Brown Water and a Warming World

Dispatch by Evan Romasco-Kelly

At 10,200 feet above sea level in the Wasatch Mountains of central Utah, Spring 169 is not in good shape. A handful of head-sized sandstone boulders are scattered around a shallow depression in the mountainside where a thin stream of water emerges from the ground, marking the spring’s outlet. Just downhill from the tan rocks, the ground transforms into a micro-landscape of hills and valleys formed by cow hooves sinking deep into muddy earth. Several lucky grasses and forbs remain standing, but most of the vegetation that once populated the small riparian area has been trampled and pushed under the soggy soil. The spring water, tinged brown by mud and the occasional cow patty, fills the hoof-prints and flows slowly between the gullies they form. The mud and cow tracks continue downhill for another 50 feet while the spring water slowly disperses and percolates back into the ground.
Spring 169 is one of many freshwater springs that lie within the Manti-La Sal National Forest, a piece of public land that has almost all of its land area open to Utah’s cattlemen to graze their livestock. Cattle ranching is a profession that has been present in the Beehive State since white people settled here, and ranchers rely on springs in the Manti-La Sal to keep their herds hydrated. Some springs have all or part of their flow piped into troughs where the animals gather to drink away from the spring outlets. Many, however, are like Spring 169 and do not have such infrastructure, so the behavior and physiology of bovines start to cause problems. Cattle, especially beef cattle, are heavy with relatively small hooves, meaning that they exert a lot of physical pressure on the ground. These animals also drink copious amounts of water and therefore like to hang around in streams and riparian areas, so end up trampling plants, enhancing erosion, and defecating whenever the urge hits them. This dangerous combination is likely what has caused Spring 169 to look so similar to a rodeo corral after a rain storm.
Luckily for the flora and fauna that find habitat in areas wetted by springs, cattle also drink from streams and ponds in the Manti-La Sal, but this might be changing. In the mountains of the American West, global warming is predicted to create smaller winter snowpacks and earlier melting. This could result in lower flows to the streams and ponds that share the pressure of grazing livestock with fresh water springs. With the Forest Service operating on a budget that is allocated increasingly to fighting forest fires, supervision of the Manti-La Sal’s springs may fall by the wayside only to be trampled by thirsty cows.


Don’t Bust the Crust: Biocrust Survival in Arid Lands across the West

photo by Sophie Poukish

photo by Sophie Poukish

Dispatch by Hannah Trettenero

In Castle Valley, Utah with red rock formations stark against blue skies, botanist and Utah Forests Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust, Mary O’Brien exclaims, “Don’t bust the crust!” This particular crust is biological soil crust or biocrust. To the unassuming eye, the communities of bacteria, lichens, and mosses that partner together to form biocrust may appear to be inanimate soil. A magnified look reveals biocrust forms ranging from black bumps to pink pentagons to yellow cauliflowers. Biocrust is a layer of living organisms that cover the upper layer of soil in semi-arid and arid lands. Biocrust forms through a successional process beginning with colonization of bare ground by lighter crusts such as microscopic cyanobacteria, and culminating with colonization by darker crusts such as lichens or mosses. To arid ecosystems, these organisms are the modulating heartbeat, regulating essential ecosystem functions. Biocrust binds the soil together to form a crust, allowing plants to grow, contributing to soil fertility and regulating water cycle. Cyanobacteria facilitate nitrogen cycling while mosses and lichens fix carbon through photosynthesis.   

Public lands are mandated as spaces for the people. A large portion of public lands in the west are dry and arid, dependent on biocrust to flourish. Humans, tires, and animals habit these public lands, often trampling and destroying biocrust, unaware they are killing these compression sensitive unique life forms. Biocrust cannot fully form when disturbances such as compression impact its’ ability to progress from its early state to its’ late successional state. Dry lands currently cover 45% of terrestrial surface area in the world and continue to grow as the affects of climate change shape environments. In Moab, Utah scientists from across the globe congregate to attend the biennial International Workshop on Biological Soil Crusts. On the second day of the workshop, scientists focus on research specifically about the affects of climate change on biocrust formation and diversity. The ultimate goal of this second day is to create connections between the localized biocrust experiments occurring across the globe in order to better understand how climate change will affect arid landscapes on a global scale. The results of specific experiments suggest that increased droughts and altered precipitation patterns caused by climate change will intensify the decline of biocrust. On public lands in the west, biocrust is working against the destructive forces of human induced compression and human induced climate change. Biocrust can take hundreds of years to form but people have the capacity to crush it in seconds, killing the building block of their own public lands.


Springing into the Future

photo by Signe LIndquist

photo by Signe LIndquist

Dispatch by Sarah Dunn

The Manti-La Sal National Forest in central Utah is home to two springs among many that demonstrate the importance of protecting springs on public lands. The first, called the Deer Spring Complex, lithely bubbles out of the ground into a field of grasses and forbs, surrounded by a zig zagging wooden fence that prevents wildlife and cattle from entering the area around the spring source. The spring rests on the slopes of the La Sal Mountains and the surrounding forest is mainly comprised of red tinted gamble oaks, their leaves signaling the beginning of fall. The stream weaves through a dense jungle of willows, aspens, nettles, and wild-rose, their diverse and prickly entanglement signifying the fertility of this riparian environ.

In the same forest, a few hours north, a second unnamed spring struggles to flow. The water exits the ground under two large metallic troughs, grimy with sediment and rust, their supports leaning unevenly. Mud, imprinted with six inch deep hoof prints, surrounds the area which is entirely devoid of plant life. A heavy, pungent scent can easily be traced to the circular splats of dung that dot the area, disintegrating in the already brown water. Several belligerent cows call out low moos of protest to the invasion of “their” watering hole.

These cows are the ones responsible for the drastic difference between these two springs, however this land does not belong to the cows. The Manti-La Sal mountains are part of a National Forest, public land that belongs to every American citizen, ranchers, recreationalists, and environmentalists alike. Everyone has a claim to this land, and the Forest Service is mandated to manage it for multiple uses, including for its ecological function.

Cattle have a disproportionate impact on the springs that are the lifeblood of the forest. 80% of the wildlife on National Forests depends on riparian areas such as springs, however these areas only make up 2-3% of the total forest land.  In these rare areas, cattle’s destructive hooves compress soil, shear banks, and crush plants; their munching denudes bushes, aspens, and grasses; and their manure contaminates the water. 

Springs become all the more important in the face of climate change and its associated droughts. The riparian plants around springs shade the area and the complex root systems help absorb water into the ground. Groundwater is stored in the soil and rocky aquifers and is slowly released from springs, sustaining plants and animals when water is scarce. Cattle unwittingly conspire to degrade these areas despite the growing ecological importance of springs. 

As these springs are found on public lands, it the public’s responsibility to determine their treatment. The consequences of inaction can be seen in the desecrated mud pit at the second spring, just as the verdant rewards of success are evidenced at the Deer Spring Complex. Because spring fed riparian areas are so vital yet so scarce, measures like fencing spring sources and reducing grazing offer a future where clean water continues to pour a diversity of life into the landscape.


Don't Tread on Me

Dispatch by Sophie Poukish

The scene is Moab, Utah. The Colorado Plateau stretching and yawning with time visible upon it’s blackened pock-marked crust. No matter how lightly an individual imagines their footsteps floating above the surface of a fine rust hill, crunchy soil turns soft under their feet. Voices too small to be heard scream, yearning for acknowledgment. Nine inch footsteps unearth lichens, fungi, cyanobacteria, mosses, and algae, living communities comparable to Dr. Seuss imagery.

Biological crust lives in semi-arid and arid environments, which conveniently is 45% of the terrestrial planet. It lives between sleepy desert plants such as the woody, twisted sage that rests upon the humps of the Plateau. Drylands are due to increase 23% this century but the effects of Global Climate Change will offset this possibly with increased shorter, frequent rains and hotter temperatures. With these losses, biocrust’s important contributions such as nitrogen fixation, carbon fixation, microbial diversity, and soil stabilization will decrease. The Colorado Plateau will disrupt water soil relationships due to decreased soil absorption and decrease photosynthesis due to less rich, healthy soil for plant life to thrive. In other words, Biocrust is imperative to arid environments, coloring their landscapes with life and multi-functionality.  

The third International Workshop on Biological Soil Crusts took place in Moab between September 26th and September 30th. The conference works to form a collaborative community of interested parties from across the globe, creating an international conversation on biological soils, a topic that though relatively new to scientists, is quite old to earth’s living crust. BIOCRUST3 was a lively and impassioned space for scientists to share new theories, experiments, and their attached results. Biocrusts are model systems for climate change experiments due to their small size and varying life forms, representing four kingdoms in as small as an inch segment. One such experiment, the BIODESERT Survey, is studying public lands and the grazing that disrupts biocrust underneath them. This is very relevant to the Interior West because land is chalk full of hard earned blackened crust, while at the same time being notoriously grazed. The results of this study could inform the national public on the trampling of their land, hooves bursting through ecosystems as fast as carbon bursting into the stratosphere. Biocrust communities peep “Don’t Tread on Me”, their voices shrinking beneath footprints, rain, and heat.


Hope Behind a Fence?

photo by Thomas Meinzen

photo by Thomas Meinzen

Dispatch by Thomas Meinzen

A twisted wire fence lies prostrate in the mud, the bare, clipped stems of gooseberry and invasive Kentucky bluegrass clinging to hummocks of soil between dark, hoofprint-shaped pools. This is the scene at Spring 169, one of forty sites of natural groundwater upwelling recently surveyed in the Manti-La Sal National Forest of southern Utah.

Springs are havens for a variety of water-dependent species, including twenty percent of the country’s endangered species, according to the Spring Stewardship Institute. Springs are also sacred sites for native peoples, playing an important role in the culture and religion of local tribes. Supporting fourth fifths of the forest’s biota with their life-giving water, springs make up only two percent of its area, a portion that is shrinking each year as climate change, mining, and development lowers the water table and drains springs dry. 

The springs that remain flowing against such odds face an equally potent adversary upon reaching the surface: cattle. Cattle’s water-consumptive digestive systems predispose them to lengthy sojourns in riparian areas and springs, resulting in the trampling and denuding of delicate spring vegetation. Thus treated, springs can no longer provide the habitat necessary for wildlife and pollinators to survive the increasing warmth and aridity brought by anthropogenic climate change.

Despite their detrimental effects on springs and riparian areas, cattle are ubiquitous on the Manti-La Sal National Forest, over 95 percent of which contains active grazing allotments. Since 1897, the Forest Service’s policy has been to maintain grazing on all forest land deemed suitable, even denying the ability of permit-purchasing conservation organizations to retire allotments from grazing.  This entrenched bias towards public grazing includes government subsidies that make grazing permits on public land eight times cheaper than those on private land. Touted as central to supporting community livelihoods and the Western beef industry, the statistics of public grazing are often ignored. In fact, only three percent of consumer beef comes from Western public lands grazing, and the largest permit-holder in Utah is no community rancher, but an urban millionaire from California. It seems clear that public lands grazing is no longer achieving the objectives for which it has been so heavily favored in federal policies, yet the laws remain resistant to change.

Though public lands grazing may remain embedded in Forest Service policy, not all springs in the Manti-La Sal National Forest are embedded with cattle hoof-prints. At Deer Spring, clear water bubbles up from a grassy knoll, gnarled willows stretching twiggy fingers toward a tumbling, wildflower-framed stream. This spring owes its prime condition to a sturdy wooden fence enclosing its source, excluding cattle from entry. Fences such as this one typically owe their existence to Forest Service funds, permittee labor, and pressure from nonprofits such as the Grand Canyon Trust and the public to protect springs.

Due to grazing, the verdant natural beauty of Deer Spring is becoming a rare occurrence. Yet by demanding adequate spring fencing and continuing to push for legislative change, an informed public could reverse that trend. Despite the odds, there’s hope yet for springs in the Manti-La Sal—even if it’s hope behind a fence.

Changing Seasons: Aspen Conservation in the Interior West

photo by Fields Ford

photo by Fields Ford

Dispatch by Fields Ford

In the interior American West, aspen trees are a common feature of high elevation landscapes, signifying a wealth of biodiversity and often an accompanying, healthy ecosystem. Aspen stands, each of which is a single, underground organism shooting up numerous sprouts, are well-known and loved for both their vivid fall color and they valuable habitat they provide. Behind riparian areas, aspen stands provide the second most biodiverse habitat in the West. Aspen trees provide shade for forbs, grasses, and shrubs growing in the understory, as well as housing for cavity nesting species. The trees, which are also edible for some animal species, often grow in areas with more moisture, participating in the greater biodiversity associated with the presence of water. The iconic aspen stands, however, are often located on public lands. This means that the organisms are susceptible to the damages associated with cattle that graze on public allotments, meaning Forest Service or BLM tracts of land upon which ranchers are allowed to run their cattle. Aside from this, aspen growth and regrowth is also limited by the browsing of wild ungulates, including elk and mule deer, as well as a lack of fire, or general disturbance. Because fire suppression has been at the forefront of forest management in the United States, aspen—which depend on disturbance for survival—are often shaded out by conifers that would otherwise be burned down. Anthropogenic climate change, too, heavily impacts aspen health. One effect of a warming climate is increased drought frequency and intensity, both of which reduce the likelihood of aspen survival. Associated with drought is Sudden Aspen Decline, a phenomenon caused by insufficient precipitation or moisture content resulting in the abrupt death of huge swaths of aspen stands. 

Although aspen stands are threatened by these varied factors, people are working to conserve aspen stands in the West. In the Fishlake National Forest, conservationists are working to restore aspen in such areas. In June 2014, a prescribed fire burned off conifers competing with aspen for sunlight, moisture, and soil nutrients. The fire, which burned in the Twin Peaks area of Monroe Mountain, theoretically provided the disturbance needed to catalyze aspen regrowth. The goal of regrowth is to produce aspen recruits; that is, trees that reach six feet in height, a measure that is too tall for the buds to be browsed, or stripped off, by ungulates. Because the fire was so recent, though, the Twin Peaks aspen are still vulnerable to being browsed by both cattle and exotic elk, which were introduced for hunting in 1985. The project has been met with mixed success, as large patches of sprouts are nearing recruitment, but some areas are still being browsed.  Though efforts to conserve aspen are being made, it is imperative that stands, especially those on public lands and consequently vulnerable to browsing, be allowed to regrow so that biodiverse habitats may continue to thrive in the face of biodiversity-reducing anthropogenic climate change.


Sharing Utah's Springs

photo by Signe LIndquist

photo by Signe LIndquist

Dispatch by Signe Lindquist

From the top of Gentry Mountain on the Wasatch Plateau near Price, Utah, the view of jagged red rock dotted by bushy green sage stretches all the way to Colorado. Though the presence of people and buildings is few and far between, this landscape is overcrowded. An invisible map of allotments - permits to graze livestock- spiderwebs over Gentry Mountain and the surrounding peaks throughout the Manti La Sal National Forest. This is public land open to all, but it is dominated by the cattle and sheep of a small number of ranchers. Many allotments on Gentry Mountain exemplify the visible mark of overgrazing that livestock leave on Utah’s forests. 

Without careful restriction, these animals stomp out native grasses and feed on trees and shrubs such as aspen and willow, which provide habitat for a diverse network of species and hold soil to the side of the mountain. As if global warming isn’t already threatening the Manti La Sal enough with irregular hot/cold and drought/flood weather patterns, cattle are a second force creating stress on the ecosystem. Their most destructive activity of all surrounds the sources of naturally flowing springs. Though several sources are surrounded by fencing in an attempt to protect the springs, the Forest Service struggles to maintain this infrastructure. Cattle are occupying a delicate fountain of life for the mountain, and they are transforming some of the richest environment surrounding spring sources into squelchy cow poop-filled pits little more diverse than feedlots. 

Facing a warming climate, the risks are too high to ignore this issue. Springs are a doubly threatened vital life blood and need all of the protection they can get. Currently in this region, the environment serves as an item to be consumed: for the tourists to explore and for the ranchers to set their cattle free on. The tables are turning though as the climate changes each day: mankind’s best interest is setting the priority on nature, even if this means restricting our own access and letting the environment flow its own course. Springs are a good place to start.


Spring Conditions in the National Forest

photo by Grace Butler

photo by Grace Butler

Dispatch by Willa Johnson

Across the Manti-La Sal National Forest there are dozens of springs that do not fit the typical pristine image of a lush green spring. Springs are spots in the land where water seeps, trickles, or rushes out of the ground straight from ground water. Springs are an essential habitat because they are often the only source of water for miles and they form riparian areas below the source that support diverse groups of flora and fauna. 

Virtually all of the allotments across the forest are grazed which heavily impacts the spring conditions. Cows, more so than other ungulates, like to spend their time in damp areas like springs. As a result, most of the unfenced springs are heavily trampled around the source and down the spring bed. Hummocking, where cows’ hoof prints leave deep holes in a wet area, is also a major issue across these springs. The grass is crushed down in pockets damaging plant life and permanently changing small scale topography. On the other hand, springs such as Lower Pinhook Spring that is fenced has less disturbance and more native plants immediately surrounding the spring. Some other springs are fenced off but the fences are in dire need to repair because they do not keep cattle out. At one spring a rusty barbed wire is completely crushed into the mud only a few feet from the source.

At a number of the springs surveyed the water is diverted from the spring source into a pipe caring the water to a nearby trough for cattle. At Spring 243 on Gentry Mountain the source itself is completely dried up and a pipe ran from it however there is no water flowing out of the pipe into the cattle trough. This lack of water flow could be a result of too much water being taken out of the stream for cattle. Another possible cause is a nearby coal mine that drains groundwater to use in their operations. As the Southwest becomes even drier as a result of global warming in the coming decades springs will become an even more essential source of water for wildlife especially. 

It is critical that the problematic state of some of these springs is addressed when considering the future of the Manti-La Sal National Forest. Each national forest has a forest plan, an extensive document that records the missions, priorities and policies of the National forest. Forest plans are meant to be updated regularly The Manti-La Sal Forest plan was last updated in 1986, making it 30 years out of date. In the next 5 years these forest plans will be updated to adapt to more modern scientific information about forests and hopefully to take into account information about the health and conditions of the springs. 


To Live for 80,200 Years

photo by Elizabeth Greenfield

photo by Elizabeth Greenfield

Dispatch by Elizabeth Greenfield

What does a healthy forest look like? Check your preconceived images of an ideal forest at the door. If you can see through an aspen stand, said ecologist Mary O’Brien, you are looking into its future as a dead aspen stand. Though perhaps beautiful, without age diversity, a homogenous aspen copse will not survive into perpetuity. 

Aspen are not like most trees. The bulk of the organism lies underground in the root structure, trees breaking through the soil merely to photosynthesize and send sugar to the roots. One root system consists of multiple trees, all genetically identical clones. As mature trees die, the clone is sustained by the younger stems constantly regenerated by the root system. 

The Pando clone in central Utah’s Fishlake National Forest has stayed intact and spread for 80,000 years. Though aspen trees only live to be a couple hundred years old, Pando has continuously manifested new identical versions of itself on common ground. Occupying 106 acres and weighing around 13 million pounds, Pando is the world’s largest and oldest organism, surviving climactic fluctuations of the last ice age, as well as periodic drought and fire.

As you intersect Pando on Highway 25, look on either side and you’ll notice a perplexing uniformity in the aspen stands, but regional contrast. In one securely fenced area, the aspen are thick and ranges in age and height. Across the highway, the aspen are much denser, like a tree farm before preliminary thinning, all stems nearly identical in height and size. With a transition as short as a fence is wide, Pando morphs suddenly into an old-growth aspen forest, emulating a crop ready to harvest, each stem easily visible due to nearly non-existent underbrush and young aspen. In other words, this part of Pando is doomed.

The primary cause of such gloomy prospects are browsing ungulates—deer, introduced elk, and cows on nearby national forest grazing allotments. Ungulates relish in the tasty treat of young aspen stems. Until they reach a height of six feet, aspen are susceptible to browsing. When the apical meristems—the agent of aspen growth—are browsed off, aspen cannot grow tall enough to establish themselves and survive. Thus, fencing and protecting aspen is critical to secure their survival, like in the fenced area of Pando supporting aspen of all ages. Broken or unmaintained fences don’t effectively ward off browsing ungulates, as visible in the old-growth part of Pando that has very few young intact aspen.

If Pando is to continue spreading over the next two centuries and live to 80,200 years, the fences need to be maintained or the browsers need to go. But the reality is that virtually all national forest land in southern Utah is roamed by ungulates who browse aspen, and that likely won’t change. It’s not just about Pando surviving to beat its own superlatives, but maintaining intact ecosystems wherever aspen grow to be resilient, healthy forests in the face of climatic change. 


Words of Wisdom from the Ones Who Love Crust

photo by Nina Finley

photo by Nina Finley

Dispatch by Nina Finley

Have you ever walked over dry dirt and noticed a crunch? Welcome to biocrust, a seldom-noticed layer of soil organisms living on the surface of arid lands. To the untrained eye, a biocrust might look like nothing more than a dark stain on the earth, but look closer, and you’ll see the orange circles of lichen, the gray-green carpet of moss, and the spidery filaments of cyanobacteria. Like a new subdivision constructed on bulldozed land, a disturbed biocrust repopulates in predictable ways after a soil disturbance. The earliest resident to move in, cyanobacteria, creates a bumpy substrate on which lichens and mosses can follow.
    On Tuesday, September 27, dozens of crunchy-dirt enthusiasts convened in downtown Moab, Utah at Biocrust 3, the third International Workshop on Biological Soil Crust. The theme for the day: climate change. Global experts presented their findings. One study showed that mosses die when watered more frequently in summer. Another monitored the breath of biocrust, its exhale of carbon in dry times and inhale after a rain. A third considered albedo, or reflectance capacity, and found that bare ground reflects more light and heat back to the atmosphere than dark biocrust. The researcher pointed to a potential negative feedback cycle wherein climate change kills biocrusts, and the lightening ground acts as a natural brake on further warming.
    “But don’t take this to mean you should go out there and bust the crust!” he warned. Climate-change mitigation is only one ecosystem service to consider. Biocrusts may not cool the earth, but they hold down dust in the wind, promote soil fertility by remaining active when vascular plants cannot, and retain water for longer than bare ground. You can think of biocrust as a civil servant. Much of the 630 million federal acres in the American West is arid and, therefore, crusted. To modify the Forest Service’s slogan: “The is your biocrust.” It belongs to the American people, and it’s up to us to decide how to manage it.
    Right now, biocrusts are languishing under foot, wheel, and hoof. Once trampled, they can take centuries to recover. Add drier droughts and shorter, more frequent bursts of rain predicted for the Colorado Plateau in the coming decades, and the future of our public lands looks less than crusty. Biocrusts may reduce albedo, but what the planet needs most in an era of climate change is not a shiny white surface of bare dirt to reflect the sun, but a functioning layer of live soil with sufficient diversity to adapt. Next time you hear that crunch in your step, take a closer look and discover the millimeter-high forest of organisms breathing carbon and eating sunlight all around you. Better yet, stay on the trail, and admire your biocrust before you make it go crunch.


Type B-Positive: Hope for the Future of Earth’s Lifeblood

photo by Hunter Dunn

photo by Hunter Dunn

Dispatch by Hunter Dunn

No substance on Earth is more vital to life than water. Like blood through the human body, it circulates throughout the globe over a cycle several million years long via the veins and capillaries of subterranean channels, eventually seeping out through pores dotting the planet’s face: springs. Riparian areas partially created by these terrestrial vents constitute less than 3% of public lands in the Western U.S., but shelter and sustain 80% of that region’s species. While most of these flora and fauna evolved symbiotically with their surroundings, one prominent exception endangers the entire ecosystem: introduced ungulates. Thousands of beef cattle and non-native trophy elk range southern Utah’s Manti-La Sal National Forest, leaving churned ground, stripped boughs, and crushed grasses in their wake.

While the life force itself wells from underground, like beets or carrots springs’ lushest features sprout above the surface: dense willow thickets, spongy emerald mosses, and a cornucopia of insects and amphibians—all painfully vulnerable to ungulate browsing and trampling. Cattle especially love to loiter in these verdant oases, feasting on vegetation, guzzling water by the gallon, and expelling the bulk of it in sloppy plate-sized patties. Fencing has proven effective at deterring this favored bovine pastime, but it is woefully underutilized: a handful of enclosed, healthy springs in the Manti-La Sal provide a Pyrrhic victory against the eroded, denuded wallows pockmarked by hooves far too small for their owners’ mass.

These seeps emerge hours from any major highway, and while this might make them seem at most of minor concern and at least irrelevant to the West’s ballooning metropolitan areas, springs affect millions of urbanites just as they do hundreds of hunters and ranchers. Federal agencies including the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management hold 28% of the nation in public trust, over half a billion acres in which the city dweller holds an equal stake as the forester. Nearly all of these fall west of the Mississippi, providing the lion’s share of natural resources for 40% of the nation’s people and inestimably valuable habitat for far more of its plants and animals, yet these vast swaths receive far more attention from cattle than from humans. Public land comprises over half of Utah, 80% of it supporting livestock, but while Apple releases an annual operating system like clockwork, the 1.2 million acres of the Manti-La Sal struggle to function both economically and ecologically under a forest management plan last updated during the Reagan administration. 

With global warming winging descending spirals through the atmosphere, inexorably rising temperatures and historic rain patterns knocked askew paint a grim future for water-dependent aridland species. The one comestible currently expected for free in restaurants will soon be the most coveted commodity in the West, and no suitable donor exists to give the Earth a blood transplant. Fortunately, springs’ fragility is exceeded only by their regenerative capacity, and while lifestyles and methods of food production take decades to evolve, it takes only hours to plant T-posts and string them with wire.


Clonal Conservation

Dispatch by Gardner Dee

Patches of yellow and green cover large swaths of the upper faces of Monroe Mountain, a large plateau in Southeastern Utah. Remnants of a large fire on this face are easily seen from below, blackened soil and stumps providing stark contrast to the turning colors. The aspen forests that formerly covered forty percent of Monroe Mountain have been heavily grazed for decades by local rancher’s livestock, resulting in bushy shoots kept short for multiple generations. Besides the presence of cattle on the mountain, the introduction of Elk to the Fishlake National Forest land on Monroe Mountain in the 1980’s for sport hunting has further compounded this problem, leading to the need two years ago for a controlled burn to give young aspen a better chance against competing conifers.    

While aspen regeneration in historic ranges is ecologically important, national forest lands are managed for multiple uses by federal mandate. In an era of global climate change, the ecosystem services such as water retention and softwood habitat provided by the aspen forests of Monroe Mountain will only rise in value, and it us up to the Forest Service to make maximizing management decisions.  

Due to the central organism residing in the roots below ground, fire can give young aspen shoots an equal footing against species that would formerly have shaded them out. Aspen are important for multiple wildlife species, and in the West are second only to riparian areas in terms of biodiversity. The familiar habitat provided by aspen forests will become crucial in a changing environment. While heavy grazing continues in the burned areas covering Monroe Mountain, these benefits will be nipped in the bud by ungulates. 

Long term land use planning is necessitated by the oncoming progression of global warming. As storm energy in the arid West increases, the water retention and soil stability provided by aspen forests will become increasingly important. Aspen play a part in the planning process by providing a catalyst for conversations about sustainable grazing and long term range health. As stakeholders in National Forests, citizens can and should have a say in how public rangelands are managed. The quaking slopes of Monroe Mountain are included in several grazing allotments, and the management of these aspen stands now will have future repercussions on the landscape.


Aspen for Trouble

photo by Griffin Cronk

photo by Griffin Cronk

Dispatch by Griffin Cronk

Second only to riparian areas in terms of ecological value in the Western United States, aspen stands make up crucial biologically diverse habitats. As a clonal species, the trees that pierce the ground are the stems of a vast subterranean organism. The largest known aspen clone grows next to Utah’s Fish Lake and was dubbed Pando, meaning ‘I spread’ in Latin. The single aspen organism has over 40,000 trunks spanning a 106 acre parcel of land and is the heaviest and oldest organism on Earth. Many important aspen organisms like Pando are in National Forests which gives them more visibility but doesn’t necessarily protect them from browsing (meaning denuding of tree starts). While they regrow quickly, aspen aren’t completely resilient in the face of cattle. If browsed, aspen will only send up stems for two seasons before they desist to recruit. In the Manti LaSal National Forest, aspen have not grown to six feet, the height necessary to elevate them out of the reach of cattle, for 80 to 100 hundred years. Conservationists blame ungulates that were introduced during this period. Aspen, it seems, have little chance of survival in the presence of cattle and today’s prevailing ranching techniques.

Climate change poses another threat. Aspen have been called ‘the canary in the coal mine’ for mountain ecosystems because they die when water availability is reduced significantly. Loss of water kills aspen trees through cavitation which occurs when a lack of groundwater allows air bubbles to infiltrate the tree’s arteries. Climate change is generating more intense and more frequent droughts that create the scenario in which trees are infected with air. Cattle put even more strain on the mountain water sources that aspen depend on. These heavy creatures tend to gather around springs and slurp until a green oasis is degraded into dry trodden earth. Here, at the intersection of public lands management and climate change the future of aspen looks bleak.


Preservation of Public Lands for an Uncertain Future

photo by Amanda Champion

photo by Amanda Champion

Dispatch by Amanda Champion

The aspen are changing from green to yellow. These clonal creatures thrive in much of Southeastern Utah, their spiral leaves quaking at high altitudes. The heart of an aspen lives underground in a complex root system and sends up genetically identical clones of itself above the earth to harness the sun’s energy. Aspen groves are the second most biodiverse habitats of these forests, second only to riparian areas, supporting a vast range of species through water storage in soil. 

Aspen thrive in the National Forests of southern Utah, occupying public land along with diverse grazing allotments. The multiple-use doctrine of National Forests mandates that the land be shared between cattle grazing, wildlife and recreation, but these interests can often butt heads, especially between cattle and wildlife. Pando is the oldest aspen and organism in the world, and lives in Fish Lake National Forest in Utah. Along with much aspen in this area, Pando has been influenced by human-introduced wildlife. Ungulates such as introduced elk and cattle historically browsed Pando saplings after disturbance, preventing new growth in the stand and prompting the construction of multiple fences to protect saplings. Within the section of well-maintained fence, aspen saplings reach recruitment height of six feet and ages of stems are diverse and healthy, indicating that exclusion of browsing ungulates promotes new growth. Across the highway, another section of Pando exists in a browsed state with almost no recruitment because of an ill-maintained fence. In Pando, the solution to continued aspen growth and survival seems simple: without ungulates, aspen will flourish and continue to support their biodiverse habitats.

In another section of National Forest, on Gentry Mountain in Utah, cows occupy a grazing allotment along with aspen. However, these aspen saplings show no evidence of browsing and recruitment is present. Even experienced aspen botanist Mary O’Brien was surprised by this seemingly peaceful coexistence which contrasts common conceptions of aspen and cattle relationships. In this section of National Forest, both aspen and cattle are thriving and although the reasons are unknown, this could provide insight into a sustainable future for both species if used as an opportunity for further research. As global warming brings a changing climate, the biodiversity harbored by aspen becomes increasingly important. As the nation continues to consume beef and the Forest Service continues to include grazing in its’ management, cattle ranching on public lands is not fit to disappear any time soon. The livelihoods of ranchers and consumers depend on grazing and the livelihoods of the ecosystems in which they graze depends on aspen. It is vital that the resources provided by public lands are utilized as tools to educate ourselves, as on Gentry Mountain, in order to adapt in the face of a changing climate.


Puddles in High Demand

photo by Amanda Champion

photo by Amanda Champion

Dispatch by Maggie Baker

To the Forest Service, a spring may look like this: a large puddle on trampled ground, water leaking from a bathtub-sized trough, the air reeking of cow feces in the afternoon sun. Despite its function as a water source in arid climates, this scene is not what most of the public thinks of when they hear the word spring. Though they may not look typical, Utah’s springs are important to protect, as they are threatened by ungulates and impending climate change only increases their vulnerability. 

Springs are a particular concern in Utah’s Manti-La Sal National Forest. With one exception, every allotment in the Manti La Sal is grazed by cattle, and this impact takes a toll on springs, the life source for the land and for many other creatures besides cattle who reside on it. Cattle are especially destructive to springs because they like to congregate at them, drinking the water and churning up the ground until nothing is left but mud puddles. This harms plant communities, damages soil and soil biota, and can destroy spring sources for the future. 
Elk can take a similar toll on water sources in the Manti La-Sal. They are not as heavy or as stagnant as cattle, but elk also congregate at springs and can trample ground with their hooves. These ungulates make a practice of stripping the bark from small trees, damaging certain plant communities like aspen, who help keep spring environments thriving by providing shade. The Manti La-Sal is home to the largest elk population in Utah, but much of this is due to introduction by the Forest Service. Big game hunting is the incentive for introducing elk, with organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation which spent $174,700 on elk conservation for hunting across Utah in 2011. Many Manti La-Sal springs are naturally less equipped to withstand the pressure placed on them by these ungulates. 

In addition to ungulate impacts, some spring water is taken from places like Gentry Mountain to be used for mining activities in local coal mines. As Lee Mackelprang, lifelong public lands rancher and former coal miner can attest, local coal mining companies made a practice of obtaining permits from the Forest Service to siphon public spring water, with the promise that it would be replenished at a later date. In many places, however, this promise has not been made good upon and springs, like one on Gentry mountain, have run dry as the water table is lowered through mining activity. 

Long term, springs in the West matter. Climate change induced drought means that water is only becoming more scarce. Springs could provide an important safety net for future communities, but only so long as they are protected on public lands. This protection can take many forms, but fences must be utilized to prevent ungulates from entering spring sources, and better monitoring and dispersal of spring outlets could prevent muddy messes around water troughs. Many different interests have an interest in spring water, but without proper management, these public resources may be reduced to a trickle.

The Living Land: Biotic Soil Crusts in the Arid West

photo by Gardner Dee

photo by Gardner Dee

Dispatch by Maya Aurichio

On Pace Hill outside of Castle Valley, Utah, life teems across the sunbaked earth, forming a patchwork pattern of overlaid bacteria, mosses, fungi, and lichens.  Collectively, these communities are called “biologic soil crusts.” In the arid west, soil crusts play numerous roles in the maintenance of healthy desert ecology.   Like any other plant community, biotic crusts form in an expected progression. Cyanobacteria form a thin veneer across the soil, creating a substrate for lichens and mosses to grow. Like a leaf spread across the land, biotic crusts harness sunlight via photosynthesis and return organic matter and nitrogen to desert soil.  Cyanobacteria, the earliest colonizers, excrete a sticky substance that binds surface soil, while mosses and lichens send out tiny hair-like roots, called rhizomes that further knit together the developing crust.  The resulting community is highly resistant to erosion by wind or water action. 

Today, biotic crusts are both more important and more threatened than ever. Global climate change is leading to a hotter, less predictable climate in the arid west, increasing soil erosion that can bury biotic crust and prevent it from photosynthesizing properly.  During rain events, which are becoming more erratic and intense, the biotic crust acts as a sponge, slowing the flow of rainwater, giving it time to infiltrate into the ground.  This water is then retained and released slowly, prolonging the presence of soil moisture.  Furthermore, eroded soil blown into alpine areas darkens snow, attracting sunlight and speeding spring melting cycles.

Many desert ecosystems in the western United States fall under the “public land” classification, meaning that the land is managed by the federal government, but owned collectively by all Americans.  Soil crusts across public land often suffer compressional destruction by grazing livestock, hikers, and off road-vehicles.  Once crushed, soil crusts become highly susceptible to wind and water erosion.  Damaged areas can take up to 250 years to recover to a mature state.  The health of our public lands, particularly in the face of a changing climate, is contingent upon collective stewardship of the soil itself.  Maintaining livestock allotment fences, reminding hikers and motorists to stay on trail, and increasing education can help prevent further damage to the delicate biotic communities that sustain our land. 

A Micro Mystery

Dispatch by Emma Rollins

Rising only millimeters high, biocrust, a partnership between cyanobacteria, lichen, moss, fungi and algae, should not be overlooked. However small it plays a key role in dry land habitats that make up 40% of the terrestrial world. Despite its minimal stature it alone has attracted scientists from around the globe to a conference here in Moab Utah, BIOCRUST 3. Each scientist, steps up to the mike, many with their shirt rolled above the elbows and quite a few ball caps preset, even indoors. One by one these dedicated biologists, having spent hours kneeling flat-footed on desert soils, share their analysis of the leaf like equivalent covering the soil. Biocrust’s photosynthesize like other plants, adding to the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen in exchange. It also plays a key role in nurturing a habitat for other species, even during dormant times when little else is growing. Studies presented found that even under snowpack these crusts miraculously photosynthesis when all else in these deserts lies idle. Biocrust also plays an important role in pioneering landscapes by minimizing erosion, holding water within the soils and fixing nitrogen. This encourages the growth of a more diverse habitat. Something that is important on all lands. 

Zooming out to a larger climatic scale biocrust’s contribution to global temperatures complicates things. Especially considering the vast expanses of public lands in the American West that are dry and create good biocrust habitat. Beginning its life camouflaging into the dry land soils, the crust becomes darker in color later in its successional life. The darker covering absorbs rather than reflects sunlight and heat back into space. However this function is responsible for good as well, helping seeds germinate in colder temperatures to repopulate open stretches. Overall biocrust helps stabilize environments facing increasing uncertainties, if it can survive them itself. Simple things like more frequent but shorter rainfalls can kill biocrust. Mosses, a key component of the crust, open their stomata to absorb water, exposing them the next day to harsh sun versus the monsoon patterns extended wet period common today, even if they offer the same overall volumes of water. 

Keep an eye out for these micro biomes that shape the greater public lands we all share. Remembering that little things hold great value. Walking out onto your public lands, beware not to crush the crust! It may take centuries to grow back, meaning your footprint will stick around. Instead find a heart for the crusty organism that paves a yellow, orange and black-splotched road across the dry lands expanse.


Putting Aspen Resilience to the Test

photo by Sarah Dunn

photo by Sarah Dunn

Dispatch by Abby Popenoe

If a tree falls in the Fish Lake National Forest and no one is around to hear, it might not make a sound. If that tree is an aspen, though, it will likely grow back in a few years. Every aspen stand is a singular organism, each tree one sprout of a much greater entity living underground, so when individual aspen trees are cut down, the organism is able to resprout. Because of this aspen can withstand great disturbances that endanger the existence of coniferous trees, particularly the threat of fire. If conifers begin to pass aspen in the race for soil nutrients, water, and sunshine, growing taller and shading out aspen, the aspen rely on forest fires to give them a leg up. The caress of flame in the forest grants aspen time to grow before conifers reemerge. 

On the Fish Lake National Forest, prescribed burns have been set on stretches of forest where aspen were being out-shaded by conifers. As new aspen trees shoot up through the charred, bare ground after a fire, finding their way between blackened dead conifers, they live in a perilous state until they can grow tall enough for their buds to be out of reach of elk, deer, and cattle. Forest managers kept cattle off the burned areas for some time after the fire, though often this period was not long enough for aspen’s buds to grow above the reach of hungry cows. Elk, meanwhile, can browse wherever they please, and all too often their chosen fodder is baby aspen. With too many browsers looking to be nourished off young aspen trees after a fire, entire aspen stands may be close to dying off. 

Aspen have been thriving under adversity for tens of thousands of years, but new disturbances posed by humans on public land may be too much for aspen to handle. Elk are exotic animals in much of Utah, introduced to the local area for hunting in 1985, and they are now abundant on the Fish Lake. Cattle are here because of humans as well, having been brought to these mountains much earlier by ranchers who hold grazing allotments on the National Forest. Drought caused by anthropogenic climate change also poses a severe threat to the trees. Aspen depend strongly on water, so shifts to a hotter climate with less predictable precipitation in the Southwest means there is not enough water to go around. With aspen struggling to endure, this forest that belongs to all of us risks losing not only a remarkable tree, but also key forb, grass, and shrub species that rely on its unique habitat. Aspen can withstand a tremendous amount of disturbance; it is our job to make sure they don’t face more than they can handle.