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.