Ella Mighell: Rainbows of the Dirty Devil

ellaEight days into our sandal and sock slodge through the Dirty Devil, we left behind a campsite with an endangered Mexican Spotted Owl and fossilized Grallator tracks, headed for higher ground. Today we would be hiking on a road, in the middle of a Wilderness Study Area on BLM land in a canyon described as “extremely isolated.” As we hiked we stopped to observe purple blooming fishhook cacti, changing geological layers from the Paleozoic period, petrified wood, pictographs from the ancient Fremont, and a 2007 mining claim preserved in a PVC pipe. Standing on top of a Shinarump Formation terrace, the late morning sun was still on our backs as we faced the yellow, red and purple layered Chinle Formation. Below our feet were water-weathered stones from the ancestral Rockies. We were on “roadless” Wilderness Study Area (WSA) land, but were using an illegal mining road from the late 70s. My mind wandered to what this landscape would have looked like if large-scale mining had taken place in the uranium filled Chinle, Shinarump and Moenkopi Formations; would it even be open to the public, and what would these canyons have become if gas prices increased and uranium became more profitable?

I was finding that the Dirty Devil was a place of contrasting truths. At first it welcomed with its varnish stripped canyon walls and blooming desert primroses. Then it betrayed, the sun blistering my neck and quicksand engulfing me to my hips. Land management of the Dirty Devil is also bewildering in its conflicting and complex ways.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contorts its management plans to fit several contrasting missions. Through a presentation and discussion with a BLM manager, I came to understand the muddied management practices, why I had never heard of the BLM before coming to Utah, and why there was a mining road in the middle of WSA land. This includes their complicated history of admittedly poor public communications and original agency formation from the 1946 forced marriage of the US Grazing Service and the General Land Office.

The BLM was created to manage public lands for grazing, mining, oil and gas. It wasn’t until 1976 with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) that BLM management was expanded to include recreation and wilderness in their 270 million acres. The BLM multiple use management gets pretty contradictory when they are mandated to facilitate resource extraction, and also preserve the natural integrity of that land. Things get even more complicated when we include state sections. Basically the state of Utah is strongly incentivized to sell or swap school sections to extractive energy companies. Ironically, the state is also pushing their industrial tourism sector in neighboring areas. According to the manager we spoke with, BLM offices, while trying to base their management plans on science, are mostly driven by social values.

To throw some more sand in this Dirty Devil, local culture is often at odds with federal land control, but many ranchers have subsidized grazing leases on this public land. The BLM’s relationship with environmental groups is often just as polar. The state wants the BLM to give more access to the extractive agencies, while environmentalists think the BLM has given too much. Basically the BLM is at the center of a complex love triangle where one spouse supports the BLM while in litigation with the opposing love interest, and the other way around.

One of the main takeaways from speaking with the BLM manager was that people value public land for different reasons. My relationship with natural landscapes most likely looks very different than yours, but both views have equal value and salience. Public values are multidimensional, and as values change, so must management practices. The complex mission of the BLM’s multiple use management was created in a conflictive system where collaboration and compromises were not encouraged. Yet here I sit on a Shinarump Formation overlook, surrounded by orange canyon walls contrasting with the blue sky. This section of the Dirty Devil has been determined to have “designated wilderness characteristics” and is a Wilderness Study Area. Tomorrow we will hike out of the WSA, and although a fence does not mark the divide, the complex history of this landscape does.

Many Utahans support a mining future, finding hope in the extractive industries and continuing their culture of freedom and rebellion in the wild west. Others, from both in-state and out, hold a similarly strong love and hope for these wild lands, but expressed very differently through federal protection and land use limitations. I fall on the latter side of this divide, but I know that no issue in southeastern Utah is simply environmentalism versus extraction. However, I do question the standing of my opinions as a visitor on these publicly owned lands, without a tie to the local economic well-being of the area.  As I hike further down the Dirty Devil, black and white issues are further greying in complexity, or as Dave, one of our instructors says, it is simply rain-bowing.

Isa Caliandro: Reading Between the Lines

Horseshoe Canyon 3

Horseshoe Canyon. Photo by: Nick Littman. 

Looking up the fence the differences on either side were subtle at first, yet the closer I looked the more obvious they became. On the right there were grasses, hillsides unmarked by trails, and cottonwoods peeking around the corner. I could just see around the bend where sunshine was streaming through tall grasses. To the left there were shrubs, sagebrush, and terraced hills. The only trees were pinyon pines, their twisted lines a replica in plant form of those of the towering sandstone around me. On the right, bright greens; on the left sandy soils, together they represented a difference.

Our journey to this line began one prior. We had been following the curves, patterns, and streambeds of Horseshoe Canyon at a naturalists pace. Taking the time to inquire, examine, and take note of the nuances of the species magically thriving in this landscape. Hailing from the Northeast this new flora and fauna, coupled with the landscape was completely new. Each day, travelling deeper and deeper into the heart of the earth I was growing to love it more and more. Finding sand in my shoes at the end of a day of walking, and getting to explore alcoves tucked away in small side canyons I was beginning to find desert treasures. After a week I was beginning to be able to trace my hands along the softer desert plants and echo their names in my head. It was all beginning to come together, why certain plants had spines and grew on the higher up rocky soil, which animals were avoiding. I had learned how to follow and scout for cow paths so as to not disturb the fragile desert crust. These cow paths mark the driving force between the differences on each side of the fence: grazing.

In Horseshoe Canyon there are two ruling designations that have come to shape the landscape: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and The National Park Service. The BLM is an agency in the U.S. Department of Interior that has multi purposes.  Its roots are in grazing and land distribution. The BLM leases out land along the canyon to ranchers, which allows them to graze their cattle on the land. This is the land designation for the start of the canyon until about halfway down, at which time the land designation switches to the National Park Service, whose mission is recreation and preservation. They strive to survive and want everyone to be able to see the gems in the nooks and crannies of the great and vast American Landscape. These two approaches to land management ultimately determined the ecological composition of the landscape.

After the fence we followed a very different canyon. As Barrier Creek, the river that flows through Horseshoe Canyon and eventually into the Green River, grew to that of a trickle and the banks completely changed, we began to learn about a new kind of desert ecology. The grasses now grew above my head, dead leftover from last summer and fall; they swayed with the gentle cool breeze. Cottonwoods, previously a rare sighting, now filled the creek banks. They grew tall, sideways, and were full of leaves marking the warmer temperatures to come. They provided shade for the creek gathering strength, and a stunning contrast against the cornflower blue sky. A few days past the fence the canyon melody began to grow. The canyon wren threw its call down the canyon walls where it was met in patches of willows by the industrious hum of bees. Around each turn there was more and more life, and the song grew stronger. It felt as if the birds, especially the canyon wren, was ushering us deeper, and deeper, among the contours and sandy hues to a more magical place. The further we wandered from the cows, the further past that line and the deeper between the lines of sandstone the more deeply the canyon breathed and came to life, it was lush. This stark difference has really made an impression on me, yet more importantly a greater one on the landscape.

A naturalist, and fellow enthusiast, of the Colorado Plateau Thomas Fleischner has detailed the history of the area around Horseshoe Canyon in his book “Singing Stone.” He said, grazing was introduced to the United States by way of Mexico in 1540. Its spread, development, and regulation or lack there of has become deeply rooted within its own culture. Largely out of the public eye, grazing wasn’t a cause for concern until the Dust Bowl when over grazing contributed to the loss of topsoil. It was only in 1934 that the Taylor Grazing Act was passed, mandating government control over grazing. This led to the creation of the U.S. Grazing Services; that was eventually joined with the General Land Office to become the BLM. Then it wasn’t until the 1980’s when the livestock industry and grazing truly came into the public eye. I was surprised to find out Regan even included it in his campaigning in the west. It was only until a few days ago that this livestock issue really took stock in my life but I can safely say it has my attention.

I am by no means an expert on ranching, Utah, the West, or even Horseshoe Canyon. Yet, I do know that in the layers of sandstone, hidden alcoves, and the gentle sway of willows I find great joy. I know the ecosystem on the side of the fence where it lies protected, and un-trampled feels more vibrant. I know without munching, stomping, and tramping this vibrancy thrives and the canyon is just that much more wild. I feel that I can even go as far as to say, the grass is truly greener on the other side.

 

Anna Martone: The Sounds of Silence

Horseshoe Canyon

Photo By: Nick Littman 

HHEEELLOOO  HELLLOO hellloo hello………When you speak to the canyon, the canyon speaks back, echoing down through layers of Navajo sandstone. Now stop, stand still and listen. The silence will move over your body like chills in a brisk wind. Sounds can be deceiving in the Horseshoe Canyon, but if you listen closely, there may be more noise than you originally perceived.

As our WRFI group descends down one of the only accessible trails into the heart of the canyon, we become separate from the world above us. The steep canyon walls enclose us in a world unknown and mysterious, and my excitement starts to grow. As we stand in the wash, I am immediately taken by the absence of noise and stillness that permeates throughout the environment. No longer do I hear cars rushing down a highway, doors slamming shut, cash registers chiming with every purchase, or day-to-day, white noise sounds I have become so used to. It is quiet.

As days go on and we casually stroll down the 30-mile stretch that is Horseshoe Canyon, my perception of sound begins to change. I begin to notice more. I begin to question more. I begin to interpret the world around me and traits of a naturalist start emanating throughout my body. Horseshoe Canyon has opened its doors to show a diverse, captivating ecosystem that encapsulate sounds around every alcove. If you listen closely you might hear a canyon wren whistling above, a cottonwood swaying in the breeze, a whiptail lizard scurrying across slick rock, or a burrow off in the distance. But to the untrained ear, canyons can become silent escapes; drastically different from the world we left behind.

As days pass, my ears become accustomed to the deservingly quite desert and I begin to recognize the silence as much more. For me, the absence of sound speaks greater volumes than anything outside these red stained rocks. As I begin to get acquainted with the environment around me, I start to question and ponder what sounds have echoed loud through these rocks long before we ever found our way down. What sounds are no longer present here but have shaped the biological and physical aspects of this canyon?

Millions of millions of years ago heavy rivers cut deep through layers of sandstone to form what is now Horseshoe Canyon.  As I look up at the escarpment of rocks that have fallen from high above, I imagine the vibrations of sound made as boulders crash and tumble on to hard ground. Desert varnish paints the walls deeper red, showing evidence of what was once a larger sandstone rock.  As I peer up at the stone around me, I start envisioning that last moment when the crack in a rock becomes its own boulder, flying high through the sky ready to make a grand entrance into the wash of the canyon………. BOOOOOMMMM. Rocks scattered across our trail shouting as we cross over them.

Stepping over rocks that once made vibrations through the narrow wash of the canyon, I notice the absence of water. As we walk through what used to be a river, flowing deep within the walls, water is now barren. No longer do sounds of rushing water, splashing against mud rock surround the area. The wash runs dry, but the water has not left without leaving its mark. Through dips in smooth rocks, branches pushed up along the base of cottonwoods, steep banks and muddy shores, we can begin to find clues to where the last floods seeped through. Interesting how what has shaped these giant canyons walls, is now nowhere to be seen or heard. The water that once flowed through can now only be heard through ones imagination.

Evidence of life permeates through every corner, and my imagination runs wild. A dinosaur track prompts our group to embody what we think this animal sounded like, walked like, looked like. Different interpretations travel through our minds, questioning what the world was like 65 million years ago. What sounds encapsulated the area as this dinosaur moved through the land? Through pictographs and petroglyphs sprawled over alcove walls, chert found between layers of other rocks, footprints of animals not to far head of us, and old bones of different mammals, I begin to recognize it wasn’t always so quite down hear.

On the count of three open your ears-1, 2, 3………..What do you hear?