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.