Secretary Jewell Announces Comprehensive Rangeland Fire Strategy to Restore & Protect Sagebrush Lands

Office of the Secretary

Action plan advances immediate and long-term efforts with federal, state, tribal and non-governmental partners to protect vital working lands, wildlife habitat

5/19/2015
Last edited 4/26/2016

BOISE, Idaho – U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today released a comprehensive, science-based strategy to address the increasing threat of wildfires that are damaging vital sagebrush landscapes and productive rangelands in the West. The Strategy details a more focused, coordinated and collaborative approach for rangeland fire management, particularly in the Great Basin region of Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California.

The final report, An Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy, focuses on reducing the size, severity and cost of rangeland fires, addressing the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species that exacerbate the threat of fire, and positioning fire management resources for more effective rangeland fire response. Today's long-term action plan builds upon an Initial Report, issued March 10, that detailed immediate actions Interior's bureaus and partners are taking to address the threat of rangeland fire to sagebrush landscapes before and during the 2015 wildfire season.

“We now have a fully integrated Strategy among federal, state, tribal and community partners that provides a set of actions to take now and in the future to fight rangeland fires across the West,” said Secretary Jewell, who was joined by Idaho Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter and Jim Hubbard, U.S. Forest Service, Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in making the announcement. “This roadmap takes a comprehensive and scientific approach to protect against some of the most intense wildfires that are damaging the American West's productive rangelands and sagebrush landscapes.”

Jewell has been working closely with western leaders and federal and other partners to improve rangeland fire-fighting capacity at all levels and to encourage proactive partnerships with ranchers, farmers, rural communities and other landowners.

“Habitat degradation due to wildfire and invasive species is the primary threat to sage-grouse in Idaho,” Governor Otter said. “As you know, Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPAs) are an integral part of Idaho's sage-grouse conservation Strategy. They've already impacted the BLM's ability to manage wildfire by reducing response times. In fact, several times during last year's fire season, the BLM arrived just in time to help the RFPA crew clean up. Before creating RFPAs, these fires more than likely would have run out of control and burned a lot more habitat.”

“USDA Forest Service will work with our partners within the Department of Interior, as well as state, tribal and local firefighting organizations to support wildland fire management operations in sagebrush landscapes,” said Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard. “These cooperators are essential to ensuring that every wildfire receives an appropriate, risk informed, and effective response regardless of the jurisdiction.”

The final report delineates a series of actions that federal and state wildland fire managers and their partners can take to improve efforts to prevent and suppress rangeland fires as well as restore burned rangelands to healthy landscapes. Projects include invasive weed treatments, fuel breaks, juniper encroachment projects, sagebrush replanting, seed collection and post-fire rehabilitation efforts. The management plan also includes:

  • Designing and implementing integrated fire response plans for all Interior wildland firefighting agencies that prioritize protection of rural communities and landscapes most at-risk to the detrimental impacts of rangeland fire and invasive species, while recognizing human life as always the highest priority;
  • Applying current research to better target funding and other resources to specific high value rangelands, based on relative resilience and resistance to disturbance, and consistent with efforts on tribal, state, and other lands;
  • Making better use of maps and technology to get information about priority areas for fire suppression in the hands of fire managers and firefighters on the ground;
  • Developing new tools to fight the spread of non-native, invasive species like cheatgrass that contribute to the increased threat and intensity of rangeland fires;
  • Directing better coordination between resource managers and firefighters to ensure that preventive measures like fuelbreaks, suppression efforts, and restoration strategies provide the greatest benefit to communities and wildlife;
  • Increasing the collection and use of native seeds and plants to restore fire-impacted lands and accelerating efforts to use existing funding to revegetate landscapes scarred by fire;
  • Expanded training and use of veterans, rural and volunteer fire departments, and Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPAs) to increase capacity for fire response;
  • Planning fire prevention and restoration efforts at a landscape level to expedite planning and analysis and reduce delays in getting essential land treatments underway; and
  • Identifying opportunities to enhance tribal, state, and local fire management capabilities and coordination in priority sage-steppe areas.

The accelerated invasion of non-native grasses and the spread of pinyon-juniper, along with drought and the effects of climate change, have increased the frequency and intensity of rangeland fires. The fires can damage sagebrush landscapes that support more than 350 species of plants and animals – such as golden eagle, elk, mule deer and pronghorn – as well as ranchers, livestock managers, hunters and outdoor recreation enthusiasts.

The plan's landscape-scale approach emphasizes sustainability of entire ecosystems, integrates stakeholder collaboration, and addresses the present and possible future conditions of lands across jurisdictional boundaries. Given the scope and magnitude of the challenges of a landscape that crosses 11 western states and two Canadian Provinces, the Strategy relies on the Fire and Invasive Assessment Tool (FIAT) to identify and prioritize important sage-steppe and greater sage-grouse habitat and calls for greater use of effective adaptive management to ensure that design practices and implementation strategies reflect both emerging scientific findings and knowledge gained from past actions.

Heightened collaboration includes developing a community of practice for fuels reduction and management, restoration, monitoring and adaptive management in the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem with a cross-jurisdictional consortium of agencies, organizations and partners. The Strategy will work to improve agencies' analytical ability to acquire, pre-position, and mobilize firefighting assets to effectively prepare for and respond to wildland fire, with priority given to rangeland areas. The integrated Strategy stresses that the safety of firefighters and the public has been and will remain the absolute top fire management priority, while recognizing the need to improve overall capacity to fight the threat of rangeland fire.

The Strategy builds on wildland fire prevention, suppression and restoration efforts to date, including the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which provides a roadmap for achieving ‘All Hands—All Lands' cooperation, and the President's wildland fire budget proposal to change how fire suppression costs are budgeted to treat extreme fire seasons the way other emergency disasters are treated.

Today's announcement is the final report called for in Secretarial Order 3336. Already this year, the Order has spurred development and implementation of best-management practices for responding to fires in high priority sagebrush habitat, driven an increase in fuels management project planning, and heightened a scientific emphasis on rangeland health issues.

Efforts to conserve and protect sagebrush habitat are the centerpiece of an historic effort to address threats to greater sage-grouse prior to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's court-ordered 2015 deadline for determining whether the bird warrants Endangered Species Act protection. Scientists and fish and wildlife experts have identified rangeland fire as the greatest threat to the survival of the greater sage grouse in the Great Basin region.

To protect these landscapes for economic activity and wildlife like the greater sage-grouse, a three-pronged approach includes developing strong land management plans for federal lands, implementing conservation measures on state and private lands, and an effective Strategy to address the threat of rangeland fire.

The Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy can be viewed at www.forestsandrangelands.gov.