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.