Sagebrush restoration is infrastructure, say bipartisan group of Western senators

Sagebrush restoration is infrastructure, say bipartisan group of Western senators
Crested wheatgrass is heavily grazed on one side of the fence with sagebrush on the other side of the fence. (Photo courtesy Laura Cunningham, Western Watershed Project)

by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

WASHINGTON — Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen is calling on Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to fund sagebrush restoration in the American West in an effort to boost wildfire mitigation efforts, create jobs, and support the regional economy.

On Tuesday Rosen, a Democrat, and Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo led a group of Western Senators who urged Haaland to allocate a significant portion of the Department’s recent funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act toward sagebrush ecosystem restoration.

The letter was also signed by Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.

“As Senators representing Western states, we urge you to allocate a significant portion of these funds to address the restoration needs of the vast sagebrush ecosystems of the American West,” wrote the senators. “Sagebrush restoration will help a critical landscape in the Western United States – one that supports vast biodiversity, contributes to the regional economy, and is vulnerable to destructive wildfires if not managed properly.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress and signed into law last year includes $905 million for the Department of the Interior for ecosystem restoration and $200 million for wildfire risk reduction programs. Senators in Western states argued that sagebrush restoration is critical to prevent wildfires and protect biodiversity.

About 120 million acres of sagebrush habitat covers the American West and is home to more than 350 million species, says the letter. However, the sagebrush ecosystem is increasingly at risk from wildfires due to the spread of invasive non-native grasses, like cheatgrass. Cheatgrass and other invasive grasses now cover one-fifth of the Great Basin, fueling intense fires on the rangeland.

Repeated wildfire in sagebrush habitats in Nevada has caused extensive invasions of cheatgrass, reducing habitat for the sage-grouse, which is not listed under the Endangered Species Act despite a population drop of as much as 80 percent since 1965.

“Consequently, fires are growing in intensity, frequency, and destructiveness across the rangelands of the American West,” wrote the senators.

Climate change has led to an increase in the area burned by wildfire in the west. Analyses estimate that the area burned by wildfire from 1984 to 2015 was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred.

Western Senators also argued that sagebrush ecosystem restoration “provides a unique opportunity for creating jobs in rural America while addressing important conservation needs.”

Funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has the potential to fund up to $100 million for fuels removal efforts that could employ locally-based laborers in conservation work. Such a program would have lasting benefits for the west, said the senators.

In addition to Crapo and the two Nevada senators, the letter was signed by Republicans James Risch (ID), Mitt Romney (UT), and Cynthia Lummis (WY), and Democrats Ron Wyden (OR) and Jon Tester (MT).

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