August 17, 2009

Grant project helps assess growth, trends

Professor Studies Waterfall Fire Rehab Area

Five years ago, the massive Waterfall Fire ravaged homes and land in western Carson City, climbing the hills and marching toward the Tahoe Basin. While images of the fire and billowing smoke are still vivid in the minds of many residents, WNC Chemistry Professor Mike Sady and others have spent this summer exploring the effects of the fire on vegetation.

Sponsored by the Nevada System of Higher Education and the National Science Foundation-EPSCoR, Sady and Dr. Jay Arnone of the Desert Research Institute studied burned and unburned areas in the Waterfall area. Other researchers on the project were Alice Sady and Ann Bollinger, in addition to volunteers.

Study objectives were to compare shrub and forest plant communities in burned and unburned areas, and then to evaluate the success of post-fire seeding. Their analysis was also intended to determine if climate change was a factor in the type of re-vegetation that occurred. The study group also considered the effects of sheep grazing on burned and unburned areas. To improve fire safety, the college has sheep graze seasonally near campus buildings to reduce fuels.

Sady said one of his goals was to determine the effectiveness of drill seeding, helicopter seeding and reforestation. A complicating factor is that fire doesn't respect political boundaries, and the reseeding efforts were carried out by multiple federal, state and local entities, in addition to private parties.
One surprise, he said, was that the reseeding mixture mainly contained Siberian wheatgrass, but only desert wheatgrass was found in the areas studied.

"This could suggest a climate change factor favoring grass species better adapted to a warming trend. In some respects this is precisely what we did not expect to find, but provides yet another example of climate change and its effects on fire landscapes.

"To measure the effect of grazing, we marked out plots that were to be grazed and then assessed the plant life. The day before grazing, the plots were photographed and surveyed and then one or two days following grazing."

One key feature of Sady's study has been the development of The Waterfall Fire Interpretive Trail to the northwest of the college. It contains eight study sites, with three 2m x 2m plots that compare and contrast the Waterfall Fire, rehabilitation treatments, and subsequent affect on the landscape, including long-term climatic data of the local watersheds. Its purpose is to provide an outdoor science classroom experience for students at WNC, local schools, and community groups.

The trail has been the site of several "narrative walks" this summer led by Sady and others. The chemistry professor said the area will be studied further, and as of this time it appears that sheep grazing has not harmed native grasses.

Sady said he will work with Arnone to compile his results and present the study at a regional meeting of EPSCoR (Office of Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research).

Press Release: August 13, 2009

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