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.