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The BLM’s plants may be dead, but they help bring new life to the desert

On a trash-strewn patch of desert near Ann Road and the 215 Beltway, rows of dead and dying yucca plants sag in the sun like the remnants of some forgotten nursery.

Only these plants aren’t forgotten; the Bureau of Land Management knows exactly where they are. In fact, the agency is still using them.

Just last month, a crew hired by the bureau spent a few days digging up and carting away hundreds of the dried-out husks to be replanted on public land scarred by infrastructure work or illegal off-road vehicle activity.

For the past decade, this 10-acre site at the valley’s western edge has served as the BLM’s stockpile for plant material used in such restoration projects. In addition to yucca, the stockpile contains dozens of dead cactus, many so dried out they look like they would disintegrate if you tried to dig them up.

But don’t just think of them as dead plants, said BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon. The preferred term is “vertical mulch.”

The idea is provide “a kick-start” to the regrowth native plants in disturbed areas, a painfully slow process that can stretch on for decades in a harsh, dry place like the Mojave Desert.

Cannon said planting dead yucca and cactus can help mask an illegal road or temporary construction easement so off-roaders won’t keep using it. The dead plants also provide a windbreak — home for small animals and a sheltered area where seeds of new plants can collect and grow.

Long-time local conservationist John Hiatt has seen vertical mulch in action during desert hikes around Southern Nevada. He said that if done right — namely by “decompacting” the surrounding soil to give new native plants to place to take root — the practice works fairly well, at least at first.

“In the long term they’re not so pretty, because these plants really are dead,” he said. “They fall over, and then you just have a bunch of dead plants laying all over the ground.”

But even that benefits the desert. As a dead yucca breaks down, it releases organic material into an otherwise inhospitable landscape.

“Organic matter is just really important out here,” Hiatt said.

Cannon said live plants are preferable to vertical mulch, but they’re much more difficult and expensive, especially in a desert setting.

“We do it in easily accessible and highly scenic areas, but the costs are prohibitive for wide-scale application,” she said.

The BLM also scatters native seeds in disturbed areas to help encourage the recovery process, but the results are unpredictable and the seeds are not always easy to come by.

“Which is why we have three Americorps seed technicians, private contractors and volunteer groups who spend their days combing the desert for native plants that are producing seeds,” Cannon said.

The BLM gets live plants and vertical mulch from projects on public lands such as roads, flood detention basins, transmission lines and pipelines. The cost of salvaging plants generally falls to the contractor building within a federal right-of-way, as does the cost of restoring the disturbed area.

With a shrinking pot of federal money, the BLM and its federal agency partners use stockpiled plants — both living and dead — to erase unwanted off-road tracks, illegal dump sites and areas trashed by target shooters.

Just don’t confuse the stockpile with a nursery.

“It is not irrigated or tended the way a nursery would be,” Cannon said. “The live plants have been removed and used elsewhere.”

Needless to say, the value of the stockpile is not immediately obvious to everyone.

A man recently called the Review-Journal after seeing the workers removing yucca because he thought the BLM was destroying evidence of a botched live planting.

Not so, Cannon said.

“We work very hard to dispose of cactus and yucca plants and manage this public resource in a responsible manner in accordance with the regulations, and current funding and workload limitations,” she said.

The stockpile may not be “visually pleasing,” she said, but “it is being cleaned up at no cost to the public.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Find him on Twitter: @RefriedBrean.

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