Fuel Breaks don’t work in sagebrush ecosystems

“Plan is a government boondoggle that will cost a significant amount of money, likely will not work and in many cases make wildfire spread worse.”

In June, the BLM released a draft environmental impact statement, Programmatic EIS for Fuel Breaks in the Great Basin. The proposal would authorize the creation of 11,000 miles of fuel breaks (linear vegetation removal) primarily in sagebrush ecosystems across parts of Nevada, California, Utah, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

George Wuerthner
George Wuerthner

Under the plan, more than a million acres will be cleared with herbicides, bulldozers, mowers and livestock grazing. Not only will this series of fuel breaks fragment sagebrush ecosystems, but there is significant evidence that this kind of disturbance enhances the spread of cheatgrass, an annual grass that is highly flammable.

The goal is to reduce massive wildfires; the kind that burns hundreds of thousands of acres. That is an admirable goal because fires are burning up vast amounts of sagebrush habitat with dire consequences for sagebrush dwellers like sage grouse.

But here’s the problem. Climate and weather conditions primarily drive large wildfires. Extreme fire weather with low humidity, high temperatures, extended drought and most importantly, high winds are the primary driver of large blazes. Under such conditions, windblown embers easily cross any “fuel break.”

Worse, disturbance of soils is the main factor in the spread of Bromus tectorum, better known as cheatgrass. For instance, in a paper in Applied Ecology Conditions favoring Bromus tectorum dominance of endangered sagebrush steppe ecosystems, the authors concluded that destruction of biocrusts and loss of native bunchgrasses enhance the spread of cheatgrass.

And grazing, mowing, bulldozing and other treatments all destroy biocrusts and native bunchgrasses and therefore only exacerbate the spread of this alien grass. In effect, fuel breaks will become super-highways for the spread of cheatgrass.

In a recent paper on fuel breaks with the title “The ecological uncertainty of wildfire fuel breaks: examples from the sagebrush steppe,” the authors warn that fuel breaks are of unproven effectiveness in the face of extreme fire weather.

The authors suggest that an extensive system of fuel breaks would “create edges and edge effects, serve as vectors for wildlife movement and plant invasions (like cheatgrass), and fragment otherwise contiguous sagebrush landscapes.”

The idea that livestock grazing can be used to reduce wildfires is widespread in the ranching community, but like the idea that fuel breaks are sufficient, the real story is in the details.

In a widely cited paper, Targeted Grazing in Southern Arizona: Using Cattle to Reduce Fine Fuel Loads, the authors write glowingly about how grazing can be used as a tool to reduce fire spread. However, in the next to last paragraph, they write that “ targeted grazing will be most effective in grass communities under moderate weather conditions.” In other words, livestock grazing doesn’t work to reduce wildfires under extreme fire weather conditions.

There are other negative consequences, as well. These corridors are often used by predators like coyotes, avian predators like ravens and others to search for vulnerable prey like sage grouse. In justifying these fuel breaks as a means of “saving” sage grouse, they may only increase sage grouse losses.

The real problem is that changing climate is enhancing extreme fire weather that is ultimately driving large wildfires. Without addressing climate change, such proposals like fire breaks are like sticking your finger in the dike as the entire barrier collapses.

The BLM is currently taking comments on its proposed plan.






  1. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    I think that if wildlife habitat is to be preserved on BLM managed lands, new tactics will be required. Letter writing and law suits have not been that effective in preserving ecological quality on public lands. Non-profit organizations have a right to apply for leases under title 43 US Code “Recreation and Public Purposes Act”.

    The BLM should be swamped with lease applications to preserve the land vegetative, animal complex for the public good. Remember that public lands have been subjected to years of abuse so that folks get used to seeing habitat in a debilitated state. The real need is to have examples of what good habitat really looks like.

    The impact of what the land looks like after having been rested from “management” for a few years is quite impressive.

    Remember the BLM is soul-less sort of bureaucracy and it is not going to change its ways with out a serious fight.

    But conservation organizations not only have to step up to the plate- they have to swing the bat.

  2. Rich Avatar

    I think Western Watersheds Project has been bidding on lease applications and agree that other organizations should be doing likewise. If the proposed firebreak goes through leased land does the lessee then get a rebate or do they have to maintain it? Will the fire break destroy sage grouse lek sites? Will the firebreaks be open for use as roads and ORV use? What is the estimated cost to create the firebreak and then maintain it? What chemicals will be used and what is the impact on wildlife? Lots of questions!!

    Does anyone have the information on how or where to submit comments?


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner