If we get 10 percent (to grow) we've done a good job. —Jason Vernon
EPHRAIM, Sanpete County — A massive aerial and ground attack began this week and will continue until the ground freezes throughout much of Utah, where land managers are tearing up trees, turning the soil and distributing more than a million pounds of seeds across charred landscapes.
In the first offensive, the Mount Pleasant Airport was the battleground staging area, hosting a trio of planes that took to the skies in day-long sorties on Thursday, carrying as much as 1,500 pounds of seed during each flight.
The target was the 47,000 acres burned in the Wood Hollow Fire, a combination of federal, state and private property — of which over half will receive 350,000 pounds of seed when the operation is completed.
Mark Farmer, habitat program manager with the state Division of Wildlife Resources, has already walked among the blackened trees and surveyed the damage the fire left behind. He and habitat biologist Kendall Bagley visited the Wood Hollow Wildlife Management Area, watching a bright yellow plane spreading seed over rolling hills — 14 pounds per acre, 40 seeds per square foot.
"If we get 10 percent (to grow) we've done a good job," said Jason Vernon, the division's habitat restoration coordinator for the state.
"When you are dealing with Mother Nature, she either makes you look really good or really bad," Vernon said.
The prep work on the Wood Hollow Fire started nearly as soon as it was extinguished.
"We've been out here every day walking, on 4-wheelers, with GPS and with flags," marking the "polygon" seeding areas divided up into sections, Farmer said.
The calculated on-the-ground study of how each reseeding effort will be undertaken is going on throughout the state to confront the monumental task of restoring soil-hugging vegetation to 422,000 acres burned this summer.
"Statewide it is a huge challenge," Vernon said. "But we are modeling our efforts after the Milford Flat Fire of 2007, which is serving as a good template for what we have to do now."
Their arsenal is the division's Great Basin Research Center in Ephraim, an estimated 17,000 square-foot warehouse that is chock full of bags and bags of seed. In a humidity controlled room, for example, with temperatures hovering between 34 and 36 degrees, the high-maintenance finicky sagebrush seed is stored in bags and kept cool until it can spread on snow to foster its germination. There are bags of Wyoming sagebrush, Basin Big Sagebrush and Rubber Rabbit Brush. The forage kochia also has to be kept cool until it is planted to grow under the best of conditions.
Alison Whitaker, a botanist who oversees the art of blending the right mix of seeds for distribution on wildlands, said both the sagebrush and the forage kochia play superstar roles in an ecosystem.
"They're good for both livestock and wildlife," she said. Both types of plants are high in protein, stay green and make good firebreaks. They are also easy to distribute, taking root in craggy areas and growing undeterred in rocky terrain.
Whitaker works closely with habitat biologists like Bagley, who know the landscape, know what native plants bolster healthy animals, and have the expertise that is specific to a region to suggest seed combinations with the most likely success rate.
Once the seed is mixed, it is bagged up and hauled out to a waiting convoy of trucks that is conveyed in boxed trailers or flatbeds to the burn sites.
Aside from the planes, the division and its multiple federal partners use a curious assortment of land-churning equipment to rip out trees and loosen up the soil enough so the seed has a chance to germinate, and hopefully establish itself.
A 180-foot long Ely chain with 60-pound links features steel bars that dig into the ground. On each end it it has 30 more feet of chain — all once used on U.S. battleships.
In its new life, the chain will be dragged behind heavy equipment in the shape of a J, ripping out dead trees in its path.
Bagley said the 24,000 pound chains are highly efficient at upending pesky Juniper bushes that interfere with a thriving ecosystem and can clear a hillside methodically.
For people like Bagley and the others who are so close to this land, the fires — while devastating — provide a blank canvas for them to create new and thriving landscapes, ones replete with native grasses and brush that are good feed for animals, unlike the unwelcome cheat grass that burns from a whisper of a match.
The land will be coddled for two years so the plants can grow. Cattle will be kept away, and when the plants take root, the threat of floods and mud flows will begin to diminish.
Wildlife like deer and elk will once again thrive and have plenty of food to eat.
While this onslaught of reseeding plays out in the far reaches of the state — from Box Elder County in the north, to Price and Huntington Canyon and in the west desert of Tooele County where fires have raged — there is a nagging fear mixed with anxious hope dogging everyone involved:
Water. How much comes, when it comes.
"May and June are critical," Farmer said, stressing the need for life-giving moisture.
On Thursday, with the latest Utah climate and water report released from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the need for a generous helping of snow this winter was no more apparent.
Reservoir storage levels across the state are generally low. The Weber, Bear and Provo River basins are all exceptionally dry.
So far, the water of 2013 is not off to a "great start," according to the report.
"However, conditions looked very good at the beginning of water year 2012 and it turned out poorly — this year could be better. It could also be worse. We will have to play the hand dealt whatever it may be," the report states.