Using a herbicide to control wildfire

Tibuthiuron is a selective herbicide manufactured by Dow Chemical Company and sold under the trade name Spike. It is formulated in a one-quarter inch extruded clay pellet that contains twenty percent of active ingredient.
An application rate of one-half pound per acre would put only six pellets in a 32-square foot area. After being activated by one-half inch of precipitation, it is absorbed by the roots of the target species and moves into the leaves where it prevents photosynthesis.
In essence, the plant slowly starves to death, as it is unable to produce food. Spike only works on woody species and is labeled for use on industrial sites, right-of-ways, fencerows and rangeland. It has become a very popular tool in western rangeland management as post treatment areas show an increase in grass production and moisture retention properties of the soil.
One Southwestern state has integrated Spike into a program that has a goal of returning the land to its original status. The program is called Restore New Mexico. Over the past few decades, millions of acres have been treated and the program continues with treatment areas determined by available budget monies.
Last fall the company I fly for, M & M Air Service was awarded a contract to apply Spike to 54,000 acres in the Land of Enchantment. The treatment areas were in six different areas of the state and the project was expected to take two to four weeks to complete using two turbine powered aircraft. The Bureau of Land Management administered the contract and provided representatives at each application location.
The contract started at the Navajo Dam airport in early October. This remote airstrip sits atop a steep mesa overlooking the San Juan River in the northwest part of the New Mexico. It is in very rugged country with sagebrush as the target species. Fellow pilot James Daniel and I had a few weather delays, but just before the contract started all of the crew had arrived and was ready to work Monday morning.
With five ground support vehicles and crew members from our company and the BLM personnel, we had turned into a fair-sized crowd. After calibrating the aircraft and discussing contract issues, we headed for the nearest hotel forty miles west in Farmington.
The work at Navajo Dam went fast. In past years, most of the maps had been what I call snags, cut up and scattered tracts that took a lot of flight time to do properly. This year the maps were much better, large unbroken areas that made the flying easier. We quickly completed the area to be treated and moved to our next area, Cuba, New Mexico.
Cuba is a small town nestled in the Rocky Mountains just to the east of the Continental Divide. We flew off a BLM dirt airstrip at an elevation of over 7,000 MSL. Density altitude was a factor as the afternoon temperature rose. Mother Nature cooperated, the maps were good and we found ourselves ahead of schedule. In a few days, we completed the mapped areas and were on our way to the next stop, Truth or Consequences and the White Sands Missile Range.
The majority of our work at T or C took place inside the vast restricted airspace that includes most of central New Mexico. Required contacts were made and mission codes were supposedly issued for each day’s work. We decided to fly off a dirt road leading to the newly built Space Port America. It was a decision we would soon regret!
The first morning flying out of Space Port went fine. However, when I headed to my second tract things took a turn for the worse. Cherokee Control suddenly barked my N-number and informed me that I was three miles inside forbidden airspace and needed to leave the area immediately. The next few days were spent trying to figure out the complex airspace and where and when we could fly there. In the end, we completed all assigned tracts, packed up and headed south to Grants.
James and I flew into Grants several hours ahead of our ground support convoy. I decided to check out from the air a ranch airstrip that was close to the treatment area. After I determined the strip was not useable, I headed to the treatment area. The scenery was awesome.
I climbed higher and higher over vast lava flows and stands of Ponderosa pine. When I arrived at the large tract, my first thought was that someone had made a huge mistake. I was well over 8,000’ ML. The vegetation below me was predominately pinion pine and juniper (P&J). I had applied lots of Spike a vast amount of different terrain, but nothing even close to this, I would soon learn why.
When I returned to Grants, the long line of support vehicles were pulling into the gates. I climbed down from the cockpit and started for one of the BLM truck drivers to tell him what I had just seen. Before I could get the first sentence out he held up his hand to stop me; the more he explained, the more it all started to make sense.
The funding for this part of the contract had come from the BLM fire prevention budget. The huge lava flows and Ponderosa Pine forest were all part of the El Malpais National Monument that is managed by the National Parks Service.
The pinon and juniper to be treated were part of the El Malpais Conservation Area that is managed by the BLM. Under a cooperative agreement between the two agencies, the BLM agreed to thin the P&J to create a huge firebreak around the Monument. The P&J burns very hot and is difficult to control once it gets going.
The rehabilitation costs after a fire on a national monument is extremely high often many times more than the cost of fighting the fire. Federal law requires that monument lands be returned to the same state as before the fire. The agreement would benefit both agencies in long range lowering of fire suppression costs. The reason I had never seen this type of treatment is that it had never been done before.
Mother Nature had been very good to us since we started the contract. Now She was beginning to offer afternoon thunderstorms in the high country south of Grants. With a little luck and some mountain pass scud running, we soon had our monster firebreak completed. We departed the high country for the lower desert region of southern New Mexico.
We set up at a dirt airstrip on the Buddy Stockton Ranch located between Deming and Silver City. At 83 years old, an entire book could be written about this wild-west character. Still spry and gritty, I never grew tired of listening to Buddy’s tales of cat hunts and ordeals on the rangeland. Even though he does not fly, he maintains his airstrip for us to use every year although the work may not be for his ranch. He is the living epitome of the Southwest Cowboy.
The target species on the ranch was Creosote Bush, or Greasewood as it is commonly called. This invasive species infests large areas of the desert and will use all available water, preventing any grass species from becoming established. The before and after treatment areas are just amazing. After the Greasewood is removed the grass really makes a comeback and the grazing capacity of the rangeland is doubled.
A treatment is akin to doubling your acreage without increasing your property taxes. Once the grass is back, it holds more moisture in the soil, which benefits all fauna and wildlife. Erosion is reduced and the overall watershed is improved.
When applied at the proper rate returns from a Tibuthiuron treatment can last for up to thirty-five years. That is also how long it has been on the market, so it remains to be seen how long it will last. Our tour through New Mexico involved many more experiences that could not be compressed into this article.
The sights and cultures of this enchanting state are impossible to put into words. We were told we would be returning in late November to apply Spike to another 26,000 acres in the southeast part of the state. This next project will be for a Soil and Water Conservation District. I look forward to seeing the fruits of our labors in the years to come.

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