become one with the sagebrush if you'd like,” Sullivan said after she finished instructing the volunteers.
Members of the Columbia Basin chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society have been getting their hands dirty in the region since the late ‘90s. These concerted efforts to plant young sagebrush picked up steam around eight years ago.
“The shrubs conserve moisture through their shade,” Chamness said. “It provides structure; it provides habitat for some species of birds and animals. So, it should be here. It used to be here. We'd like to reintroduce it back.”
Restoring shrubsteppe habitat after large burns is difficult. Non-native plants can easily intrude. Sagebrush can take up to 30 years to reach maturity, and lots of critters rely on native plants for food and shelter.
“I love the sagebrush steppe. They're kind of like the underdog but just as important as forests. Definitely not as much attention is paid to them. We can't tell people to go out and hug sagebrush like we can tell people to hug a tree,” Sullivan joked.
Often, she said, people drive through this part of the state and miss the beauty of it.
“They just think everything's dead and they think that nothing is living and that there's no value here,” Sullivan said. “There's so many wildflowers. It's just harder to get people to look closer and realize that there's a lot going on in this ecosystem. It's busy.”
The group hoped to reseed some of those busy wildflowers. A few hikers took ziplock bags filled with seeds. Chamness briefly instructed them to grab a pinch of the seeds (“They are ridiculously tiny, pinhead sized,” she said.) and squish the seeds down on the bare gopher mounds with their boots.
“Now, you stand here, and you see just a ton of mounds. Is there any place that you want to target in particular?” asked volunteer John Burke.
“I would love to [seed] the ridgeline or… the fire break,” Chamness said.
In other areas, Chamness said she has actually seen better success with the seeds.
“We found that some of our plantings up at Rattlesnake Slope in previous years, those were the ones that really survived, came up and grew. And a lot of the ones we planted didn't survive so well,” she said.
It could be too much competition with the grasses, she guessed. Another year was a crummy water year.
“One year when we planted it was just bone dry out here. It was really, really hard to dig and those didn't survive very well at all,” Chamness said.
Among the volunteers were members of a similar group, Tapteal Greenway, who climbed up the steep McBee Grade hiking trail spreading seed clusters made of equal parts composted manure mixed with fireclay and seeds. These balls are made with sagebrush seeds. Add water and mix the small clumps together, said Dirk Peterson, with Tapteal Greenway.
The balls keep the seeds in place. Critters will eat some seeds, most likely not sagebrush, he said, but the seed balls help prevent the munchies.
“Then ideally, when they get enough rain, they kind of dissolve. And hopefully conditions are then right for the seeds to germinate,” Peterson said. “So when we're hiking up there, we'll just kind of toss them around off to the side.”
The groups plan to collect sagebrush seed Nov. 25 at Amon Basin in Richland.