After mediocre snowfall (60% of normal snowpack) this past winter, it's been a wet spring in the Northern Rockies. The gentle rains of May and June are most welcome. Lawns require mowing again, vegetable gardens are sprouting, and our purple lilacs are in bloom and perfuming Salmon, Idaho. Squalls of cottonwood seed drift in the air. The grassy foothills of the nearby mountains are emerald green below the timber line, and remind me of those I saw on a long-ago trip to Ireland. Creeks are frothy and loud, and the Salmon River flows heavy and brown from the rain and snowmelt. Oh, and there's a lot of cheatgrass growing around town.
It's worse in wet spring years. I've been pulling it up lately in the alley and gravel parking lot behind my building for my absentee-in-myriad-ways landlord. This isn't hard even in big patches: Just a gentle tug brings it up by the roots. I make a large pile under a cottonwood tree. I perform this easy but futile exercise because of the very nature of "cheat." As I pull I'm reminded of William Faulkner's famous Nobel Prize speech, and wonder if he ever had a cheatgrass problem on his place in Oxford, Mississippi. If he did he might have edited out the "man will prevail" part.
Cheatgrass, or "downy brome"(Bromus tectorum), covers 100 million acres in the West, and is found at elevations from 2,500 up to 13,000 feet, from lowland deserts to mountain peaks. It's an annual that reproduces by seed distribution. Eurasian in origin, it was first noted in North America in 1861, and by 1928 had spread to the Pacific. The seeds are hardy and can travel in baled hay, on farm machinery or on the soles of your shoes. According to a Colorado State University agricultural website, cheat can be controlled "mechanically"(weeding, disking, and mowing before the seeds disperse), "biologically" (heavy livestock grazing in the early spring), "chemically" (with the herbicides "Plateau" or "Roundup"), or through controlled burning in late spring -- early summer. But it's been one of the West's noteworthy losing battles for a century.
Any Western range specialist or county agricultural agent will tell you that cheat is green and seed-tasseled (those drooping tassels contain roughly 300 seeds per plant) in the spring, but by mid-summer dries to a light brown, and is extremely flammable. It's responsible for many of the summer range fires noted annually in the West. A patch of foot-tall cheat ignited with a match or carelessly discarded lit cigarette will explode in a wall of flame six feet tall. If wind or nearby "structures" -- as firefighters call them -- are present, the results can be disastrous. The "30 feet from the house" rule familiar to homeowners removing brush in forest fire country is an equally sensible marker as applied to cheat.
Its extreme flammability is, paradoxically, the main reason cheat sustains itself and multiplies so efficiently. It reseeds the ground before it dries out, long before other native species like sagebrush, wheatgrass. and bunchgrass, and pushes those into decline. So the cheat eventually takes over a healthy sagebrush and native grass ecosystem, especially after multiple fires, and grows exponentially, like the federal debt. Drought, fire, and overgrazing of native grasses are its best friends.
Cheat has caused some legendary range fires. In 2007, the "Murphy Complex" burned 1,020 square miles (that's 652,800 acres) along the Nevada-Idaho border. The same summer in Utah saw 567 square miles burn. One fire a few years ago near Winnemucca, Nevada consumed 62,000 acres. I recently drove through there on the way to a wedding in Reno. The cheatgrass landscape has a wispy golden hue unlike the previously noted silvery and dark green color of sagebrush. From 1999 to 2007 six million acres of cheat in Nevada burned, only to come back as, well, cheat.
Here in Salmon, cheat is found along roadsides and alleys, and in vacant lots and construction sites -- anywhere where ground has been disturbed. Though fireworks are circumscribed within the city limits on the Fourth of July, it's an ordinance that's generally ignored. Every year, the Salmon Fire Department is kept busy on the holiday by a few small brush fires thanks to unthinking patriotic revelers. Rarely are these fires serious, but abundant cheat years make this an accident waiting to happen.
Benjamin Franklin said the only two sure things in life were death and taxes. But Westerners know that the good Dr. Franklin never met cheat.