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High-flying satellites give land managers the low-down on cheatgrass

June 15, 2006 Share This!

Finding concentrations of invasive weed makes treatment dollars go farther

RICHLAND, Wash. – Cheatgrass, a fast-growing, fire-fueling weed, has met its match.

The Idaho Bureau of Land Management and several weed control groups are fighting back with new software that uses NASA satellite imagery and complex computer programs to show the location and growth of this noxious plant that has invaded the arid West from desert lowlands to high mountains.

The technology is available to local and state agencies through the Pacific Northwest Regional Collaboratory, the partnership of scientists and engineers from area universities and Department of Energy national laboratories that developed the software.

Cheatgrass has little forage value, increases the frequency of wildfires and elbows out native species, promoting soil erosion and reducing the value of pasture lands. Invasive plants such as cheatgrass cost land managers billions of dollars each year and have encroached upon more than 100 million acres in the United States.

Known by several names, including downy brome and June grass, cheatgrass is bright green in the late fall and early spring. It turns a rusty red to purple at maturity, making it easy to spot in the late spring when other plants are green. Its spiky seed heads are infamous for attaching themselves to socks, fur and animals’ ears.

“The best way to get a handle on the extent of cheatgrass and target large areas for treatment is to look at the big picture,” said project ecologist Janelle Downs, a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “NASA satellite imagery provides that big landscape picture and lets land managers be smarter in using their treatment dollars,” Downs said.

PNNL’s Roger Anderson, collaboratory manager, explained that, although satellites of NASA’s Earth Observing System measure the energy bounced back by the earth’s surface and send terabytes of data every day to NASA stations on earth, the data have not been accessible to many resource managers because of the cost, time and training required for data acquisition and processing.

The collaboratory developed software that analyzes data across thousands of square miles of potentially affected landscape. Resource mangers can zero in on their area of interest and display details of cheatgrass and shrub cover in different colors.

“This new software is a significant improvement over the previous method,” said Jeffrey Pettingill, superintendent of the Bonneville County (Idaho) Weed Department. “We used to just get in the pickup truck, get up to about 60 miles per hour and look out the window.”

For information regarding access to the cheatgrass data, contact Steve Gajewski at 509/372-4389.

The mission of the collaboratory is to turn data from satellites and other sources into information land managers can use to protect Northwest streams, forests, farmland and urban areas. Members are the Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho State University, Oregon State University, PNNL, the University of Idaho and the University of Washington.

PNNL is a DOE Office of Science laboratory that solves complex problems in energy, national security, the environment and life sciences by advancing the understanding of physics, chemistry, biology and computation. PNNL employs 4,200 staff, has an annual budget of more than $725 million, and has been managed by Ohio-based Battelle since the lab’s inception in 1965.

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NOTE: Additional maps and photos available at PictureThis. Search "cheatgrass."

Tags: Energy, Environment, Fundamental Science, National Security, Chemistry, Biology

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of about $950 million. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information on PNNL, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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