Battlement Mesa group goes after cheatgrass
A widespread grass with a reputation for attracting wildfires is the target of local control efforts. Since a devastating fire that destroyed nine homes in Battlement Mesa in 1999, some residents of that subdivision banded together to find a way to beat back invasive cheatgrass.Kenny Maxon, 83, remembers talking to a group of his neighbors in 2002 about how to put a stop to wildfires that had plagued the area for years. A series of fires, most of them started by kids playing with matches, had burned in the cheatgrass-choked gully of Monument Creek that wraps around their homes.”Every fire had started in cheatgrass and was started by kids. I thought, you can’t eliminate the kids so we’ll go after the cheatgrass,” he said with a chuckle. Cheatgrass got its name from pioneer farmers who saw it spread into their wheat crops a century ago. Introduced from Asia in the 19th century, cheatgrass greens up in early spring and goes to seed in about six weeks, offering only brief sustenance to livestock. It’s also susceptible to ergot fungus, which is poisonous to cattle.A strong, persistent plant, it eventually forces out native plant species. Because it dries out so quickly, it’s a natural magnet for fire. Areas taken over by cheatgrass that previously saw fires every 20 to 25 years, routinely have a five-year cycle for fires, said Garfield County weed manager Steve Anthony, who helps oversee the project. Such has been the case in Monument Gulch, where fires have burned in 1987, 1989, 1998 and 1999. “We have to try to break that cycle,” Anthony said.The group initially met to figure out a way to control rampant weeds and soon realized “the first thing we had to do was control fire,” Maxon said.The next step was to enlist the help of Anthony and local Colorado Division of Wildlife officer John Broderick, who also lives in Battlement Mesa.Both men directed the group to potential fundraising sources. An initial application for $4,000 from the state weed fund fell flat when money was no longer forthcoming from the state.Then serendipity came along when a local corporation, American Soda, was fined $500,000 for exceeding state air quality emission standards. The money was offered as grants from a state foundation.The Battlement Mesa group applied but was disheartened when it learned it was competing with a local arts center.”We thought we were barking up the wrong tree,” Maxon said, but they were awarded $75,000. Battlement Mesa’s consolidated water district also received $25,000 which it passed on to the group for use in controlling cheatgrass.But the plan of attack – spraying the grass with an herbicide one year, then seeding native grasses the following year – proved to be a work in progress, Maxon said.The first year, the grass was sprayed too late. “It didn’t work,” Maxon said. The following year the area was sprayed in November and that did the trick, preventing the grass from seeding out.With the need to find more money for their project, DOW officer John Broderick suggested they apply to his agency’s Habitat Protection Program which granted them $16,000. Eliminating the cheatgrass and restoring native plants, Broderick reasoned, would encourage wildlife living in the hills above Battlement Mesa to once again use the gulch to reach the Colorado River.Today, the group has raised about $244,000 for the treatment program.Maxon said the residents are happy with the outcome so far.This summer, their contractor will go back and spray along the fence line behind the homes in Monument Creek Village.”We’ve had no fires (since 1999), but it could also be a little bit of luck,” he said.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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