CEDAR CITY — Cheatgrass and other highly flammable invasive weeds that fuel wildfires are the target of 10 projects sharing $2 million in grants from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, it was announced Thursday.

The grants range in size from $15,000 to reduce fuels in the City Creek Canyon Drainage Area in Salt Lake City to more than $500,000 to help Beaver County continue to rehabilitate land ravaged by the Milford Flat Fire.

"Prevention is the key. It's the best thing," said UDAF Commissioner Leonard Blackham, who announced the grants during a breakout session of the Utah Rural Summit held at Southern Utah University.

About 150 people attended the annual event that typically focuses on issues that affect Utah's agricultural community and, by extension, the rest of the state.

"Two million is a good start, but it's important that as a state and as a region we get every agency affected to add some resources," Blackham said after presenting the program's details to several dozen farmers, ranchers, elected county officials and others attending a session on "hot topics in Utah agriculture."

"My sense is that the federal agencies all want to get this done as much as we do," Blackham said.

Funding is being awarded through the department's newly created Invasive Species Mitigation Fund and includes 65 private landowners. Other partners in the conservation effort are the Bureau of Land Management, the Ute Indian Tribe, the USDA and several Utah counties.

The selected projects are scattered throughout the state and are designed to help protect 705,000 acres of grasslands in nine Utah counties. Included in nearly every project is "green stripping," which is a way to rid the land of flammable, invasive weeds and replace them with fire-resistant grasses such as forage kochia, alfalfa and Russian wild rye, he said.

"The idea is that we can break the vicious cycle of catastrophic wildfires like the Milford Flat fire by taking out the cheatgrass in 200-acre strips or more," Blackham said. "We won't stop all fires, but it will help reduce the acreage that wildfires burn."

The 363,000-acre Milford Flat fire burned so hot and the wind was so strong, firefighters couldn't get a fire break built that would hold, he said.

"The idea with the green stripping is that we would have 500 acres or 10,000 acres burn instead of 300,000 acres," the commissioner said. "In the future, we'd like to do more of this (green stripping.)"

Other projects approved for funding include one in Box Elder County that would create firebreak lines on Promontory Point; one in Kane County that improves rangeland health and creates a fuel break for nearby communities; another in Washington County that would strategically place strips of fire-resistant plants in the Upper and Lower Santa Clara watershed.

A project in Millard County would provide a firebreak on more than 1,000 acres to protect a power plant and utility lines, along with the town of Lynndyl and U.S. 6. Another project creating a green strip of fire-resistant plants close to residential areas near Utah Lake, U.S. 89 and Bateman Dairy also was approved.

Projects in Duchesne and Sevier County received funding to help rehabilitate land already burned and seed acreage with vegetation that is fire-resistant. The plants would also provide winter forage for wildlife and domestic livestock. Brigham Young University is to receive $66,000 in grant money to conduct research into the innovative use of seed pelleting technology.

The Utah Rural Summit continues today with sessions focusing on renewable energy opportunities, the state's water wars, mega-pipeline projects, energy issues and tourism studies.

More information about the summit can be found online at utahreach.org


E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com