Six national wildlife refuges in seven states are involved in a $10 million pilot program designed to better manage vegetation and wildland fire across federal, tribal, state, local and private lands within iconic American landscapes, including sagebrush-steppe and longleaf pine habitats.

The national initiative, announced by the Department of the Interior (DOI) last June, is funded by Congress to encourage a collaborative, cost-sharing approach to restoring and maintaining landscapes that are naturally resilient to wildfire. The new Resilient Landscapes Program, which incorporates the goals of the Congressionally mandated National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, funds 10 collaborative proposals in distinct geographic areas in the West and Southeast.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is leading two of the proposals, called collaboratives, which aim to improve conditions on certain refuge lands and adjacent non-Service lands.

The Greater Sheldon Hart Mountain Collaborative received $3.98 million in fiscal year 2015 to conduct collaborative fuels treatments to increase resistance to invasive plants in a high-desert sagebrush-steppe ecosystem and reduce the risk of damaging wildfire by removing encroaching juniper trees and non-native grasses that contribute to extreme fire behavior. The collaborative encompasses a 4-million-acre area that includes Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Oregon and adjacent lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe.

The collaborative seeks to restore and maintain the natural role of fire in this habitat, which is home to hundreds of native wildlife species, including the greater sage-grouse, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and the largest lake-dwelling population of federally threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout.

Through cost-sharing with partners, the project increased cutting, piling and burning of invasive juniper and monitoring of noxious weeds at the two refuges and surrounding areas by 15,704 acres. It also included related planning, training and science. The collaborative complements progress made by the Department of Agriculture on national forest and private lands near the refuges.

The Longleaf Pine/South Atlantic Collaborative, funded at $770,000 and largely focused on the use of prescribed fire, seeks to return historic low-intensity fire intervals to a forested ecosystem encompassing parts of five southeastern coastal states. While longleaf pine forests have been reduced to just 3 percent of the 90 million acres they once covered, this collaborative stretches across much of the species’ historic range – from southeastern Virginia, through North and South Carolina, to Georgia and northern Florida.

Healthy longleaf pine forests, where fire plays a natural role, are resistant to damaging wildfire, disease outbreaks and insect infestations. This ecosystem provides important benefits to wildlife, water quality and local economies. For example, healthy longleaf pine forests – which are cleared of dead understory vegetation – use much less water; data analysis shows that restoring this ecosystem can increase water availability by up to 20 percent.

In fiscal 2015, the collaborative treated 39,871 acres at four refuges – Great Dismal Swamp Refuge in Virginia, Carolina Sandhills Refuge in South Carolina, Okefenokee Refuge in Georgia and St. Marks Refuge in Florida. An estimated 768,000 acres of non-refuge lands were treated by cooperators. The collaborative also: broadened cost- sharing agreements among DOI agencies; conducted numerous community education sessions; and is establishing protocols for collection of spatial data.

For fiscal 2016, Congress has allocated $10 million to the Resilient Landscapes Program. The DOI Office of Wildland Fire is determining how to distribute this funding to the collaboratives.

Karen Miranda is a public affairs specialist working for the Refuge System Branch of Fire Management at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID.