MARSING, Idaho — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Tuesday toured a massive wildfire rehabilitation effort in southwest Idaho that's part of the federal government's new wildfire strategy and then announced $10 million for projects in 12 states to reduce wildfire threats.
"It's easy for folks to think we can't respond quickly, but we can respond quickly," Jewell told about 30 federal land managers gathered in the small town of Marsing before heading out to an area where a wildfire last year scorched 436 square miles in Idaho and Oregon.
Jewell issued a secretarial order last year calling for a "science-based" approach to safeguard greater sage grouse while contending with fires that have been especially destructive in the Great Basin. The order also calls for rehabilitating burned areas, and her visit to Idaho gave her a chance to check up on the work.
"One of the things that is very gratifying about what is going on here is that it's putting the secretarial order into action," she said, standing on the side of a hill overlooking thousands of acres that have undergone rehabilitation.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey to see which rehabilitation efforts work best. Some 2,000 sample monitoring plots are being tracked to measure results of techniques that could become templates for future wildfire rehabilitation efforts.
"They're looking at doing the research necessary to understand what's happening on this landscape to apply in the future," Jewell said. "That's not something that would have happened before this focus on rangelands and this understating of this sagebrush habitat and its importance."
Experts say trying to get in desirable plants to prevent non-native invasive species, particularly fire-prone cheatgrass, from coming back is a key part of the rehab plan.
"We have to put in a functioning ecosystem," Cindy Fritz, a natural resource specialist with the Boise District of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, told Jewell.
Sagebrush steppe supports cattle grazing and some 350 species of wildlife, including sage grouse. The bird didn't receive federal protections under the Endangered Species Act last fall, but various efforts to protect sage grouse habitat have been put in place.
Those efforts continued Tuesday when Jewell, following her tour of the rehabilitation area, announced in Boise the $10 million worth of projects mostly aimed at preventing sage grouse habitat from burning.
The money is part of the Wildland Fire Resilient Landscapes Program intended to restore public lands.
—Southern Utah, which will receive $3.5 million to improve habitat for greater sage grouse.
—Nevada and California, which will receive about $1 million to protect habitat for Bi-State sage grouse on the border.
—Colorado and Utah, which will receive $1 million to improve Gunnison sage grouse habitat.
—The Santa Clara Pueblo area in New Mexico, which will receive $800,000 to protect cliff dwellings and other cultural sites.
—Idaho, which will receive $500,000 to remove conifers in greater sage grouse habitat.
—Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, which will receive nearly $1 million to restore resiliency in the fire-adapted Longleaf Pine ecosystem.
Dan Buckley, a member of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise that deploys the nation's wildfire fighting resources, said Jewell's order has caused a change in how sagebrush steppe is viewed.
"Now that it's elevated as a secretarial priority it's become more important to the larger firefighting community," he said.