Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Fire Extinguisher: Bunchgrass ; an Oregon Man Leads a Crusade to Grow Native Grasses, Which Are Drought- and Fire-Resistant

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Fire Extinguisher: Bunchgrass ; an Oregon Man Leads a Crusade to Grow Native Grasses, Which Are Drought- and Fire-Resistant

Article excerpt

Despite the severe drought gripping the Northwest, Andy Huber is a happy farmer. While his neighbors in the Grande Ronde valley of northeastern Oregon struggle to keep thirsty mint crops alive, Mr. Huber's crops don't need a drop of irrigation. In fact, they have blossomed in the dry heat like never before.

That's good, because this is the second-worst water year on record. "We haven't seen drought like this since 1977," says Shad Hatten, the local water master. "We will probably end up with a lot of dead crops."

What is Huber's secret?

He grows grasses and wildflowers - but only those that are native to eastern Oregon. And native species like bunchgrass, one of his principal crops, have become key tools in the fight against wildfire. As part of an extensive effort to avoid last year's widespread fires, the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are eager to reintroduce drought-resistant native grasses to wilderness areas that are particularly susceptible to fire, and they're willing to pay a high price for the seed. Unlike exotic species, these grasses stay green through summer and are already adapted to the fire cycle.

"Last year over 100,000 acres burned in Wallowa County," says Bob Both, an Oregon fire-management officer. "Eighty-eight percent of that was grassland. Invasive [non-native] cheatgrass burns like gasoline. It explodes on you. Native bunch grasses don't burn so fast or so hot."

With the seed selling for $20 to $25 dollars per pound (compared with $5 or $6 for lawn grass seed), it's a profitable crop as well. Yet Huber is more interested in the ecological and community benefits. A farm boy from Wisconsin turned part-time professor of crop and soil science at Eastern Oregon University, he bought a 160- acre parcel on top of a rocky ridge in the Blue Mountains in 1992. A year later, he deeded the land to a foundation as a native-plant preserve. Now, he works it as a nonprofit farmer.

"Some people think I'm crazy to buy land and then give it away," he says from under a battered hat, "but I did it because it felt right. This place is so beautiful, I knew immediately there was something more important here than a plot to grow wheat. …

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