As our group began our seventh day on a backpacking trip in Horseshoe Canyon, we started using the phrase “Hike like a wild cow,” trying to follow cow prints to find the easiest routes through the canyon. After decades in these canyons, the feral cows have found all the best routes. Their trails are extremely welcoming to a groggy group of backpackers still waiting for the morning coffee to do its magic. As we walk down the canyon wash, we are careful to avoid microbiotic soils – a combination of fungi, lichen, mosses, algae, and bacteria that facilitate plant growth in arid regions. As we walk, however, I notice a substantial amount of hoof prints in the soil, likely made by the feral cows and wild burrows in the area. This is slightly upsetting, especially knowing that patches of the soils may take decades to a few centuries to grow.
After walking for another hour or so, many of us notice an old livestock stable that looks as though it has been abandoned for almost a century. The fence was made from graying and twisted wood logs, possibly made from the local pinyon or juniper trees, and you could tell it had been broken in several areas. Walking a bit further, we made it to a fence which separates BLM land and an area of Canyonlands National park containing many mixtures of Native American petroglyphs and pictographs known as the Great Gallery. On BLM land side, the microbiotic crusts, grasses, flowers, and the bushes seemed to be very scarce and dispersed. On the Canyonlands N.P. side, it was like stepping into a new world. There were the same plants, yet everything was much more thick and prospering, with much more vegetation everywhere you look.
What was the cause of this? People often argue about the amount of grazing that should be in this region. Feral cows and burrows are species introduced to this area during the 19th and 20th century, and were abandoned along with ranching operations. Over the last few decades the National Park Service has tried to round up all the resident feral cows and burrows. The difference this makes in an area is astounding. Resilience on the Colorado Plateau, as well as every other environment on earth, is essential in order to allow humans to prosper and maintain ecosystem health. Resilience, according to ecological scientists Brian Walker and David Salt, is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain basic function and structure. Too often we see humans destroying ecosystems across the globe in order to make a quick buck. The idea of optimization, or exploiting a product, such as rangeland, for maximum yield, never works in the long term when applied to limited resources. Since the National Park Service round up, the resilience of the environment in Canyonlands N.P. allowed it to bounce back to what it is today. Although it is probably not the same as it was prior to grazing, I can see it has improved quite a bit over several decades.
Overgrazing has been an issue in America for hundreds of years. The impacts of overgrazing have had a profound effect on ecosystems and humans in the past. Prior to the Taylor Grazing Act, ranchers across the Colorado Plateau and many other western states ran cattle all over the land with little outside regulation. So many cows and so few regulations allowed cows to trample top soils in several ecosystems, often causing large amounts of erosion in riparian ecosystems, and often allowing sand once trapped under microbiotic soils to blow away with the wind. This lack of management strategy helped cause the great dust bowl of the 1930’s, destroying farms and ranches and bringing dust storms all the way to the east coast. Regulations have since been passed to help reduce the impact of grazing on ecosystems. However, change only came when humans were being directly affected by the consequences. Does this always need to be the case? Do people need to always wait until a problem is directly affecting us in order to fix it? I don’t believe people, at least most of them, wish to disrupt the resilience of an ecosystem and watch it wither away, leaving it useless for future generations.
In The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez writes, “In forty thousand years of human history, it has only been in the last few hundred years or so that a people could afford to ignore their local geographies as completely as we do and still survive.” People have become extremely disconnected with the environments around them, a connection that once was at the foundation of our basic needs.
Most people still believe they know what is best for the land, and refuse to acknowledge other ideas on what land should be used for. The tendency we have of trying to get the most we can out of the land has proven time and time again to bite us in the long term, but competing markets often make people feel the need to do so, thinking about the short term rather than thinking resiliently of the future. It is my hope that mine and future generations will begin to clearly see the possibilities of thinking resiliently, and together we will be able to once again work with the world, rather than against it, and truly begin to reach our potential for sustainability.